For the longest time I’ve avoided public transport. Back in Wellington I harboured actual resentment towards the bus. The route my bus took went past the high school, so every morning I’d share my trip with 30-odd children. (I’m not sure what age you get where you start thinking of high-schoolers as children, but I’m definitely past the threshold.) These children would take up all of the seats, yelling across the aisle at their little friends, dropping the C-word like it was nothing. In my opinion you have to EARN the right to use the c-word. Be a British builder with bum-crack showing and some scary looking tattoos; be a feminist reclaiming the word; at the least be old enough to have dealt with puberty before you tackle that.
So I’d be standing on the bus, tipping from side to side as the driver took perverse pleasure in making 90 degree turns, while pre-pubescents without tattoos and without feminism called each other cunts and sluts. And it would cost me $3.50. This is why I walked to work and back. An hour goes pretty fast when you have podcast subscriptions.
However, I’m in London now, which is quite large. Five times larger than Wellington. And when I started plugging postcodes into Google Maps then pressing the Walking button, it was clear that it was not going to be an option. Two hours there, two hours back: this is a daily physical proposition I am not ready to accept.
So I take the tube. And despite the reputation it has for being armpit-heavy (in smell and in physical proximity to), I LOVE the tube. Hold your card on the yellow reader. It beeps hello. Join a throng of people all going down an escalator, into the EARTH. Stand on the right if you want to stand, walk on the left if you want to walk. Sway into another’s aisle and face the wrath of a collection of passive-aggressive British tuts. Then a train arrives through a little tunnel, from underneath the EARTH, and you squish in to get a seat or find a bar to hold. Read the free metro paper or play Candy Crush on your phone, jostle jostle vroom vroom, then mind the gap on your way back out of the earth. The card reader beeps goodbye and you emerge. The buildings and the people are different. Sometimes the weather has changed. And you and your fellow tubers all disperse, like dandelion seeds, out into a new part of the world, as if by magic.
One thing the bus doesn’t afford you is the chance to people watch. You all face the same direction, so you can look at the back of people’s heads and guess what their noses look like, but it’s not a particularly time-consuming game. Pointy, flat, squished, freckly, up-turned, wide. There are only so many nose options and once you’ve catalogued the bus you’re stuck looking out of the window. Not so on the tube. You all face each other in seated rows, forced to make eye contact when the girl across the aisle realises you’ve been looking at her intently. And you’re underground, which means you can’t get away with wearing sunglasses to hide your curious stares.
It’s not that I’m checking people out. I’m happily taken and get enough ogling at home. I just like making up stories for people. Take the girl in the peach dress, for example. I was on my way to a job interview and felt I looked extremely polished… until I saw her. She didn’t as much walk onto the train but glide. Her hair was shiny and perfectly in place – rows and rows of uniform chocolate brown strands. As soon as MY hair gets a whiff of rain it curls up at the sides, as if to welcome the drizzle, but I imagine her hair could be classed as ‘weather resistant’. It was her fingernails that caused me the most jealousy. She curled her hand around a beige designer handbag, each French manicured fingernail unchipped and all the same length. After six weeks of backpacking, my fingernails were torn, bitten, and were worringly sort of… grey.
So I gaped at her, wondering what she was doing. I imagined her name was something like Alexandra. Something full of syllables that she’d never shorten. I decided she was on her way to meet her boyfriend, who would have coiffed hair and an expensive hobby like archery or cocaine. They both loved each other and felt like this relationship was it, The One, but both were too proud to admit it, so they downplayed their emotions and pretended it was casual. She’d work in banking, because Daddy worked in banking. She hated poor people. She kicked dogs. Ugh. She was the worst.
I started to feel bad. I’d started spiralling Alexandra into a backstory of wealth and privilege and villainy, all because she dressed well and had nice fingernails. So I rewrote it, deciding instead she was the daughter of a welder and librarian. She’d studied hard and gained scholarships. She had natural financial savvy and had thrived in the stock market. And I got rid of the boyfriend, deciding instead she was living with a poor but kind teacher. No, she was single. No, she was a lesbian. With an Asian girlfriend. Take that, diversity.
Satisfied with Alexandra’s life story, I let my eyes wander around the rest of the compartment to a man in orange coveralls, napping on an overstuffed backpack. Immediately I decided he was a good person. In films, the men with grubby hands and workmen’s clothes are always good people. Salt of the earth types. Then I remembered back to my earlier snap judgement. It would be unfair to judge him so quickly too. So what if this man wasn’t named something nice like James, but something scary like… Victor?
Perhaps the bag wasn’t full of workman’s tools like I’d imagined, but… human… fingers. And he wasn’t sleeping from physical exhaustion, he was tired from being up so late, chopping off fingers. I frowned at him. If he’d stayed up so late chopping fingers off, why were his hands greasy instead of blood-stained? Maybe it wasn’t fingers at all, but instead he went around stealing little parts of children’s bicycles, so the children couldn’t ride them anymore?
I shook my head at him, shocked at what a horrible person he was. Until I realised how crazy I was being. No! Victor wasn’t evil for no reason… it was probably all because Victor’s parents had never bought him a bicycle. Poor Victor. If he had access to therapy he might be able to work through those issues, but he can’t afford it. We reached my stop and I stepped off the train, leaving Alexandra and Victor alone in the carriage. As I climbed the stairs to the outside of the earth, I thought of little Victor, six years old, waking up on Christmas morning. He puts on his little orange’s workmen’s clothes and grubbies up his hands before running down the stairs to look under the tree. But there’s nothing there. His parents forgot Christmas, again. And his friends all laugh, and ride their bicycles around him in a circle, taunting him with their wheels and bells.
My heart broke for him. But then I thought about all the broken bikes across London. Pink bikes and blue bikes and little gender-neutral bikes with the training wheels still on. So I thought back to Alexandra and her Asian lesbian girlfriend. I decided she was a cop. And I planned that she would arrest Victor that evening, uncovering his bag full of little bike parts. And then she’d probably say something like how he wouldn’t take THIS department for a ride, then she’d smirk. God, she was cool.
The yellow card reader beeped goodbye, and I headed to my job interview, sad to leave them all behind.
Still. There would always be the trip home.