It’s during the 1940s on a train platform in New York City. A young man briefly meets a woman and the next second she is gone. Later in the day, as he’s pushing paper around his desk, he glances out the window and sees the same woman through a window in the office building across the street. He is desperate to get her attention and resorts to throwing paper airplanes across the street. This is the story of Disney’s Paperman, which won an Oscar this past week for Best Animated Short. The whimsical, black-and-white short’s true genius is in the animation—a never-been-done-before blending of hand-drawn and computer animation—but it is this mixed with its sweet story line that make the end result so memorable.
The director, John Kahrs, shares how the idea of the film came from a time years ago while living in New York, commuting to and from work on the subway. He mused about the people he briefly crossed paths with, perhaps made eye contact with, and how “the connection was there for a second, and then it’s gone forever and you never see that person again.”
In Rules of Civility, a novel by Amor Towles, the reader is brought into a photography exhibition at an art gallery in Manhattan. Each of the photographs displayed shows one or two people sitting on the subway, taken with a hidden camera at least 25 years prior. The photographer was reluctant to display them earlier out of respect for the subjects’ privacy. The narrator muses,
“But seeing their faces lined along the wall, you could understand [the photographer's] reluctance. For, in fact, the pictures captured a certain naked humanity. Lost in thought, masked by the anonymity of their commute, unaware of the camera that was trained so directly upon them, many of these subjects had unknowingly allowed their inner selves to be seen.”
And isn’t that true. One can be surrounded by strangers, and yet feel very alone.
Living in the city means sharing life with strangers. We pass them on the street, step around them at the grocery store, sit next to them on the bus. We all have our own stories and desires, things and ideas that make us feel beautiful, valued, or needed underneath our well-crafted façades. The young man saw something in a stranger that he wanted to know more about. The photographer found value in capturing the moments when strangers let their true selves show. They are quiet reminders that each stranger’s life and humanity holds value.