A To B Via Claustrophobia

[Originally posted on July 8, 2008]

I am a commuter.

This service is now calling at Chaos, where this train terminates. All change please, all change.
This service is now calling at Chaos, where this train terminates. All change please, all change.

Horrible thing to say, but as of last week, I joined the thousands of Surrey-ites who commute to work in London on South West Trains, and it got me thinking: Is this the future for many of us? Huddled in a corner of a train at 8am, sealed off in your mind from the swathes of business-folk that surround us? Totally closed off from the outside world, focused on your iPod/BlackBerry/Book?
Public transport has certain codes of conduct, and if you break them you run a very high risk of being labeled as a weirdo.

Rule #1:
Absolutely no talking to strangers.
Spontaneous social interaction marks you as either a desperate eccentric trying to make friends on the way to work, or a twisted, potential sex-offender. Heaven forbid that we should interact with each other. Even if you are lucky enough to have a friend in tow, you should keep your conversation to a whisper.

Breaking rule #1 will result in people immediately assuming you are a bit odd.

Rule #2:
Keep physical contact to a minimum.
This is a tricky one given the proximity of your person to complete and utter randomers. Maintaining a polite social veneer whilst being unable to cross your legs without thwacking someone else in the shins, is a challenge. In fact, if you find yourself next to a more portly member of the commuting undead, then this contact rule is basically void. I spend two hours a day so close to complete strangers that I wouldn’t dream of talking to.

Any breach of this rule must be atoned for with an apologetic nod and a mumbled ‘sorry’. This is the only acceptable exception to rule #1.

Rule #3: No noise pollution.
Commuter trains are eeriely quite, mainly due to rule #1. The only noise you will hear is the faint buzz of music from inside someone else’s ear-lobes. Those who try to pump tha noize, are glared at with disdain and mentally labelled as yobs.

So, armed with the above three rules, it shouldn’t be hard fitting in. And it isn’t.
It’s pretty damn depressing tho.

I’m not trying to curry sympathy here, I’m well aware how lucky I am to have a job in such an exciting city, and I could have it much, much worse. But the whole commuting mindset seems to be quite alarming. Is this what we really think of others? Closed off drones who we must respect but never interact with?

My way of combating the commuting depression/claustrophobia/irritation is to try and section off an area of my own. I place my bag on the chair next to me, my blazer on the chair next to that. I hope, upon hope, that this will secure me a disproportionately large area in which to spread my gangly limbs, and recline in the comfort of being a clever commuter. Paranoid that every passing train passenger will try and claim the seat next to me, I develop a sense of bubbling resentment for anyone who throws a glance my way.
Of course they do, and I am obliged by the above etiquette to yield bashfully and cosy up for an intimate journey. Does this make me selfish? Does this make me anti-social? Or is this just the normal development of dealing with the stress of commuting?

At this point I’m obviously becoming far too cynical. This refined atmosphere of mutual respect and acquiescence to the social codes, makes for a quiet atmosphere wherein people can read, listen to music, and even sleep. Maybe everyone needs this type of environment to make the commute bearable.

Maybe some of them even like it. Maybe if I put my mind to it, I could learn to enjoy this.

But maybe it’s just how I get to work.

Now Playing: Million Dead – Smiling At Strangers On Trains

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