'Do you like art?'

Transports of Delight

I thought I had the Fremantle train line all worked out.

Out of all Perth’s metropolitan train lines, the Fremantle line seems to be the one with the most … interesting people. Or, as a Transperth security guy once described it to me, “free housing for the crazies”. (His words, not mine.) The “crazies” are usually flamboyantly weird, but benign. Nevertheless, sometimes it is nice to get through your commute without any Transports of Delight. (Dare I say it? Sometimes a boring train ride is preferable.) So, I usually do my best to avoid attention.

I’ve gathered a few pertinent strategies, and I will elaborate on them in later posts. But one crucial strategy is location, location, location. Where you sit can determine how likely you are to have someone yell at you about their ex-wife for forty minutes.

My main strategy for riding the Fremantle line is to find a seat with an empty seat opposite, so I’m not staring directly into the face of another person. Then I employ a technique I call “going catatonic”, where I remain in the same attitude, without looking around or moving, for the rest of the journey. Public People usually seem to interpret movement, or any sign of life whatsoever, as an invitation to engage. Therefore: play dead.

As you walk through the doors of a Fremantle train carriage, you are faced with two options: you can either sit in the small cul-de-sac at the end of the carriage, which is slightly separate to the main carriage; or you can turn the other way and sit in the main, cattle-class seating area.

I walked onto a Fremantle train carriage and performed my usual quick scan for locations. The main seating area was quite crowded and had few empty seats. I turned to my left. The carriage cul-de-sac was completely empty, except for one regular-looking guy sitting in the corner. I went that way, thinking the nearly-empty cul-de-sac would make for a nice, quiet ride.

I hadn’t even sat down when Regular-Looking Guy started shouting non-sequiters at me. “THAT’S A NICE DRESS. DO YOU LIKE ART?” My heart sank. I had chosen the wrong location.

When I didn’t respond to his questioning, Regular-Looking-Guy-Who-Was-Actually-Crazy continued to shout. “I DON’T REALLY LIKE ART. LOOK, THIS IS ART.” He motioned to the large canvas he had propped on the seat next to him.

“THIS IS AN ORIGINAL PRINT OF A JACKSON POLLOCK.” Pause. “LOOK, HIS NAME’S ON IT, THERE. LOOK THERE!”

I did not look there. I was not even remotely in the mood for this. But I knew if I stayed in his cul-de-sac, with no one else to draw his attention, he would keep on at me like this. The volume at which he spoke told me that he was not someone who would respond to, or even notice social cues. So, I stood up and moved to a better location, down the train.

I find it really difficult to be this openly rude to someone, by the way. It doesn’t come naturally; I’ve had to school myself in the art of rebuffing people. I still feel bad about it, but when you’re a young female journeying alone, it becomes a matter of personal safety. American author Gavin de Becker wrote an excellent book called The Gift of Fear, in which he points out that people, women especially, often remain in dangerous situations to avoid ‘being rude’ to a stranger. If a strange man tries to strike up a conversation with you (the single female), you’ll probably feel obligated to respond, even if the guy gives you the creeps. According to de Becker, this is because

explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. (de Becker, 1997)

Well, I didn’t respond with willingness or attentiveness to Regular-Looking-Guy-Who-Was-Actually-Crazy, and to my knowledge, society has not imploded. The guy didn’t even seem that fazed – this must happen to him a lot. While RLGWWAC was not necessarily a threat to my safety, he made me feel uncomfortable. He was a stranger, a man who made unsolicited approaches to a woman sitting alone. A regular guy (who was actually regular) would have just left me alone.

At the next stop, a tidal wave of teenagers flowed into the train, and they immediately filled up RLGWWAC’s cul-de-sac. Nothing, not even hundreds of lorikeets screeching in the pine trees over Cottesloe – not even they could be louder than a group of teens on a train. But amidst the din, I could hear RLGWWAC’s voice rising from the middle of the crowd. He was in his element. “DO YOU LIKE ART? HOW ‘BOUT YOU? HAVE YOU HEARD OF JACKSON POLLOCK?”

A few stops later, I noticed Regular-Looking-Guy-Who-Was-Actually-Crazy trying to push his way out of the throng, his Pollock print flapping at his side. The teenagers sullenly moved aside for him. (I’m not just stereotyping here, this lot looked genuinely sullen.) RLGWWAC turned around and hollered at them, “GOODBYE! HUGS AND KISSES FOR MUMS!” He departed, adding, “HUGS AND KISSES FOR DADS TOO!”

Since this experience, I have learned two things about the carriage cul-de-sac. Firstly, it is not a good location for single journeyers, mainly because it is usually commandeered by large groups of friends who want to chat loudly to each other about “what Mark said”.

Secondly, if it’s empty except for one man, even though the rest of the train is crowded, that guy is probably animal crackers crazy.

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2 thoughts on “'Do you like art?'

  1. I can’t express how much I can relate to this. I used to catch the Newcastle-Sydney train fairly regularly, and was also privy to the Sydney-Armidale train on a number of occasions; both full of crazies. Every trip. Guaranteed. I’m just glad to hear I’m not the only one who adopts the play dead approach or analyses every train carriage for the seat that will attract the least attention.

  2. Thanks Katy, I’m glad to hear someone else can relate.

    The play dead approach is gold, isn’t it? A girl I know used to employ the “shaved head and hairy armpits” technique when she was backpacking, and would stretch out in a corner of the train with a surly look on her face. She says it was extremely effective. But perhaps a bit drastic.

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