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Commuting into Hell


8:17. I grab my keys. Pat my pockets. Do my twenty-first century obsessive-compulsive checks. Scarf, jacket, wallet, bag, keys, mobile. “Did I lock the door?” I think almost before the bolt stops turning. I bound down the stairs. Despite doing this journey to work everyday like a clockwork mouse, part of me starts rebelling against the process almost immediately. I know almost to the minute what time I will first descend down the tube entrance and make my way to work, and can extrapolate those calculations to what time I will complete the journey and walk through the revolving doors at work. I could literally do the journey with my eyes closed. In fact, the sight of men and women with white canes struggling like blind salmon against the flow in the depths of the London underground during rush hour, blind mice in a sewer, well that doesn’t really impress me so much anymore. A bit of fine-tuning of the senses and I’m sure I could adapt myself too. But the impish child in me rebels, a little peasant uprising starts in my head. Maybe if I walk the other way around the dock and catch the 381 to the tube it would be quicker? This despite having tried every possible permutation of the trip before mentally, physically and online on  “the journeyplanner”. Disregarding the wisdom that my route is the only route, some juvenile part of my psyche rails up valiantly and begins it’s futile calculations, as it surfs the different modes of public transport, attempting to arrive triumphantly before my alter ego. Today I manage to quash the revolution in its infancy and burst out into the crisp morning. Smiling to myself I remember a definition of insanity that I had read somewhere. It’s supposed to be the act of doing something over and over again, and expecting the results to be different each time. I strike out into the autumn air, layered up with Gore-Tex/spandex/windbloc/skin, ready for the many microclimates that I will pass through on this fine metropolitan day. I fall into a meditative march, only rousing myself to surreptitiously glance at oncoming pedestrians.

I become aware that everyone seems to be overtaking me. A woman’s stilettos staccato along the wet paving and she overtakes me in surround sound and pulls away. I marvel at her calves propelling her forward with such grace and speed, and feel defeated for the first time that morning. I find it hard to fathom how she could possibly be walking faster than I could in these conditions. I am after all wearing trainers and walking in comfortable jeans and yet, despite childishly competing to keep up with her, I can’t seem to get any further than floundering in her slipstream. I throttle back and realise that my hands are still in my jean pockets. My pedestrian security blanket, I have walked a kilometre with noticing them impeding my legs. Is walking at pace a gene you pick up after a while in a big city? I remember first arriving in London years ago with my backpack, on my maiden tube ride from Heathrow. I was doing just fine until a throng of commuters blazed past me and took the stairs two at a time. Alarmed, I bounded after them with my backpack on like a demented mutant ninja teenager. I assumed we were all seconds away from dying in a terrorist attack, this was an emergency and we were all bolting for safety. It was simply rush hour.

I notice the distinctive white cables of an ipod against a black guy’s beard as he pimp rolls past me, and get walkman envy. Whilst I walk, I unravel the detritus of my bag and curse the fact that my earphones have somehow managed to crochet themselves to both my house keys and my umbrella, in the ten minutes since I left the house. I plug in and tune out. Nope don’t like that one, nope that one reminds me of…aah that hits the spot as I search through the playlist randomly. Glancing at my watch, I decide I have some time to pick up a banana from the Tesco en route. A snap bout of hypochondria backfires on me as I try to come to terms with the new automated self-service check out counter. I can’t seem to swipe the barcode correctly, so I move down from counter to counter trying to see if it’s a personal vendetta, or whether I will find more sympathetic technology at another counter. Unfortunately I have been at the pub the night before, and the box of anti-flatulence drugs are leaving their aptly titled “windeeze” product description on each monitor, for the next customer to see. A bemused, patronising sales assistant senses my distress and intervenes before I crash their entire system. As I leave, I am not quite sure how to hold a banana in one hand and look dignified with a box of fartpills in the other.

