Friday, October 20, 2006

Bad manners

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's bad manners. And laziness. And sprouts. Okay, three things. Now, I know that makes me sound like someone who reads the Daily Express (the manners bit, not the sprouts bit, although perhaps the fact that they come from Brussels counts against them in the Express's reckoning). It's also a fairly broad statement, and one that would probably not stand up to close scrutiny. So I should specify that I'm purely talking in the context of a train here.

Yesterday evening, I boarded the train at Kings Cross and found one of the few available seats by the window halfway down the carriage. To get to it, I had to manoevre my way past an open tray upon which were placed an empty Evian bottle, a half finished carton of carrot sticks with some kind of dip, and a half-finished bar of chocolate. As is often the case in these situations, I was clearly not the first person to happen upon this seat, but I was the first to lay claim to it. It is (yet) another curious idiosyncrasy common to many seasoned commuters: where an unoccupied seat next to a passenger who is already seated is obscured by some object (a newspaper, for example) newcomers take great pleasure in making as much fuss as possible about getting the seat cleared (if the offending item does not belong to the passenger who is already seated, responsibility for moving said item is unclear, and should be decided upon by some random game of chance such as a coin toss). If, on the other hand, there are two unoccupied seats together, one of which is occupied by a newspaper, a magazine, or, as in this case, discarded packaging, no one will go near it.

So I took my seat, cautiously squeezing myself between the open tray and the seat, making absolutely sure I didn't touch anything, and sat myself down by the window. A few strange looks from people aside, nothing untoward happened, although after a few minutes I did become uncomfortably aware that there were now no other spare seats in the carriage, and that if someone else did get on the train and try to sit down, they would no doubt assume that the half-finished snacks were mine and ask me, in that tremendously holier-than-thou way perfected by commuters in London, to shift them.

Minutes passed, no one else did board the train, and eventually, we pulled out of King Cross. No one has returned to the claim the offending snacks, and I knew that as soon as we reached Finsbury Park there would be an influx of passengers and the seat would be required. I sat tight for a minute or two, hoping that the owner was just having a particularly lengthy visit to the loo or something (very high in fibre, those carrot sticks), but as we slowed outside Finsbury Park, I gingerly picked up each item in turn, put them in the bin next to the seat. NEXT TO THE SEAT, mark you. I mean, how hard can it be to put your rubbish in the bin next to the seat?

Muttering darkly to myself about the state of the modern commuter, I took out my broadsheet, and lowered the tray on the seat in front of me, the better to be able to read it wihout getting myself into the type of contortions that lead to injury. To my horror, the sellophane lid from the dip that came with the carrot sticks had been shoved inside the tray by the previous incumbent, so that it was now stuck to the back of the seat in front, with sticky pink mucus smeared over the tray itself. In disgust, I shut the tray (after putting the sellophane in the bin NEXT TO THE SEAT) and resigned myself to pulling some underused muscle as I read my paper.

Now I think I'm quite a tolerant person, and most of the more belligerent aspects of commuting behaviour I can shrug off, even smile at. But this kind of thing really (if you'll pardon the expression) pisses me off. I mean, what kind of a person do you have to be to deliberately vandalise not one but TWO seats on a train, when there's bin RIGHT NEXT TO YOU? If the person responsible is reading this, you really should be ashamed of yourself.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tale of two cities, Part 2

My first experience of the New York subway came after a seven hour flight plus a two hour queue (or "line" as they say over there) to get through immigration. The US citizens customs queue was only about ten poeple in length, and they were through in about quarter of an hour, after which they closed four desks rather than opening them to the non-US queue, as might have seemed sensible. Add to this the fact that I spent the best part of two hours trying to stop the hyperactive Welsh bloke behind me jumping the queue, and you'll understand why I was in a bit of a fractious mood by the time we finally made it to the baggage hall to collect our cases. We then had a pleasant enough ride on the JFK air train (a but like the monorail from Disney World) before reaching the local subway terminal, Howard Beach station.

On reaching the platform at Howard Beach, the first notable difference between the New York system and it's London equivalent became clear: none of those electronic boards that tell you how long the next train is going to be. We waited in the dark (literally and metaphoircally) for about fifteen minutes, before the train arrived and we dragged ourselves aboard (it was about 18:30 local time - half an hour past 11pm according to our UK-adjusted body clocks). Glancing expectantly at the wall of the train to see how many stops we had to go, another big difference emerged - those handy maps of the Tube system's individual lines don't exist in New York, so if you don't know the system, it's really difficult to work out exactly where you are, and where you are trying to get to. The Wife, needless to say, had researched the whole thing down to the ground before leaving the UK, so was quite comfortable. What would I do without her etc etc.

It was actually quite exciting and authentically USA. Even before we got on the train we were treated to the spectacle of a teenager dancing up and down the platform opposite in mock basketball poses, before being aggressively manhandled into a seat by a cop. Seemed a bit harsh but, hey, this was clrearly the land of zero tolerance of imaginary sports. I couldn't help wondering if they felt the same way about air guitar.

We slid through Queen's through some excitingly-monikered stops (Rockaway Boulevard - Kerrang!) before shooting through a tunnel under the river and entering Manhatten's network of subterranean stations. Now, I'm not going to pretend that London's Underground stations are all works of art, but I have to say that they're much more attractive than New York's. The likes of Baker Street and Charing Cross draw you in, their walls practically telling stories. Harlem had some nice Mosaics, but we're talking fairly small-scale stuff, and as for the Broadway stops, the home of big-budget theatre, nada. By and large, the New York subway stations all seemed pretty functional. Advertising seemed far less prevalent too - this could be a good thing, depending on your perspective, but it suprised me in the capital of capitalism that media spaces like escalators and platforms weren't festooned with commercial messages, as they are in London.

