Monday, 7 November 2011

What it's like to commute.

I would be surprised to find anyone who, with a straight face, could tell me that they honestly enjoy a commute.
One does not do much on a commute, but what one does is done uncomfortably. There are a series of different types of trains that go the length of my commute during the day, but the things that they have in common tend to be a) a dreadful lack of space, and b) an absurd waste of space. The train will often be so packed that most passengers will be found crushed up against the luggage rack, standing or sitting by the toilets and doors, and often lined up all the way down the corridors. Some trains will have sets of two, four and five seats.
Wherever there is a row of 3 seats, it is an unwritten rule that the window and aisle seats must be taken, and that any middle seats will be left for bags. Most of the time the seats that are taken are taken up by people who occupy 1.25 seats. This is inconvenient for those of us that require a minimum of 0.75 seats. I wish I had any humour with which to convey this sad truth.
In addition to this, even for anyone within a "normal" size range, the seats are not designed with elbows in mind. The seats force you into a primary school assembly sort of position, where you have your hands on your lap and don't move for fear of losing your lunchbreak.
Often you will be lucky enough to smell someone's breakfast, gum, coffee, dinner, or beer; depending on whether it is the morning commute or the afternoon. You'll almost certainly be treated to a handful of phonecall conversations, muffled music that headphones cannot contain, occasional alarm, ringtone, and snoring.
Some people have children. It's 6:18, it's peak time, it's London; there's nothing but frantic men in suits with their coffees, iPads, suitcases, iPhones, Evening Standard, fold-away bikes, ..., there're women in their inappropriate-for-running heels; with handbags, tote bags, Kindles, Metros, Blackberrys... And somehow in the middle of all of this, in trainers and a pink anorak, is a mother with two children, one in a pram, shoving herself onto carriage 8 as she tries to shush one with a dummy and the other with some food. Children talk and scream and cry and cry and cry. And you feel guilty for hating every second, because they're children and she's outnumbered.
Sitting on the tube is, in a way, better than the train. Although nothing can compare to the two hour bliss of finding your favourite seat empty on the morning train, and getting on with your own business quietly the whole way there, the tube affords a different perspective of travel.
Sitting on the tube lets you see far more people "cycle" far more quickly. Sometimes I find myself wondering what the tube looked like on the day of the 7/7 bombing; those looks of boredom, monotony, the faces tired of hearing that someone apologises for the delay due to signal failure, a slow running train, a suicide on the Jubilee line... And how little any of those people could've known what would happen to them. It's a horrid way to go, and on a tube no less.
I particularly enjoy the lines to and from the City, the way you know whether you're on a Circle or Hammersmith & City line train. The suited crows are there, with their waves of iPads, ebook readers and smartphones (do commuters prop up this industry? Everyone has something. Often many "somethings".), then there are the students, the tourists, and the people that seem fundamentally misplaced. There was the skinny highly tattooed guy in a new-looking suit and old suitcase, the old lady in 8 shades of mis-matched pink, the Victorian governess, the large black man in a suit and yellow shoes scribbling in his Moleskin in a frantic way.
They say that 1 in 10 people has X disease, or Y mental illness, or that 1 in Z people have been sexually abused, have stolen, have accidentally killed a pet. And you spend so many hours each week in close quarters with a different cross-section of the population, each individual with their own back story, thoughts, plans... You're bound to be within feet of incredible strangers without ever knowing it.