I rejoin the other fish in the school and we fin upstream through the rain towards the tube. As I arrive I brace myself for the “spare a little change, god bless you” couple who man the entrance in shifts. He’s doing mornings, and it’s disheartening to see how much he has aged since I last saw him, yesterday. A year ago he was my age, maybe younger, mid-twenties or so, but he has overtaken me quickly. I assume through consuming heroic amounts of heroin. He is now in that hard to place homeless age group, but definitely closer to death than birth. It distresses me every time I walk past him. I stare at my feet and shuffle past mumbling, “Sorry, man”. I mean I am sorry that I am not going to give him any money, but I suspect on another level it’s a more honest “I’m sorry you are committing slow, voluntary suicide in such a public arena”

I make my escape down the stairs past him and weave my way through the ticket hall as I have learnt to do, dodging the human criss-crossfire. Still walking at pace, my right hand unconsciously goes to my rear pocket and in one fluid motion extracts my little pearl of an Oyster card, passing it over the sensor with a satisfying bleep. As I pass through the barrier, a small red message in my peripheral vision flashes that my ticket is due to expire in a few days. I make a mental note to recharge it online. I marvel at how hygienic the whole process is. No mess, no fuss, no need to have any human interaction whilst recharging it. I don’t even have to touch any solid objects to pass through a barrier. The flip side is that the government knows exactly where I am, where I go, and where I have been at all times. So if one is randomly passing through the Brixton tube, far from home at strange hours, they could start to suspect that one is buying drugs. For example. They could potentially sell this data on to any consumer organisation. Depending which parts of London you tend to frequent at which hours, behavioural researchers could easily compile a guesstimate demographic profile of what unnecessary things you would be likely to buy.

I flick through a few tracks on my minidisc again before trotting onto the fast lane of the escalator. It should be the fast lane but there is an abnormal load vehicle blocking my lane. An obese American tourist stands resolute and oblivious to people trying to get past her. A sharp, “Excuse me” has her flinching towards her blind spot and whiplashing around before sidestepping panic stricken to her right. The dam has broken and people stream down the fast lane and onto the platform. Still striding, I glance at the travel information notice board to see what woes befall the underground’s various lines this morning. As luck, and history would have if, nearly all lines are taking strain, but both the Jubilee and the Piccadilly lines appear to have delays. This information is completely redundant now. I have no other way to get to work, other than a complicated matrix of interconnecting buses that would exasperate Kasparov. So I can only assume that they are there as token gestures, allowing time to psyche oneself for an extra nasty commute. I make a beeline for door two, so that I can stroll out the carriage in Green Park and straight into the Piccadilly line tunnel. Like Pac man, I need to avoid as many oncoming ghosts as possible and move through the most expedient warrens. It took me a good year to evolve to the anally retentive, but necessary state of mind where one begins to calculate where to stand on the platform, to sync up carriage exit doors with departure tunnels.

This is an art. An acquired one. The first few months of rush hours and you deal with the wheel of fortune roulette wheel phenomenon. You’ll be standing on the precipice, feet on the yellow line back arched into the throng behind you for balance, and the doors will slide towards you in slow motion and then past you to stop a frustrating 2 metres away. And by the time you have waded your way over, it’s so full you have no choice but to wait for the next train. Some superstitious passengers stand where “mind the gap” is stencilled onto the platform edge. A tube guru passed on the knowledge one day, and now it is my turn. Look for scuffmarks and wear and tear in the yellow line. This is invariably caused by millions of pairs of shoes boarding and disembarking. It’s foolproof. It’s far more civilised than the Neanderthal tacticians who mistake the beeping “doors closing” alarm for a starter gun and break into a full sprint and burst through the doors like the invisible man, either scattering other passengers like skittles or getting some appendage caught in the doors. These people are from the same gene pool as the premature boarders. On exiting, I derive great enjoyment from leaping out the opening doors onto the platform like a crazed urban parachutist. The commuters standing in my way like startled deer make for pretty effective airbags. But everyday they bounce back and stubbornly defy both common sense and Darwin. Foolhardy optimists even try and get on before you get off.

Still standing at door two I assert my stake to the right of the opening doors. I let a few (too few for us all to get on) passengers off. And leap in, focussing my energies on securing a seat. It takes years to learn the art of publicly pilfering a tube seat, grasshopper. It takes dedication and determination. Once on the train I become globally aware. I get my bearings, recceing the carriage. It is too full to find a seat immediately. I position myself in the aisle between the seats, this way I’m a mere few paces from pouncing and can avoid publicly bounding over like an over-enthusiastic participant in musical chairs. Being in the aisle I can also side-step the tide of disembarking passengers and leave other contenders to swim upstream.

