Sociology on the 10pm train

I have an idea for any budding sociologists. Take a train late at night. You’re guaranteed to meet a cross section of people from all walks of life, the most obvious being the 10% or so who are the drifting type – the human flotsam, apparently barely surviving urban life, because they’re drunk, high, stupid, or a combination of these.

I was waiting for the train home last night at Richmond. As I came up the ramp to the platform, a woman called out and asked if I had a cigarette. She was short, young, blonde, and not particularly healthy looking. Arguably the last thing she needed was a cigarette. I’m one of the 75% of the population who doesn’t smoke, so I didn’t have one anyway. Behind her was a bedraggled bloke, the type of person for whom the word "bedraggled" could have been especially concocted. His eyes were heavy, his hair greasy and messy, his clothes dirty and unkempt, but not at all in a stylish and laidback kind of way – more in a too poor to afford a visit to the laundromat kind of way. And they had a big pile of luggage. Maybe six suitcases and assorted associated plastic bags full of stuff. Weird. I walked past and sat down further down the platform.

There was a bloke with his bicycle, a bag, and – this threw me a bit – a plastic coat hanger. Okay, fair enough. Across on the opposite platform, a slightly chubby bloke was smoking – he looked like a workman on his way home. A few other people were around, waiting for the train. Due in 3 minutes, the sign said.

The woman and man came walking up the platform. She looked over to the workman with his cigarette. "Excuse me sir, can you spare a cigarette?" "Last one", he replied. "Oh please", she implored. And then she came out with the line that if not the oldest one in the book, is certainly in the top 5. Nobody believes it anymore. Any self-respecting beggar should know that. She blew her credibility completely.

"I’ve just had my handbag stolen!"

Oh PLEASE. The workman obviously wasn’t born yesterday, and maintained his unsympatheticness. "Go to the police then", he replied. She didn’t have a satisfactory answer for that one.

Meanwhile her male friend, shuffled along the platform after her, a small pile of coins in his hand. He shuffled over to the bench where the bicycle man and I were sitting, and in a dreary voice said "Please sir, would you have five cents?" I wasn’t sure who he was addressing, but bicycle man said something scathing, and I just ignored him. He shuffled on, the woman shouting after him, "No! Not like that! Don’t harrass them!", and apparently seeing him go up to someone deep in conversation on a mobile phone, "No, not the man on the phone!"

Train due in 1 minute, the sign said. She walked back towards her bags, pleading one more time to the guy across the platform for a cigarette. Another claim her handbag had been stolen (the *whole* handbag, apparently, not just some of it). Similar reply. She skulked off back to her bags. The bloke was still shuffling along the other way, asking for money.

Ah, the train pulled in. At last. I boarded and found a seat to myself, hoping they wouldn’t get in the same carriage. The bloke ran down the platform (frankly I was surprised he could manage anything more than a shuffle) shouting something which sounded like "Muuuummm!" I didn’t expect that, either.

The train reached Caulfield, and we all got off to transfer to a bus because of trackworks. We all tramped over to the bus, and got on. A few raucous people who must have been in a different carriage on the train also got on. I thought the odd couple had been left behind for a minute, when shuffling bloke came shuffling down and put a huge bag onto the bus, and asked the driver to wait, as there were more bags. A couple of good raucous samaritans offered their help, and a minute later they all came back to the bus, along with the woman and two train staff, carrying huge bags.

The woman had managed to scrounge a cigarette off someone, and was smoking it. She and the bloke were squabbling about something, and the train people told them to sort it out later, that the bus was about to leave. The bloke and the good samaritans put all the bags onto the bus, and the bloke then got out to share the cigarette with her. The bus driver was itching to go by this point, as I think were the rest of us. One of the train staff blokes shouted at them to put the cigarette out and get on the bus. This they did, and finally we were off, and soon I was home.

Ah, the joys of the late night train. It brings one again to the conclusion that (and I still don’t know who originally said it) the only thing wrong with public transport is the public.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.