Public Transport — University of Life

Ah, public transport, the university of life. A place where you’re forced to rub shoulders and various other body parts with the weird and wonderful characters that make up a city.

Many of us are not so au fait with public transport here in car-centric Canberra, where the population is so spread out and the frequency of bus services not always high enough to get us where we need to go on time. But for those of you who regularly catch the buses, you will know that public transport exposes you to much more ‘real life’ than you get when you’re scooting around town in your car.

My family and I were recently in Melbourne, where we naturally hopped on and off trams like monkeys swinging on boughs. For my children, the experience of ‘touching on’ and ‘touching off’ with their Myki cards (pretty similar to our MyWay cards, I believe) seemed to provide more entertainment than anything else we did on holiday—and that’s saying something, since we went to Luna Park and the Australian Open!

But my little monkeys were not the craziest animals in the zoo, let me tell you. Not by a long shot. On at least half of our tram trips, there were far more interesting exhibits to observe. Let me share some stories…


Tram Incident Number One: The Rehabilitated Druggie.

Members of this species think they can ask anything of anyone; that we are all just props, awaiting their next instruction. And their voices are VERY, VERY LOUD. At the tram stop near our hotel, one such person approached. ‘Where’s the timetable?’ she asked me. ‘Uh, I’m not sure,’ I said, looking around, desperate to help her locate the document before she turned on me. I needn’t have worried, as she never even looked at me, but commenced pacing up and down the area, talking to herself.

Once on the tram, she proceeded to make no less than three phone calls on her mobile, the first one of which was to the person she was to be meeting shortly, in the city. Aside from all the passengers being privy to the conversation, the tram driver was also called upon to participate in the call:

[to friend]: ‘yeah, I’m on the tram, near Federation Square. Okay, meet ya at Elizabef Street.’

[to tram driver]: ‘’scuse me, does this go to Elizabef street?’

Tram Driver: ‘No, you’ll have to get off at Collins Street, and walk down to Elizabeth.’

[to friend]: ‘she says I’ll have to get off at Collins and walk down to Elizabef.’

[to tram driver, interrupting his public service announcement ‘the next stop is…’]: ‘which way do I go from Collins: left or right?’

Anyway, you get the idea. When the phone call was finally terminated, she proceeded to explain to the tram driver why she had needed his help. ‘See, I’m born and bred Melbourne, but I’ve only been back two years and things’ve changed. That’s why I need some assistance.’ Okay, thanks for sharing. Next call was to her uncle, or should I say ‘the Bestest Uncle ever’ (her words), with whom she lamented the fact that the doctor was not going to be able to see her until next Tuesday. She was so engrossed in this phone call that when Collins Street finally turned up (after an eternity, it seemed to those of us sharing space with her), she had to be prompted by a fellow passenger to alight. Ah, peace and quiet restored.

Such as life is, though, full of coincidences, we were to run into this delightful young lady again during our travels that day. We popped into Target for some swimmers (one of the kids had left theirs at home) and lo and behold, from the boyswear section, I could hear a customer screaming ‘where are the boy’s singlets? Oh, for God’s sake, will someone help me?’ I’d recognise that voice anywhere.

Tram Incident Number Two: Chatty Lady.

When it comes to the big cities, I’ve always said that the people of Melbourne are friendlier than Sydneysiders. But when you’re not used to it—and some of us uptight Canberrans are not—it can come across as a little OTT; weird even.

From the moment we boarded the tram, her heart was open. I could see it in her eyes. She beckoned us over to the last remaining seat on the tram, next to her. In the time it took us to travel into the city (maybe six stops), I had willingly told her a fair portion of my life story. It all started with ‘kids back at school next week?’ Innocuous enough, but very effective in setting off my verbal diarrhoea.

Me: ‘No, no, we’re from Canberra and we go back a bit later than in Vic. We didn’t break up until just before Christmas, so I think that’s the difference.’

Chatty Lady: ‘Yes, it’s a long break, isn’t it? Have you been doing anything exciting, Kids?’

Kids then tell her about the people they’ve seen, the places they’ve been. Chatty Lady regales us with tales of her grandchildren, too. What can I say, it just happened. Maybe Melbourne is just like a big country town, after all.

This beautiful friendship ended with her going out of her way to escort us to the next tram stop, so we could get to the Museum. And I never saw her again…

Tram Incident Number Three: The Japanese Tourist.

Finally, we were on our way to the Museum. All was looking good. Very civilised. However, before two long, my two youngest kids were approached by a man wielding very large hands, which he placed suddenly and scarily on their shoulders. He performed a 180 on them, by which time I could see that he was setting them up for a photo shoot. Of course, I should have known. These guys love cute Aussie kids. I hate to imagine the photo that’s going to end up in his album, though: one smiley Japanese man flanked by two freaked-out and smileless white kids.

Tram incident number four: Harry high pants.

Travelling to Luna Park took the cake, though (and took to us to the cakes, actually—have you seen the cake shops in Acland Street? Magnifique!)

It was a longer tram trip than we’d had; all the way down to St Kilda. The tram was pretty packed when we got on, but the crowd seemed civil enough. Until he got on. In his blue, pilled track pants and greasy looking flanny, this guy resembled my kids’ Grandfather in age only, his shuffling gait and hacking cough scaring them more than a little, particularly when he lunged for the very same hand-rail that they were already glued to, trying to remain as vertical as possible on the bumpy ride.

I think it would have been alright if this guy had remained silent, rather than reciting to no-one in particular the character flaws of every person in his memory bank. One was an idiot, another was full of excrement, if you know what I mean, and several more fared much worse. The kids were aghast. Their ‘WTF Mummy?’ expression said it all.

Still, I suppose things could have been worse. At least we got Harry High pants and not Neville No-Pants, right?

Upon reflection (carried out from the safety of my wonderfully non-communal car), it suddenly dawned on me: my kids haven’t seen this before. They’ve lived a sheltered life. I’ve been ferrying them around in the old people mover since the time they were in capsules, the whole time refusing to mingle with the commoners. As I said, though, Canberra’s like that. Most of us get about safely ensconced in our cars, avoiding the riff-raff.

I suppose I could have tried harder to educate my children on the rich diversity of characters we have in our fair city. I could have let them picnic in Garema Place, near The Cushion, where they’d no doubt encounter countless loonies, or hang out at the Woden Bus Interchange for a while, maybe with a packet of cigarettes and spare change to hand out to approaching vagrants.

But even in these situations, one can always escape. On public transport, you’ve just got to put up with it and avoid the groggy-mouthed hobo and the overzealous tourist as best you can.

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

One Response to “Public Transport — University of Life”

  1. Reblogged this on Javmode.

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