Of course all these skills are redundant if you miss the warning signs and don’t anticipate the imminent departure of a commuter. There is no exact science to this; it’s 2 parts observation to one part intuition. Novices will even know how to spot a fleer by signs like folding up their papers or putting their books in their bags.  A few years down the line and you can smell them. Always look out for the pre-departure fidget, or the quick glance down towards their umbrella or bag. This is your opportunity to pounce. Of course you still need to assert yourself against other wizened seat nabbers, pretenders to your throne. This can be communicated through both body language and eye contact, but an unspoken seatnabbers etiquette exists. If the seat has been won fairly and squarely by a nearer or more astute competitor, then it should be surrendered to the victor.

This is all academic at this point, since I am stuck in a body vice. Between a large man who has marinated himself in Stella in the pub the night before and is sweating it out like perfume, and a bony, but resolute businesswoman on my other side, refusing to give an inch. Without sounding sexist, I would rather be squeezed on next to a man on the tube, anyday. Women seem to bring a certain bitchiness to boarding. Unlike most people on the tube they seem to have a definite breaking point, where enough is simply enough. Some flare their backs and refuse to give an inch, even though the tube is full and everyone is in the same claustrophobic predicament. If pressed up against a man, there are usually no hard feelings in gently nudging and squashing your way in so that you can quietly avoid decapitation. But some women are in my experience far more volatile, and don’t enjoy some gentle boyish pushy shovey. I have seen a few terse words exchanged, mainly woman-to-woman. And this strikes the fear of god into one. The first rule of tube club is don’t talk during tube club. The second rule is don’t get stuck in a public confrontation you can’t escape from.

The hilarity and uniqueness of the public transport argument is that strangers snap at each other, exchange verbal blows, but are then forced to simmer in silence inches away from each other until either of them get of at the next stop. The one argument I saw was particularly disjointed. The two women exchanged catticisms and bit their respective tongues for ten minutes until one got of. The remaining combatant then tried to drum up popular support for herself by mouthing off and tut-tut ting about her now departed, but defenceless foe.

When the tube is really full, like today, the dangly bits become redundant and you are simply buoyed up by the mass of humanity surrounding you. Despite this, you still get people attempting stubbornly to do impossible things. He’s got to be in denial, but I see a businessman attempting to read a full size broadsheet newspaper. Each newspaper could accommodate an extra two or three people. Others rest their books on others shoulders, or fold up their tabloids and are forced by the crush to wedge them close to their faces like the suffer from short sightedness. I make the mistake of trying to get a handhold on the roof. Turns out there are none, so I press my hand flat against the ceiling for support. This is bearable for the first ten minutes, but my shoulder is beginning to tire and the joint is stiffening to the point I will have to resign myself to looking like the teacher’s pet for the rest of my life if I don’t get it down soon. This is a moot point. The only way I could achieve this would entail me accidentally elbowing someone in the face, and plunging my arm downward between me and the cleavage of the woman pressed up against me.

If the claustrophobia doesn’t get to you, the heat does. Being winter, I am fully layered up for the cold. But 100 feet underground with the body heat of 200 strangers surrounding me; it’s Tahiti down there. Some independent research into conditions on the tube one summer deduced that it would be inhumane and against EU legislation to transport cattle under those conditions. One learns to deal with the sweaty brow and the stench of 200 armpits (I can confirm the cliché that Britain is not a nation of bathers), but it gets too much when you are hungover and even more unbearable when you are sick. There is nothing worse then feeling lethargic and feverish and making your way into work. Droplets of sweat running down your nose onto a stranger’s arm can be embarrassing the first time, annoying thereafter.

I look over and spot a mucus trooper, doggedly going to work with a fever and flu. There’s nothing worse (nor more selfish) than a sick person standing snivelling and sneezing all over you in the oversized Petri dish that is the tube. I have survived nearly everything that the third world has thrown at me travelling, but the bugs, viruses and colds that I have picked up on the tube have had me floored for days. I read an article about a middle-aged businessman found dead in a Tokyo tube carriage late one evening. The post-mortem revealed that he had died of a massive coronary during the early morning rush hour. The amount of people pressing up against him meant he only slumped into a seat to be discovered10 hours later.