But one crucial factor in New York's favour pretty much outweighed all the others: it was just far less crowded. I haven't a clue why. It wasn't as if there were more trains, or less people (it was New York - the city that never sleeps). But somehow the traffic just seemed to be managed better. On Thursday afternoon a 6pm - peak time rush hour, you'd think - we travelled back from Fifth Avenue to Times Square on a train that was supposedly packed, and I just thought "Is this it?" We had to stand for a couple of stops, but people weren't crammed in like in London, and there was not an elbow in site.

It's a funny thing but whilst I was in New York I missed London, and my fondness for the place increased by the day (NY may have skyscrapers, but has it got 1000 years of history? I caught myself thinknig things like that). And then I got back to work on Monday and had to breathe eau de armpit for twenty minutes on the Tube, and suddenly I was missing New York.

There may just be a moral in there somewhere.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tale of two cities: Part 1

The thing that struck me most about my New York trip was not the subway (although I'll come on to that in my next post), not the taxis or the buses, not even the Empire State Building or the food (yes, I did do some touristy, non-commuting things whilst I was out there). No, the thing that struck me most (and aplogies if this is a bit off the commuting brief), was the fact that I don't make the best of London.

Sitting in the Europa Cafe working my way through a cup of coffee and a bagel, I looked out on Times Square and all the commuters scurrying to work and thought to myself: what a great place just feel that energy, that excitement, that bustle. And it occurred to me: I have that every day when I go to work. But the thing is, because I'm at work, it just seems like hassle. Rather than inspiring me, it drains me. Could be something to do with the fact that New York just seems less busy, even in rush hour - wider pavements, more frequent subway trains, or whatever - but there is definitely something in the way I perceive that hustle and bustle.

So here's what I going to do - I'm going to get my head up. I'm going to make more of an effort to enjoy where I work. Today, for example, I got out of the office at lunchtime, had a very nice hot chocolate with my colleague SW, and then strolled around Soho Square and down to Picadilly Circus, where I crossed the road and looked at the lights. Tomorrow, I'm going to Leicester Square. Who knows, one of these days, I might actually pop up the road to the British Museum at lunchtime - it is free for goodness sake.

They do say that the best thing about going away is that you learn to appreciate home, and much as I loved my time in NY, I think that might just be true.

Back to commuting next time, I promise - notes on the Subway and the Staten Island Ferry.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Out of office

Off to New York for a week - The Wife thinks it's a holiday but actually going to conduct a comparison between the New York subway and the Tube.

Watch this space.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Underground

No pithy (even witty) attempt at an eye-catching headline this week. No, it would be inappropriate to the subject matter, for this week I write not of the joys of overland train travel, with its rituals, rules and characters, but of the subterranean struggle for sanity that is . . the Tube.

Now I don't wish to criticise the Tube per se - indeed I can only marvel at the intricate grandeur of the network of tunnels that snake unheard and unnoticed beneath the multitude of feet that pound the streets of London daily. Nor do I wish to decry the efforts of the people that staff the network - many of them unfailingly helpful and good-natured in the face of the tide of bad temper that flows up and down the escalators, pausing to hurl a few choice insults in their direction. And, earning my crust in the hyperbolic world of graphic design, I cannot fail to mention the ingenious simplicity of Beck's Tube map, which somehow renders the complexity of the vast subterranean city navigable (and is a source of endless amusement to those of us "in the know" observing unwitting tourists spending half an hour on three seperate lines to travel a distance of half a mile).

What cannot denied, however, is that attempting to travel through the centre of London on the Tube during rush hour is an unremittingly unpleasant experience. I generally avoid the Underground in the morning, preferring to take the bus or walk, and over the Summer I have been working a bit later and avoided the worst of the rush. Last Tuesday, however, I was determined to get home on time to enjoy a special meal with The Wife, and even left work five minutes early to make sure I got to Kings Cross for the appointed time. All was going to plan until I rounded the corner of Argyll Street and hit The Bottleneck at Oxford Circus, scene of a thousand delays. My arms raised to protect my head from flailing elbows and sweaty armpits, I reached the back of the queue for the station just as it ground to a halt, as the station was temporarily sealed. This is a not uncommon occurrence during peak time, but I had not had to contend with it all Summer, so it came a bit of a shock. Quick-thinking is paramount in these situations, and I swiftly calculated that if I waited for the doors to reopen, I would have no chance of making my train. Three options were open to me: walk to Warren Street, get on a bus and hope the traffic was not too severe, or attempt to walk to King's Cross in twenty minutes. I opted for the bus, and it proved to be a mistake - by the time my train was scheduled to leave, the bus had barely made it to the end of Oxford Street. I eventually reached Kings Cross forty-five minutes after leaving the office.

On Friday, after a day of high drama featuring a broken fax machine, timezone cofusion and cottage cheese (one day I might elaborate - at the moment it's still too raw), I left the office with my colleagues ES and JB, and was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which we reached Oxford Circus. Even The Bottleneck was relatively calm. Bidding farewell to South London dweller JB, ES and I headed for the Victoria Line platform, and discovered where all the crowds had got to. It was crammed. Struggling on to a train, we travelled the few stops to King's Cross engaged in studious research into other peoples' body odour, before spilling gratefully out at King's Cross. It was enough to put my status as a Happy Commuter in jeopardy. I'm definitely going to walk more.