Sunday, June 24, 2007

Getting caught short

Last Thursday I had arranged to spend the day with The Accountant, going through all the company finances and ticking boxes on an electronic tender I am currently filling in. This meant another trip to Leeds on the red-eye from Stevenage. It's strange - I'd hardly been up there all year until Easter, and all of a sudden I seem to be there every other week. It brings to mind something another commuting sage once said about waiting ages for a bus. Anyway, it is quite a long way to Leeds, and when one is on the early train with a cup of coffee and the obligatory free piece of carboard masquerading as a biscuit, what can often happen is that one has to use the toilet. Now, since my schooldays, I have made the most of one of the greatest natural advantages of being of the male persuasion, and avoided actually sitting down on public toilets (the phrase "hover job" sends shivers down my spine). On this occasion, however, and without wanting to be too explicit, I had to.

It had all been going so well, too. I had caught the train at Stevenage, found my reserved seat and plonked myself down, sipped my skinny cappucino in a very sophisticated way, moved because it was too hot with the Sun shining directly on that side of the train and even managed to find an alternative seat facing forward. But then I felt something stir within me, and realised with grim certainty that I was going to have to forgo my principles.

I looked up and saw that the toilet at the far end was engaged, and realised to my dismay that it was the only one accessible from this carriage. Crossing my legs, and reasoning that I could always wipe the seat with a bit of paper before baring my behind to it, I waited. After what seemed like forever, the Engaged sign went dark and its counterpart flashed. I stood up nonchalantly (one never hurries on trains, particularly not in these situations), only to realise, to my horror, that two other passengers had the same idea as me. What's worse, both were nearer to that end of the carriage than I was (although if I'd stayed in my original seat, I would have been in pole position).

Without showing my frustration, I strolled down the aisle, wondering if there was another toilet adjoining the next carriage. Alas, the other guy had clearly done this before, as he had exactly the same idea, and as I reached the vestibule, with the first toilet now newly engaged, I saw his back vanishing into another doorway. Resigned, I took up position midway between the two cubicles to await a vacanacy. A few moinutes passed, and I began to get very gloomy, reasoning that the longer the wait, the worse the smell. Eventually the second chap emerged from the further toilet and made his way back to his seat, raising his eyebrows at me as he passed. Not a good sign - I believe the corect translation of such a gesture is something along the lines of "You won't believe what's in store for you."

Against all the odds, it turned out not to be so bad - there was a slight whiff, but on the edges of consciousness, and I don't think I caught anything. What was striking was the size of the cublcle. Whereas the other loo was big enough to park a Chelsea Tractor in, this one was tiny, cramped, and certainly offered no prospect of being able to swing a cat. But you don't go to these places for luxury. I did what I had to do and got out of there.

Now here's the funny thing - on my way back that evening, I was caught short again, but mercifully this time it was only what get euphemistcally called Numero Uno. I found the big deluxe loo unoccupied and walked straight in. The toilet was blocked up with loo paper, the flush didn't work and the soap dispenser was empty. Which I suppose just goes to prove (yet again) that size doesn't matter.

Friday, June 15, 2007

a few home truths

It's been a disquieting week. I've been having lots of little epiphanies concerning my place in the commuting world. You know how sometimes you'll chatise someone for doing something and then find yourself doing the same thing an hour later? Well, my week's been a bit like that - I keep catching myself doing all the things I've frequently poked fun at on this blog, and drawing down on myself the same scorn that I bestow on other people. I put it down to the fact that I'm tired, a bit needy and have had one of those weeks, work-wise, where you run really fast in order to stand still.

On Monday, for some unaccountable reason that I can't quite identify, I stood up almost as soon as we had left Stevenage, and suddenly realised that we were at least five minutes from my stop. A couple of other people had got up already, and they were doing the steely-detrmination face that says "Yes, I really did mean to get up ages before my stop, and now I'm going to stand here for ages with a look of steely determination because then I'll be respected far more than if I sat back down." I actually did sit back down (and I'm sure people respected me all the more for it), but it was the start of what was to prove a series of faux pas which have left me feeling far less sure of myself in position as detached observer of commuting behaviour.

This most surreal experience of the week came on Friday night, on my way home from London. I sat down in an aisle seat, next to a girl with a newspaper who seemed to be almost magnetically drawn to the wall of the carriage, so tightly was she hugging it - meaning plenty of room for me to slouch in my own seat without worrying about invading her personal space. I retrieved my laptop from my bag and fired it up - I don't normally take it home on a Friday but I've got lots to get through at the moment - and started tapping away at the keyboard. Normally I'm quite self-conscious in this situation, acutely aware of how noisy each keystroke seems to be, but I was tired and grumpy (and - wouldja believe? - absorbed in my work). After a few minutes, I realised that the girl with the newspaper had started flicking the pages in a very pointed, noisy manner, not even bothering to pretend to read any of them. Instantly I recognised a classic negative revenge tactic, exactly the type (if you'll pardon the pun) of thing I would do if the positions were reversed - creating my own disturbance to counter the one being inflicted on me. It dawned on me - I've gone from being the gamekeeper to being just another poacher. And actually that's no bad thing - just confirms what I've always said - commuting is a great leveller.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

An Unhapy Commuter on a Monday night

Ironically, or perhaps portentously, I had a miraculously hassle-free journey into work on Monday morning. I got a slightly earlier train than normal, forgoing the chance of a seat for a faster service, the bus turned up within a minute of my arrival at Kings Cross, and then seemed blessed with the goodwill of every set of traffic lights between Euston Road and Oxford Street. I was first in the office, managed to make myself a cup of tea before anyone else arrived (which I believe is what is known as a “cheap round”) and had been through my emails and filled in my timesheet by the time the rest of my colleagues turned up.

