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Sophisticated Side

22 February 2000

By David Rubie

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Public transport is evil. I can't claim to be able to produce hard evidence of any satanic involvement in the development of public transport but the end result might as well have been developed as somebody's idea of hell.

Seems a little harsh, I guess, but take it from somebody who has had the enviable pleasure of driving to work every day outside of peak hour. Big city roads are largely a pleasure when not crammed with commuters. The roads flow as designed, the incidence of four-car nose to tail pile-ups is low and the act of driving your car can be enjoyed largely unfettered. Driving home late at night, the roads completely empty (except for the ever present random breath testing units) is the best of all. Exhaust bouncing off the glass corridors of the city, window down, grinning at the stupidity of concrete car park burnouts. All gone now.

I've had to return to the daily grind of fighting through the suburbs in normal hours and I'm having trouble coping with it. I tried, for the first couple of days, to drive to work using the same route I took at 3:30 in the afternoon, but it was so depressingly slow that I made my mind up to take the train instead.

Now I'm not sure why. I don't live particularly near the train station. I figured that parking at the closest one, buying a newspaper and relaxing on the way to work instead fighting traffic would be nicer. It's been three years since I sat on a train and I couldn't really remember it as being that bad. In fact I sort of looked forward to the change of somebody else being in charge. So, I drove a short distance, I locked up the trusty metal, rubber and plastic companion under a big tree and headed off to the train station, newspaper under arm.

Then I waited. I looked at the schedule, then at my watch, then at the schedule again. The next train arrival time approached, arrived and departed with nary a sight of a train. Not an auspicious start to the journey. The schedules are obviously goals to be achieved rather than any reliable indicator of when a train will appear.

When you wait at the train station, everybody standing there looks completely normal. Just your normal, everyday guys and girls in their work wear, buying tickets and waiting patiently for the train to arrive. I was reassured by their obvious routine, assuming that the courteous shuffle used to obtain a train ticket was an indicator of the character of the rest of the ride.

Wrong. The train arriving turns them into freaks and morons. Freaks who want a seat and let you know with their elbow. Freaks who cough, splutter, dribble and sneeze in your left ear when hospital would be a more appropriate place for them. Freaks who think bathing is an optional part of their lifestyle and breaking wind is a valid public form of personal expression. Morons who treat the floor like a garbage bin (do they do this at home?). Morons who talk loudly on mobile phones so you can hear how pathetic their lives are. Morons with personal stereos cranked so loud that you expect blood to drip from their ears.

This particular morning we had a gaggle of giggling high school children, all bubble gum (which you know will end up stuck under the seat and shortly thereafter on your pants) and bitchiness. We had Sweaty Bob, short sleeved and scratching the parts that last night's binge drinking didn't reach. We had Scowling Susan, defending her forty centimetres of seat with elbows sharper than her countenance. We had Barry the Bored Businessman, attempting to read a broadsheet newspaper and looking like the required origami was getting the better of him. We all studiously avoided eye contact and grimly settled in for the ordeal.

I sure loved that first train journey. Getting sneezed on, jostled, squeezed, all the while enjoying the air-conditioned compartment. Air-conditioning? I think all the air-conditioning units were bought from wrecked 1973 Ford Fairlanes, one unit per train carriage; barely enough to combat the heat from the Walkmans, let alone Sweaty Bob next to you trying to find out which pub he'll be collapsing in tonight.

The train seats, designed to be vandal resistant, would be better replaced with concrete benches. They are impossible to get comfortable on, especially when you are trying to avoid physical contact with your fellow commuters or trying not to sit in chewing gum. Nobody gets off a train happy. You can't be that close to your fellow man for that period of time without sex or violence; it just isn't natural. I don't need to know just how many of my fellow travellers have dandruff, wear too much perfume, have no regard for manners or excruciating taste in music. It's depressing, more depressing than getting caught in peak hour traffic and looking to the empty left lane, set aside for car pooling and used sporadically by the frustrated single motorist who is quickly pulled up by waiting police.

I missed my car. If Sweaty Bob were in my car, at least the handbrake would be between us. And I'd still kick him out. I could have the air-conditioning set with all the vents pointing my way. I could have my favourite music on the CD player. I'd be nestling in a nice leather chair. Every now and again I'd have to do something (pull a lever, push a pedal, twirl the wheel). I could move my legs and not get yesterday's Juicy Fruit on my knee. Content, happy, isolated, away from everybody whose company I didn't care for. If I wanted to open the window, I'd do it without worrying about Scowling Susan and her carefully blow-dried hair. I started fantasising about the stupid car, forgetting about the frightening traffic, the tolls, the parking expenses.

Practicality will get the better of me - parking in the Sydney CBD is so horrendously expensive that a little masochism on the train represents a serious financial saving. I can't say that I'll be on that train every day, but I'm sure that with the aid of a mega walkman, elbows of steel and a black magic marker to indicate my territory, that I'll survive to drive another day....

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