I see a seat open up in front of an elderly woman. A young woman leaps in front of her oblivious (or intentionally) and snaffles it. This really annoys me. I mean I’m in the prime of my life, and sometimes feel a little faint on the morning commute; it must be a world of pain for the elderly or infirm. Personally I always used to offer my seat to old people or pregnant women. I still offer old people seats, but gave up on pregnant women, after the last one turned out to be either overweight or carrying a record-breaking tumour.  During the public humiliation that followed, I wanted to suggest that she wouldn’t be impregnated in a hurry if she hurled such abuse at well-meaning men. In this day and age you definitely don’t just offer your seat to a young woman with all her fingers, toes and faculties about her. You could suffer a humiliating dressing down or heated rush hour sexist debate.

In manoeuvring my way away from Stella Boy and Nasty Nancy, I end up pressed up against the glass partition, inadvertently spooning with an anonymous woman. Embarrassed at this unintentionally sexual loaded predicament, I arch my pelvis backward to avoid contact. She presses back. I shift left, she follows. I resign myself to this charade until I can find a seat and take evasive mental action, thinking of nasty things, like strangers pressing up against you in the tube. If the occasional woman pressing up against you before you’ve even taken your breakfast is strange, then the ambiguous male pelvic persisters are enough to make you lose your breakfast. It’s such a cowardly thing to do, to take advantage of the confined space and public situation and try and grope, brush against or press up against you in a perverse tango. “It must be a mistake or accidental or due to overcrowding…” you think and take an apologetic step backwards. And they follow. So you move again, thinking it must just be a synchronous lurch in the carriage. By the time you’ve cha-cha-cha’d your way a good few metres around a carriage, you’re beginning to wonder if your clothing has somehow become accidentally attached. Problem is, a public accusation is a serious matter, and well, very public.

She gets off at the next stop, and I shuffle over and managed to get a seat. Thank god for small mercies. Except now the train doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Like an amateur MC at a Ragga night, a disconcertingly stoned-sounding Jamaican drawl announces over the driver’s intercom that we are being held at that station for the immediate future, due to: “A person under the train” or “passenger action”. This has to be the single biggest euphemism of our times. Someone has chosen to commit suicide in the most public, desperate and horrific manner, and they have been categorised as an everyday inconvenience. I always like to think that passengers who mutter and curse under their breath at this announcement are reflecting on the tragic end to someone’s life, rather than about the fact that they are going to be 5 minutes late for work. If leaves on the tracks can stop a train what does a person do? There was a psychotic serial pusher a few years back that killed and injured and severely traumatised a few randomly chosen commuters. It certainly made me stand a few yards back from the yellow line braced like a sumo wrestler for a good few months.

They must have scraped the inconvenience off the tracks and into a body bag, because the train lurches forward towards our next stop, Green Park. I am having trouble sitting anyway because I have a straddler in the seat next to me. His leg is clearly over the line and forces me to sit side-saddle in my seat with my bag clutched in my lap. He’s one of those strange, outdated men who sit with their legs wide enough to suggest that they are suffering from elephantiasis of the testicles. I burst out the carriage, straight into the exit and the endless straight tunnel that leads us to the Piccadilly line. This is my favourite part of my journey to work. It’s a good 500m stretch of perfectly straight, well-lit tunnel, two torrents of early morning commuters streaming towards each other head to head. Some morning it feels like a 500m catwalk. You all have a long time to linger on oncoming traffic and spend a few seconds sizing them up, guessing at what kind of people they really are.

My minidisc’s battery cuts out with a mortal bleep, midway through a rousing; optimistic dubbed out rendition of “Summertime and the living is easy”. I have only realised through commuting in London just what a mood-altering drug music can be. Let’s just say Reggae goes down far better than Radiohead. Irritated, I pull out the earphones, but in a hallucinatory way the song continues muted in the far distance. Bewildered, I check my earphones to see if the battery hasn’t somehow resurrected itself. It hasn’t. I continue strolling and, through the throng, notice a Caribbean man busking with a saxophone. By some incredible stroke of synchronicity he is playing exactly the same song at almost the same tempo. The transition is almost seamless. I never really give money to buskers, but this deserves some acknowledgement, if only to pacify the universe. Smiling at him as if he’s in on our little joke, I drop five quid in his sax case and walk off energised by the experience. I notice the mosaic tiles on the tunnel surface. The human stimuli in the tunnel is so overwhelming that it took me a year and some beer one night to notice that the tiny pixel-like mosaic tiles make a very subtle transition form grey tiles on the Jubilee side of the tunnel, to a mixture of blue and grey tiles midway, to the cobalt blue of the Piccadilly line.

