What is it about public transport that turns normally reasonable people into inconsiderate sloths? And what is it about crowded city footpaths that has made getting from A to B the pedestrian equivalent of roller derby?
I live in Macedon, on the regional fringes of Melbourne, surrounded by stately gums, an abundance of colourful birdlife and no pushing and shoving. With infrequent cause to visit the Big Smoke when I do chance to visit I rather resemble the country mouse in awe of the unfamiliar surrounds.
It being almost six years since I last worked in the city there is much that is new to take in. Melbourne’s cabs, for example, are no longer universally yellow, as they had been since the 1990s when then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett proclaimed that it must be so. That’s a change for the better; the mandatory yellow was a bit drab.
The former Media House, on the corner of Collins and Spencer streets, which was once my place of work, sits as handsomely as ever, ‘The Age’ masthead still emblazoned across its façade. Media House was originally intended as a monument to Fairfax’s grand plans for the 21st Century. It remains a monument, but to inept management and the demise of what was once one of the world’s great publishing houses.
Media House is situated across the road from Southern Cross Station which, like the rest of the city, is teeming with impatient throngs of humanity. Anyone who makes the mistake of pausing to gather one’s thoughts will find himself gathered up by an unforgiving – and unstopping – heaving organism dressed in track suits and backpacks (more about them later).
The march of the office turtles
I no longer have cause to wear my adored Zegna and Hugo Boss suits, but I weep at what has become of the suit. The new fashion is for jackets, much too tight for my taste, sitting just below the belt line. Millennial fundaments as far as the eye can see. Those who wear ties favour featureless hues but most prefer to go sans which would seem to obviate the necessity for a suit.
While ties are optional, backpacks seem to be de rigueur whatever one’s station. These are my old enemy the office turtles, ferrying goodness knows what on their backs, as they clog city thoroughfares. In the 1970s and 80s, the busy man about town was more likely to carry a “manbag”, in essence purses with wrist-straps. In most cases, these men sported unspeakable perms, thus the office poodle was the precursor of the office turtle. The point of raising this unedifying fashion trend, which died the unlamented death it deserved, is this: what is it that needs to be stored in backpacks the size of filing cabinets where once a man-purse sufficed?
The most annoying office turtles – male and female – are those who insist on wearing their backpacks on crowded trains, oblivious to the discomfort of bare-back passengers. As it is, trains are crowded and clearly not designed for the throngs they must carry, but when half of those passengers are wearing backpacks the trial of the peak-hour commute is magnified many times over.
Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.
Inconsiderate office turtles blithely take up the space of two commuters and as they make their way to their desired spot on the train seated passengers will score a backpack-biff to the bonce while those who are standing will be rudely shunted aside by the reinforced office turtle.
The backpack wearers who affect a nod to civility are in the habit of removing their backpacks with furious abandon, in the process knocking hapless commuters off their already unsteady feet. It’s the public transport version of 10-pin bowling.
Unfortunately, the office turtles are not the only trial to be endured on public transport.
Takeaway food-ferals have turned trains into troughs on wheels. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, any time of the day, filling carriages with the pungent odour of Kentucky Fried Chicken, curries, dips from hell and chips soaked in vinegar. It‘s also fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. So if the smells don’t get you, a shower of latte might.
All these travails amount to one sorry fact: commuter travel has become intolerable.
What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters.
On a city train recently a middle-aged married couple, apparently overseas tourists, lit up cigarettes. The indignant cries of “You can’t smoke on the train!” reverberated throughout the carriage. A group of students tucking into some of the Colonel’s finest watched impassively and without hindrance. The battle is lost.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He has been known to carry a backpack but has never worn one in public. He rants on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher