The other day, I was riding the crosstown bus in New York City. There were about 14 other people on the bus and I didn't have anything to read so I began looking at them. I tried not to get caught, but I looked at each person for 10 or 15 seconds.
The game was to decide whether there was anyone I'd trade places with.
It's our ego, I suppose, that keeps most of us from seriously wishing we were someone else.
There was no one on the bus I'd rather have been than myself. I was aware, while making the decision, that if any of them had been looking me over, they wouldn't have swapped, either. For one thing, I was wearing my coat with the missing buttons and the frayed cuff on the right sleeve.
Even if we aren't satisfied with who we are, what we do, or what we're like, most of us wouldn't change places with anyone else if we could. I'm not satisfied with myself and I don't understand why I'm not more willing to make some changes that would at least alter my appearance.
The trouble is, we all get set in the way we look. I've been parting my hair on the right side since my mother started doing it for me when I was 4. I've tried parting it on the left side, but when I look in the mirror, it just isn't me and I can't leave the sanctity of the bathroom until I've put the part back where it belongs.
Women play with the shape and color of their hair more than men do, but you can tell they've made the decision to change with great reluctance. A woman who has been dying her hair blond since she was 20 and realizes it's beginning to look a little funny by the time she hits 50 goes through all sorts of torture before she allows her hair to grow out from its roots in its natural color, which probably is gray.
No one thinks of me as well-dressed, but in my own little mind, wearing anything but the type and style of clothing I do would make me look silly. The fact that it has been made clear to me by certain family members and assorted close friends that I already look silly in what I wear doesn't deter me.
I have a very clear idea of what clothes I think are best-looking and what in that general style looks best on me. I even think I know which clothes make me look thinner, which fatter. I think that's true of all of us.
Looking around the bus, I was tempted to accept being one tall young man in his early 30s who looked successful, but then I thought to myself, "If he's so successful, how come he didn't take a cab instead of the bus?" I excused myself from this judgment.
The only thing that ever attracts me to consider a swap with someone is youth. I look at a young person and say to myself, "If I knew what I know and had as many years left as he does, I could be president."
By then the bus usually gets to where I'm going and I climb off. I don't want to be president anyway.
(This classic column was originally published Feb. 4, 1985.)
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