After a spectacular performance at the Schaubühne the other night, I decided to make my way home alone instead of travelling with the group. Going alone gives me time to think, look at things, and, best of all, people watch.
With this goal in mind, I opted for a seat in the center of the car instead of a corner, where I usually prefer to sit. Immediately I noticed a woman sitting and talking (rather loudly) on her cell phone. I enjoyed her voice and accent, so I sat there a while watching her as her face animated with her half of the conversation. This went on for a couple minutes, until the man next to her misinterpreted my staring, asked her if she wouldn't mind talking quieter, and then smiled and gave me a quick nod of acknowledgement of the "favor" he just did for me. I sat in silence for a couple stops until she got off, and a homeless man stepped on.
He was selling a newspaper featuring art and literature. He was asking for between 1 and 2 euro, and, as usual, most people were looking away or otherwise ignoring him. Even I was avoiding looking at him directly as I was listening to him. He went on for a while, then a different man across from me started asking questions about the paper. He asked why there wasn't a specified price, who the artists were, and other things. He decided against buying a paper, because the money was going to the homeless man, who got the papers for free to deliver and sell at his own determined price.
In the midst of this conversation, a man walked over, beer bottle in tow, and told the homeless man off. He said that no one wanted to buy the paper, that he was bothering everyone, and that he should just go away and stop being a nuisance. The homeless man pointed out that he was having a legitimate conversation and trying to make money to eat, to which beer bottle guy didn't really have a coherent response. The newspaper salesman and the intoxicated spokesman for the train stepped off at the next stop and continued their argument as they parted ways. The rest of the trip was spent in silence.
Little conversations like these show the differences in German and American culture when it comes to homelessness and interaction with strangers. Here the homeless people seem to be pretty organized. There are some bums, but a lot of them actually take to the streets every day, using resources available to them, such as various newspapers they can get for free, and attempt to make an honest living. People here tend to ignore them as well, but, if their curiosity is piqued, they will ask questions. Germans seem more likely to talk to strangers if they're doing something annoying, questionable, or interesting. Drunkenness in public is a tolerated thing here, and so not every interaction is all that enlightening, but people are at least interacting. I feel like the general tendency is not to talk to strangers in the US. If someone is being slightly obnoxious, a conversation may be exchanged with glances between victims, but it's pretty rare for anyone to say anything unless it turns into a dramatic event. It would be kind of nice if Americans loosened up a bit and let go of the need to be so closed off and proper acting in public places and just talked to the people around them.