I am disgorged out onto the Piccadilly line platform and I stake my territory just past the chocolate vending machine, so I will pop out in Knightsbridge right outside the Sloane Avenue exit. I glance back at the machine. Did you know that if you type 110 into the keypad, a message comes up “Ok, No problems”. I find it quite comforting some nights when I drunk and making my way home. I look down at my feet and notice a tiny, sooty mouse scurrying around the tracks. I wonder what the mice make of these humans that seem determined to join them daily amongst the tracks. What do the mice live on? They certainly don’t look like they are getting all the major food groups. In fact, scientists should abandon their laboratory mice and capture some of these hardy little fellas and check out their genetic make up. If they can survive under those conditions, we can probably find a cure for anything from respiratory diseases to cancer in them.

This train terminates at Heathrow, and there are clumps of modern nomads with items of bulky luggage scattered all over the platform, optimistically hoping to board the rush hour train to check in on time. There is also a woman with a pram. It must be a traumatic experience for both mother and child. They don’t realise it yet, but they are “ghosts in the machine”. There are a few people who become instantly invisible on tubes, inconsequential, ignored spirits. These are, in no particular order: pregnant women, nutters, religious zealots, people with prams, old and infirm people. This invisibility is contagious. Speak to any of these people and you too will become invisible.

Looking over to my right towards the train times, I notice a colleague. I make eye contact, smile and wave awkwardly. She looks down at her newspaper and rotates her body, turning her back to me. Co-workers, appear to be mutually invisible too. She will most likely board the same carriage, we’ll both ignore each other, exit at the same point, tag team each other up the stairs and escalators, walk through the foyer to the lifts at work. Once inside the lift, she will turn around as if seeing me for the first time and we’ll make corporate small talk for the few minutes it takes for the lift to take us to the ninth floor. This is our pathetic pantomime.

I am fortunate to be able to board the first tube that arrives. Now that the music has gone from my life, I occupy myself reading every piece of literature on the tube, from adverts to tube maps, to leaflets littering the floor around my feet. I look over and giggle to myself at the man sitting obliviously under an advert offering a cure for erectile dysfunction. I now resort to other time tested time-killing tactics. I count the stops on various routes. I feign sleep. I try to meditate. It’s not going to happen. With dread I realise that now the music has gone I am going to have to contend with a talker standing only a foot away. Talkers. What’s with them? There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than hearing someone’s gynaecological problems broadcast across you between people in a crowded tube. It should be banned. It’s a horrific soap opera that you can’t turn off. I feel sorry for the people on the receiving end of the intimate confession, the confidant always writhes with embarrassment, desperate saboteurs trying to throw conversational spanners in the works, but it usually only serves to encourage the yapper. The only other contenders for the “worst of” title are public snoggers. I’m all for showing affection, but it’s unnecessary for me to feel like an unwilling participant in a threesome. Two snoggers pressed up into the nape of one’s neck in a packed tube do everything but take the edge off the journey. Embarrassed by the talkers’ intimate conversation, I get eye-contact panic attacks. My eyes flit all over the crowded carriage trying not to rest in any direction that could be mistaken for eye-contact. This is actually written into the London Underground’s etiquette guidelines. “Eye contact must be avoided on public transport”. What kind of a world are we creating? Invariably you end up studying your feet, the weave of the fabric on someone’s coat shoulder, the way a corner of a tube notice is peeling off. Eventually though, like animals on their way to an abattoir, people get skittish and furtively glance at each other as if this is their last opportunity to find a mate to reproduce with before they arrive at the slaughterhouse. I feign catatonia for a while, allowing my jaw to slack a bit, and my eyes to cross and unfocus so that no one thinks I am staring at them. After a few minutes this too becomes uncomfortable and there is a danger of me becoming so involved that I begin drooling. I start scanning everyone else in the carriage’s reading material. What people choose to read on trains can be risqué territory. From self-help books with incredibly intimate and incriminating titles, to confidential business documents, to emails, to obscene text messages, to pornography. These are all available in plain sight over someone’s shoulder in a tube near you. Which is fine until they catch you reading them.

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