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Creeping 101: Light Rail people watching



Illustration by Noemi Gonzalez

On the light rail, I usually always have my backpack and smartphone in tow. Still, I find it impossible to really get lost in my own work. My thoughts can’t help drifting away to the other passengers aboard the train.

I can’t help looking at the old couple sitting together or at the parents whose three kids seem restless. I find myself watching the man on the bike who wears an outfit made out of soda-can tabs and also at the woman in a white jumpsuit who’s yelling nonsense at another stranger.

It’s hard not to people watch.



It can be interesting being an outsider trying to figure out where these people are in their lives. Of course, I’ll never find out, since to know a person fully is a privilege, so I settle with these short glimpses into the lives of strangers.

And I find it interesting how different we all are and, still, how we all are the same thanks to the light rail that has brought us all together. There are of course plenty of people who, like me, can’t keep their eyes to themselves. Below are their stories.


Global health junior Kaitlyn Ciampaglio was riding on a light rail when a man began talking about how his arm was taken off by a city bus.

He was short and homeless and thought everyone should know about this horror story, Ciampaglio says.

“He was trying to catch the bus, but his arm got stuck in the door and the bus driver drove away," Ciampaglio says.

The man ended up going to the hospital. While his arm was eventually returned to him, it couldn’t be reattached since it was fractured in 17 places.

“It was a crazy time,” Ciampaglio says.

He really did like the light rail, though, Ciampaglio says.

“He was very happy about his life. And he just kept talking about how he liked the light rail.”


“A woman was passed out across three chairs, clearly on meth,” says Amanda Ames, a junior studying broadcast journalism and biology, with a focus in animal physiology and behavior.

Ames says she could assume such a thing since the woman’s arms were covered in the scabs one gets from picking at his or her own skin while on meth.

Written across the woman’s arms were the words, “no more alcohol,” possibly written by a bartender, Ames says.

The worst part of it all, Ames says, was that “she was probably seven or eight months pregnant.”


For some people, the light rail can become more than just a people-watching experience. They can become part of the action, whether voluntarily or not.

This was the case for journalism junior Mallory Price. One year ago, Price was waiting to board the light rail after her 10 a.m. class. Usually, Price brings a book and headphones to accompany her light rail journey.

“Of course I forgot headphones that day.”

So, while Price waited with naked ears, a man started talking to her.

“Not wanting to be rude, I somewhat acknowledged him, but tried to not respond very much because he was making me uncomfortable.”

Her short responses only served to frustrate the man further. He began making up a scary poem about her.

Lucky for Price, she saw a friend of hers and walked away. The two friends were prepared to board the light rail together and all seemed well.

That is until the man came up to Price while she was boarding.

“He came up behind me, shoved me and whispered that he was going to kill me.”

No one stepped in to help Price even though the light rail was packed with many people who saw this interaction happen.

Price was left terrified for the entirety of the ride. She made sure not to get off the light rail until the man, who wouldn’t stop pursuing her, got off the train first.

“I didn’t want him to follow me,” Price says.


Price was safe, but she admits that she should have called the police, especially considering the fact that this might not have been the first time the man had been caustic to another light rail passenger.

Ames was riding on the light rail when a man who looked to be about her age decided to strike up a conversation with her.

Ames says he looked normal and nice enough so she continued to talk to him.

The conversation quickly took a turn when it was found out that “he’d just barely gotten out of prison for drug dealing and assault,” Ames says.

This left Ames feeling disconcerted. Still, she let the conversation continued.

Eventually, “he asked for my number and I said 'Oh just give me yours.'”

Strangely enough, getting thrown into prison for drug dealing and assault is a turn off to many people.

This man was sly, though, and made up some excuse and told Ames to just write hers down on some paper.

“I just froze up like a popsicle and didn’t think, ‘Change the number, Amanda.’”

Journalism junior Meredith Witthar was riding the light rail to Tempe when she, along with her friend, noticed a peculiar sight: a woman holding rags to her arm.


“We asked if she was okay and she pulled off the rags, revealing that she had a few cuts where she said her boyfriend had stabbed her,” Witthar says.

The woman was on the light rail running away from her boyfriend, Witthar says. The woman continued to change her story on where she was headed, though, until she randomly got off the train.

“We called the police and gave a description and told them everything,” Witthar says.

Witthar is unsure what happened to the woman, but hopes everything turned out OK for her.

On her way downtown one morning, Ames noticed a man who seemed to have some mental instabilities riding on the light rail.

“He sat across from me and was talking to himself,” she says.

He would occasionally glance up and violently say something. Eventually, he struck up an actual conversation and started talking about all sorts of things.

He talked about how “he believes in the Aztec sun God, how he likes his wives to be independent and that I look like Elizabeth Taylor,” Ames says.

While he was talking, it looked as if he was having two separate ones within himself, Ames adds.

It was almost as if one side of his personality wanted to talk with Ames while the other was questioning why he was doing such a thing, thus the rambling muttering in between conversation points.

While the stories I’ve compiled all have an unsettling tone to them, not all experiences of the light rail are bad. Relatively abnormal experiences just tend to stick with us, but it’s important that we remember—and talk about-- the good ones, too.

Either way, it’s plain to see that riding on the light rail is an experience in itself and ripe for people watching.

Next time you’re on the light rail, maybe you, too, will find yourself unable to keep your eyes on your homework. And if you do find yourself in such a situation, the best advice I can give is to let your eyes wander. You’ll never know what you might see.

Reach the writer at or on Twitter @GretchenBurnton

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