Until recently, I had never owned a car.
I feel this is a notable fact considering I am in my early 40s, and on a reasonable income. I know how to drive. But over the years, I just resisted the step towards car ownership. I always felt that if I had one, I would never be able to live carless again. As a result I spent nearly 25 years on public transport of one form or another.
I recall my first solo bus ride at 13 years of age. My parents dropped me off at the stop nearest our home and told me to ride the bus until its final destination at Circular Quay. I watched them as they tailed me in their Volvo station wagon. I got off and they were waiting there for me. My mother insisted I wash my hands as soon as possible.
Yet soon I was catching buses everywhere. As a teenager and in my 20s, the bus ride was always a time of contemplation – about what I was moving towards or away from. Time for the build up or the internal debrief. I don’t think I would have read as many books as I have if it wasn’t for those long bus rides to different work places, meeting places, friend’s places.
In my 30s, the bus was a chance to eavesdrop, to watch different people negotiate their space on a seat or their passageway towards an open door. To watch the obvious discomfort when someone smelly or drunk or plainly disturbed shuffled towards the empty seat beside them.
As a professional commentator on the mind and mood of Australians, I find it almost impossible not to use the bus or train ride as an opportunity to conduct a fleeting focus group. I look around me to see what people are reading (Harry Potter, The Secret, Almost French, Scar Tissue, Twilight among the trends that have come and gone). Which advertisements do people notice, chuckle at, turn away from?
One time, in the midst of writing a report about the world view of 13 and 14 year olds, I was catching a train from the city to Bondi Junction when a gang of year 8 girls tumbled onto the seats on front of me. One of them was in mid-complaint about her history teacher.
‘She, like, got so annoyed with me that I went over to borrow something from Stephanie. She totally yelled at me to sit down. So I said to her, ‘Mrs Johnson, I am in Year 9. I have rights’.”
Then they moved onto the fertile topic of parents who embarrass them by smoking cigarettes, especially in front of their friends. “I got so angry at my mum the other day, she was smoking again. So I said to her ‘Smoke yourself to death, bitch’.”
That brief encounter stays with me more than all the data on early teenagers ever will.