It’s never a nice feeling to be caught in public with a finger up your nose. Somehow, it’s so much worse when it’s someone else’s finger. Perhaps this is why I harbor such a dislike of traveling on public transport at the height of rush hour.
Crowded commutes are something we city dwellers loathe, and it’s easy to understand why. Crammed together in a bus or train in a more or less random collection of knees, rib cages, shoulders, buttocks and elbows, we live in the knowledge that squeezed together in such a limited space, nothing but the law of averages protects us from catastrophe. If by some tragic fluke we all inhale at the same time, we will meet our doom together in the resulting explosion.
Given all of this, it may seem strange that I ever undertake rush hour travel without, at the very least, some goose-stepping thug pushing a machine gun into the small of my back. And yet, duty compels me to my local train station day after day, Nazi guard or no. Sadly, as my boss has made clear to me on many occasions, Western Civilization absolutely depends upon my showing up to work at particular times throughout the week and will not long survive without me.
It’s not that I haven’t tried thinking creatively about other alternatives. I’ve looked into the matter thoroughly, taken measurements, pored over maps and timetables, crunched the numbers. But the simple fact of it is, no matter what route I investigate, my getting on a train and visiting a workplace is virtually always less expensive than putting the workplace on a train and bringing it to me.
Of course, much as I hate commuter journeys, I have by necessity become gradually better at dealing with them. By far the best solution, and the one I always take if it is available, is simply to avoid the busiest part of rush hour by catching an earlier or a later train. Very occasionally during these slightly off-peak periods, I may be lucky enough to get a seat, an event always met with thankfulness, joy, and three days of tearful celebration in the Karyudo household.
Such happy occurrences are, however, vanishingly rare. Far more often, all the seats have been claimed by passengers whose bottoms then remain fixed to them limpet-like throughout the rest of the journey. Nevertheless, traveling at slightly off-peak times does mean having just enough personal space to afford me a few simple luxuries, such as being able to turn my head slightly, scratch my nose and breathe.
Of course, the relative freedom of hand movement that comes with traveling at this time can bring problems of its own. Passengers sitting along the aisle, for example, have long been in significant danger from anyone standing nearby who is attempting to read a newspaper. As irritatingly smug as limpet-bottomed passengers can sometimes be, it’s hard to argue that they deserve a swift right hook every time the person standing over them tries to turn to page three.
Luckily, this is a problem fading in importance now that the majority of commuters spend their entire journey staring at a smartphone or tablet. This gives seated passengers the peace of mind they need to sit back and enjoy their bottomly comfort, secure in the knowledge that a savage right hook is no longer a threat, and at most, they can expect a few pokes in the eye with some sort of hand-held electronic device.
Much as I prefer trains like these that somewhat avoid the very busiest times of the morning, there are occasions when I simply have no choice but to face the full-blown rush-hour commuter train. Many a young country-dweller confronted for the first time by these eight cars of horrifically compacted humanity has recoiled in terrified astonishment. The possibility of survival in such a hostile environment seems miraculous to him. Hardened city commuters, the life-form capable of this astounding feat, he holds in the same bewildered awe with which biologists regard bacteria that thrive in volcanoes or boiling acid.
Of course, I was once such a country-dweller myself. It has taken many, many years of bitter experience to learn to cope with the rigors of rush-hour commuting and the mass of bodies pushing against me from every side. One of the things I still find difficult, however, is watching helplessly as less experienced travelers stumble into danger. Oh, how many times have I seen a hapless tourist trapped next to a someone who likes garlic sausage on their breakfast toast? How often have I watched as a newly-hired graduate is poked, rapped, and whacked by one carelessly wielded umbrella after another? I’ve wanted to help, but with my left cheek flattened against the window pane and my right elbow pinned behind my head, I’ve found my options for action rather limited.
I took just such a train the other day to visit the offices of another company. My commute was more complicated than usual and involved changing lines. However, this can be easier said than done at popular stations. More than once in such circumstances, the train doors have opened and I’ve found myself bobbing along like a cork in an unstoppable wave of humanity, all heading in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, on this particular day, I made the change smoothly, got to the station in good time, and arrived at precisely the exit I wanted – only to discover that the company was not where I thought I’d left it. This was a puzzle because when I’d visited the offices for the first time about a month earlier, I’d taken careful note of significant landmarks and used them to create what I thought was a highly accurate mental map of the neighborhood. It took several slow, careful circuits of the station, and much popping in and out of exits, before I realized what had happened. My mental map was indeed highly accurate, but my brain was holding it upside down.
Text and picture © Bun Karyudo and the BunKaryudo.com blog (2016)
(All rights reserved)
This post originally appeared on my main blog on August 17th, 2016.