The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Transports of Delight

It’s early morning at the station, and I’m standing with hordes of other commuters waiting for the train. It’s one of those dark, chilly mornings where the mood is bleak; everyone’s heading to work or to school, when they’d clearly rather be tucked up in bed. The train arrives and we silently file into the carriage.

It’s packed inside; full train. I get pushed down to the other side of the carriage, shoved in between some businessmen and school kids. Over near the priority seats, I see a guy I kind of know. Shane, the brother of one of my high school friends. I only met him a couple of times, years ago. Even then I only knew him as my friend’s autistic brother – mainly because every time she mentioned him, she would say, “You know, my brother, who’s autistic?” He sees me, and we wave at each other.

There’s that ‘bing bong’ sound that means the doors will be closing. Just then, we all see a schoolgirl desperately pelting across the train platform, running towards our door. Her rubber-soled shoes are thack-thacking on the pavers. Somebody presses the ‘open doors’ button in a futile gesture, but we know she doesn’t have enough time.

The doors begin closing. The schoolgirl is still a few feet away from the train. Oh, this is going to be heartbreaking – she’s going to hit the doors just as they close, and we’ll all feel sorry for her. But wait, she’s picking up speed, she’s launching herself at the doors – oh lord, there’s only a sliver of door left – but she’s through! The girl dove through the carriage doors just as they closed. That was amazing. Indiana Jones could not have done better. The girl stands panting, just inside the doors, red-faced and very pleased. She grins, like “I did it!” But then her face changes.

I watch her realise that her backpack is stuck outside the train.

The girl made it into the train, but her backpack did not. She’s still wearing it – the pack is still strapped to her back – but the doors have closed over it, trapping it outside. The train starts to glide forwards, and the girl begins to panic. She can’t move, she’s held in place by her enormous backpack. She wriggles and makes squeaky noises. No one in the crowded train moves to help her. Except one man.

It’s Shane, my friend’s autistic brother! He hollers, “KAITLYN! HELP ME!” as he pushes his way through the motionless commuters. His voice is loud against the hush of the crowded carriage. I spring to life and elbow my way forwards. We reach the girl, and Shane begins pulling on her backpack with all his might. I tug at the doors, trying to pry them apart. The girl strains forward on the shoulder straps, and all three of us struggle together. Finally her backpack pops free. Girl, backpack, Shane and me all tumble apart like bowling pins.

The girl whispers a quiet thanks while she adjusts her backpack, embarrassment already spreading over her cheeks. I know she’ll want to pretend that nothing ever happened; that’s what I wanted when I was a teenage girl. Shane and I move back to our respective spots in the carriage, our roles as hero and sidekick now finished.

The train glides along, uninterrupted, in its usual peak-hour austerity. Shane disembarks a couple of stops later, then the girl. I stand, packed in amongst the other sardine-people, keeping my balance as we sway around the bends. It’s a quiet, desperate morning. I try not to grin too much.

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Helpful Men

Transports of Delight

Maybe I’m paranoid. But I don’t like sharing all the details of my journey with strange men on the train. And yet they seem to expect it.

I especially don’t feel like talking when I’m fresh off the plane in Melbourne, and I’m struggling along the train platform with my big red Samsonite that weighs two thirds of me. I despise both the suitcase and myself. Why do I always feel like the ‘expandibility’ zipper is a challenge to shove in more crap? Why did I pack two hairdryers? I have a problem.

So I’m pulling along my obese luggage, yanking it up the platform, and then the train arrives. And here’s the thing I never think about when I’m at home, packing my entire personal library (just in case I get the urge to re-read The Obernewtyn Chronicles again over the next two weeks) – I never think about the gap. The goddamn bloody gap between the platform and the train. It stymies me every time! The last time I went travelling with this suitcase, I was in London, heading to Heathrow. I had to change trains at Clapham Junction. Have you ever been to Clapham Junction? DON’T DO IT. It’s a train station that hasn’t been upgraded since the Edwardian era, and there are no elevators. Or escalators, or travelators. Nothing that ends with ‘ator’. Just miles and miles of stairs, and me with my obese suitcase and puny stick-figure arms. I have replayed the same scene many times over, in train stations across the world: me heroically trying to lunge into the train carriage and hoping the momentum will get my case across; my case getting inevitably wedged in the gap; some person reaching a meaty arm forward and hauling both the suitcase and me aboard. It’s humiliating.