It was quite a busy day, as it turned out – I worked through lunch, dealing with a few bit and pieces that had been foisted upon me at the last minute. I had a late night lined up on Tuesday, so I was determined to get away on time and spend a quality portion of the evening with The Wife. Come five to six then (I was taking no chances), I arose from my desk, bade my colleagues good evening, and headed out on to the streets to catch a bus. The first sign that something strange might be going on came when I emerged on to Tottenham Court Road and found that there was no bus pulling away from my stop just before I got there. As I have said before, I believe it to be a general rule of any dash across London by bus that there is always a bus that pulls away just as you arrive at the bus stop. Naively, I took this as a good sign, not a bad one, reasoning that the bus I would normally expect to be puling away in front of me must just not have arrived yet, therefore when it did turn up, I would be able to get on it. Peering down the street, I was indeed gratified to see several buses heading towards me, but as each got closer it turned out that none of them bore any of the numbers that go to Kings Cross. There were a couple of sevens (it really bugs me when that happens – what kind of system have you got when two identical buses turn up at the same time?), a twenty-five and a thirty.

Eventually a seventy-three turned up, and I got on, squeezing my way down to the end to stand between two seats. We headed through the traffic lights and off down Tottenham Court Road, making remarkably slow progress. After what seemed like several hours, we got to the first stop and a number of people got on, whereupon I overheard one of them saying that Oxford Circus was closed, which accounted for all the extra people top side, and I privately awarded myself a gold star for avoiding the tube. Then the bus doors slid shut, the lights ahead of us turned green.

The bus stayed exactly where it was.

I glanced ahead out of the window and could see a solid row of traffic stretching up toward Warren Street. Now it’s always busy on that stretch of road – the traffic lights halfway down have a creative approach to timekeeping – but for some reason this did seem worse than usual. We sat there for a couple of minutes while I performed the usual calculations over whether I would be better getting off the bus and dashing to Warren Street to pick up the Victoria Line (the challenge is to beat the Kings Cross train to Finsbury Park, and is entirely dependent on the alignment of several factors – there needs to be a train on the Victoria Line platform as soon as you get there, you need to pick the right set of doors to deposit you right next to the stairs to the mainline platform at Finsbury, and of course it needs to be a smooth journey on the tube with no delays in tunnels – it’s a high stakes game of chance). I concluded that, ironically, the four or five minutes I had wasted waiting for this bus might have been sufficient to get me to Finsbury Park, but that now I was too far away to get to Warren Street in time, and anyway it would be jammed with people who had ventured up the road from Oxford Circus.

In the time it’s taken you to read that last paragraph, the bus moved not an inch. Finally, we crept forward a few inches, whereupon the lights went red again and we ground to a halt once more. Pretty much the same pattern repeated itself at the next set of lights, outside Goodge Street station, and I had just about resigned myself to getting the later train, when all of a sudden the road ahead cleared and the bus put on a sudden burst of speed. We sailed part the gang of leather-loving furniture shops and it started to look genuinely promising. Oh what cruel tricks the transport network plays.

I did at least have the satisfaction of seeing that I had called it right about Warren Street – it was jam-packed with commuters who looked short of patience. When we hit Euston Road we stopped for an unaccountably long time while someone dithered about whether to get on or not at the stop by the Wellcome building, and then we got into a jam at the lights coming out of Euston Station. I had developed a theory that getting off one stop earlier might provide me with a better route into the Sticks (the outlying platforms at Kings Cross) but the driver decided not to stop there, and I probably wouldn’t have made it in time to get the train anyway. When I did get on a train, having relied solely on my powers of deduction to figure out the cause of all these delays, it picked up a further seven minute delay en route to Stevenage, again with not a word of explanation. I arrived home a little grumpy, rather hungry and saw The Wife for a few minutes in between Corrie and Eastenders, whereupon I went and washed up. At the end of the second Corrie episode she announced she was going to bed, so I sat up on my own for an hour reading other blogs, which is normally a thrill, but was bit of a let-down after I had planned to some quality time with the woman I love.

That’s what makes an unhappy commuter.

The Unhappy Commuter

What makes an unhappy commuter? Delays? Well yes, obviously, but most of us regular commuters are a fairly tolerant lot – we appreciate the complexity of the transport network and the inevitability of occasional problems that have ramifications elsewhere – as some very talented wannabe writer (now who could that be?) once put it “It’s like that Butterfly that keeps causing storms in China”). How about rudeness? Again, this is something one is conditioned to expect and rise above after a year or so on the rails. Lack of information – ah, now we are getting closer to the truth. Sitting in a crowded carriage surrounded by rural serenity, with nary a clue as to why the train has stopped moving or when it is going to start again, can cause even the most seasoned commuter to frown. Imagine the lush countryside replaced with the claustophobic dank darkness of a subterranean tunnel and you can bet that the frown will rapidly become a scowl. Doubtless, there are several factors that can ruin a commuter’s normally sunny disposition. Combine the lot of them into one, infuriating journey, and factor in a rumbling tummy as well, and you have a commuter who is not just unhappy, but severely pissed off. Which brings me neatly on to . . .