Sometimes on the way home from work, I’ll find myself first in the left-turning lane at a busy intersection and, purely out of boredom, make a conscious effort to examine the faces of drivers passing in front of me.

It’s amazing, getting these quick glimpses of individuals as they rush past, one after another. I get maybe one second of real looking before the face passes from view, replaced by the next. The faces are all diverse (male and female, old and young, overweight and skinny, black, white, brown) and yet uniform, since they’re all in the middle of doing the same thing.

If the cars are coming straightaway, from the opposite direction, many drivers’ faces are looking downward, presumably glancing at their phones for directions or incoming text messages or whatever. But if they’re turning, they’re usually peering straight ahead and concentrating on making their turn. If they’re anything like me, these drivers have made a deal with themselves, deliberately or subconsciously, that once their turn has been completed, they will reward themselves with yet another glance down at the phone.

Sometimes I’ll spot a mother or father looking into their rearview mirror, most likely speaking to a kid in back, but 99 percent of the time these drivers have their guards down, unaware that anyone might be looking their way. Taken together, the faces are beautiful in their quiet humanity, their vulnerability, their need. And if it happens to be raining, woah, it feels downright poetic.

While some faces appear slightly more chipper than others, I’m almost certain I’ve never seen someone just… smiling. Cackling at something on the radio, or maybe a joke remembered from earlier in the day, sure. More than once I’ve caught someone dancing (hopping in place, snapping fingers). But smiling, like showing simple contentment with one’s day, one’s station in life? Practically never. Modern automobile travel refutes Emerson’s assertion about it being all about the journey. Everyone just wants to get home.

Looking into drivers’ faces becomes for me a handy reminder of the essential humanness of humanity: we are many, we are trying, we are struggling, we are on our way. It makes for a nice antidote to the swaths of inhumanity one tends to see online, where people present themselves as they would like to be seen: thoughtful, cool, patriotic, happy, certainly happier than you, anyway.

Take me, right now. I’m trying to come off to you as literate, honest, original, the kind of guy who makes the best of bad traffic by thinking on strangers’ “quiet humanity.” I’m not really that guy, though. I’ve probably rewritten this very paragraph six or seven times. I wish I was a better dad, a better husband, a better writer, a better human being. (See, that’s a lie, too. I don’t wish I was a better writer so much as I wish I was a better known writer.) I feel either guilty or embarrassed by pretty much everything I did before age 30. I wish I was taller. Fortunately, none of this shows up when I’m in traffic, minding my business, trying to get home. You can stop looking now.