But that is what happens to me, again, in Melbourne. Stuck in the gap. Someone hauls me aboard, and we’re away. I trundle into the train carriage, where there are plenty of empty seats. However, access to those seats is being blocked by two middle-aged women who are facing each other and chatting. Their legs are criss-crossing the aisle like they’re lounging at a cafe table by the seaside. I stand there, haggard with my bags, until they notice. They move their legs in a fraction, so I have just enough space to awkwardly lug my suitcase along sideways. As I pass, huffing with effort, one of the ladies remarks, “THAT’S a suitcase.” And they laugh, rawk rawk rawk. I smile and reply, “Yep, it’s a suitcase and a half!” The ladies’ eyes instantly narrow; I wasn’t meant to share in the joke. They turn away, back into their conversation.

I relax for the rest of the train journey, one hand resting on Big Red so it doesn’t wheel away. Using Google on my phone, I try to figure out how I’ll get to the backpackers’ hostel from Southern Cross Station. (I can’t remember a time before I had Google Maps on my phone, even though that time was less than three months ago.)

At Southern Cross, Big Red and I trundle out to the street and find the tram stop. The hostel’s website says “catch the tram line that runs to St Kilda,” so I wait for the tram that says “St Kilda”. The tram pulls up, I repeat my famed performance of Stuck In The Gap, and finally haul my luggage aboard. Once on the tram, I realise that the ticket machine is wedged further down the tram, hidden behind crowds of passengers. I can’t possibly get my suitcase down there. So I think, fuck it, I’ve suffered enough today; I’m riding outside of the law.

The tram skims through the city, and I gaze out the window while trying not to let my suitcase fall and crush anyone. After about twenty minutes, I start to get suspicious. I check my location on Google Maps. Ye gods! I’m miles away from the hostel – I got on the tram going in the wrong direction. Sigh. I thump off the tram at the next stop.

So now I’m standing on a tram platform somewhere in the wrong part of Melbourne, feeling pretty pissed off. All my wrongs are rising up to engulf me. I pedantically crosscheck the tram timetable with Google Maps, making sure the next tram I get on will be the correct one. Aha, I am on the right tram line, just going the wrong way. At last, I feel that I’ve got a handle on the situation. At this very moment, I am approached by a man.

He is not a young man. He is not a clean man. He is not the kind of man by which I would like to be approached at any time. He is, in fact, the kind of man you would see standing at the traffic lights wearing sweatpants and talking to himself. The expression on his face can only be described as a leer, and I am suddenly very aware that I am a young woman travelling alone with unmanageable amounts of luggage. The man walks towards me with a sort of stagger.

“What tram are ya looking for? Where are ya going?”

I straighten up to my very tallest and gently show him the flat palm of my hand, in a gesture that says “everything’s okay” and simultaneously “don’t come any closer”. I tell him with all confidence, “Thanks, but I’m fine.”

There it is, again. A strange man has approached a girl on public transport, trying to establish a rapport, and she has refused his advances. (Similar to my run-in with the Bogan on the Bus.) If he were genuinely an altruistic soul seeking to help, he would understand and back off with aplomb. But Sweatpants Man shows his true colours.

“Fine,” he spits angrily. “Just trying to help.” He stomps off, up the platform, growling under his breath.

Whenever I travel, I frequently second-guess my attitude towards strange men. Am I being unkind? Are they justified in being pissed off when I don’t respond to their advances with rapturous gratitude? But then I ask myself, why does he get so angry? If his motive in approaching me was really concern for my welfare, then he would be relieved to hear that I’m fine. If his motive is something else entirely … then I’m better off staying away from him.

The unknown men who help me haul Big Red onto trains – the meaty-armed saviours – they never need to know anything about my life. They never ask me questions. These men are the genuine altruists, the men who see a person who needs an extra hand, and provide it. Sometimes they offer help when I don’t need it, or when I’m determined to struggle with my bags alone. When I wave these men away, they don’t turn nasty. They don’t get angry, because they had no vested interest in helping me. They were – literally – just trying to help.

So maybe I am paranoid. I don’t like telling strange men where I’m headed, or what my plans are. But hey, at least I’m safe. And I know that if help is genuinely offered, I can accept it without fear.