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.
In my mid-20s I developed a fear of flying and as a result, the interstate train was preferred mode of transport. I took the Sydney the Melbourne day time train more times than I can remember, watching the slow slide from southern highlands to the midpoint of Albury Wodonga to the slightly drier Victorian hamlets leading towards Melbourne.
I caught a train to Northern Queensland once for my grandmother’s funeral. It took four days there and back. I shared an overnight cabin with an Italian woman who demanded I explain to her why Australian men were so badly dressed and such poor conversationalists. It’s the only time I have ever felt defensively patriotic.
I caught a train to Bryon Bay once, sitting across the aisle from Robbie, who nursed an open bottle of metho and spent almost the entire nine hours recounting his life to the hostages seated around him. Just realised from prison, Robbie was apparently making his way up to Darwin, ready to ‘surprise his missus’. He would pass out from time to time, slumped sideways but still clutching his bottle. He fell into the centre aisle at one stage. The conductor, who would was pass through every two hours to collect our rubbish, stepped over him oblivious.
Nothing tested my love of public transport more than workday commuting during pregnancy. In a crowded bus or train people cope with the invasion of personal space (the bum cheeks brushing past the face, the elbow in the side, the backpack in the back of the head) by looking down, away, into the pages of a freebie newspaper or gossip magazine. And so no one sees you lean, breathless and sweaty, against the wall or struggle to keep your foothold. Worse than that, perhaps, is when the bus driver stops the vehicle, stands up and demands some shocked teenager wearing a death metal t-shirt give up his seat for you.
The common refrain I hear in the research we do on attitudes to public transport is that it is either too expensive or too inconvenient. And indeed there have been times when I have sat on a train for half an hour, sweating in a tunnel or fuming on the Harbour Bridge. I frequently wonder why it should take a full hour and two forms of public transport to get from the edge of Sydney's CBD to the centre of North Sydney (a mere 15 minutes in peak hour traffic).
All the complaints about the problems with public transport are legitimate but I wonder whether in fact it is the public in public transport that irks some people. For me, it’s the public that keep me on it.
I have run out of words for the lessons I’ve learned in the back of a taxi.
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