Judging a book by its cover

There’s always the odd one(s) out. At 9:30 this morning on the train into the city, it was the couple with the baby. Something about them was different. If you were to have categorised everybody else in the carriage, they would have fallen into:

  • professionals going to work – many of the blokes in ties, I especially liked the Aboriginal art tie one guy was wearing
  • oldsters off into the city for the day

…and that’s about it. All the kids were in school, the uni students not awake before midday due to well deserved post-exam partying, the tourists not visible out in the burbs. Just workers and oldsters. And the couple with the kid.

The couple looked like they were in their teens. He was evidently of the persuasion who not only looks at Jim Beam caps in the market, but thinks buying and wearing them is a good idea too. He had that particular combination of goatee, sports shirt (a ventilated one making rather more of his torso visible than the world wanted to see), earring and short ponytail (the new mullet?) that attracts attention, rather than being inconspicuous. He was reading a Star Wars comic while attempting to balance a packet of cigarettes on his knee.

She looked barely old enough to be thinking about babies, let alone actually giving birth, yet the presence of the baby in the stroller next to them proved that she had done the latter at least. She was busy making herself up as the baby boy looked about the carriage, clutching a drink bottle. As the train rolled through the super-affluent inner suburbs, he gave up on the drink bottle and started wailing. She paused just long enough to toss a dummy in his lap, which he grabbed and put in his mouth as she continued making up.

The other passengers (including myself, I’m not going to claim innocence) looked on with some fascination. Not exactly staring, just looking in their direction more than elsewhere. Was it fascination, or horror that these apparently low-rent people should be on their train? Would they light up a cigarette and have to be told off? (No.) Did they have tickets? (Unknown.) Was that local paper balanced on top of the stroller the Frankston Standard? (No, it was the Bayside Leader). How could they be that young and possibly be good parents? Would they do anything that demonstrably showed that they weren’t? (They didn’t.)

I wonder if they noticed they were being looked at? Is it right to stare at people just because they fit into a different demographic from everyone else present? We were on a train for chrissake, not an exclusive club, expensive restaurant, or art gallery.

I’d love to say I don’t judge by appearances, don’t make assumptions about people, don’t try and slot them into cliched categories unfairly, don’t stare at those different to me. But it seems I sometimes do. One of the perils of being human, I suppose.

PS. 9/12/2003. Before you comment: There has been some confusion over this entry. It was not meant as a sneering piss-take of a couple I saw on the train that morning. It was to examine the built-in prejudices of the rest of us (including, unfortunately, me) on the train – the assumptions made when we see someone dressed or acting a certain way. You are right if you feel offended at some of the terms used: that’s the whole point.

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.