Thursday 08:47, Somewhere on the Northern Line, London
I often forget how peculiar the morning commute is. Quintessentially a big city phenomenon, most of us go through the motions of this odd ritual more out of necessity than anything else. Every morning, like clockwork. For over a decade my ‘commute’ was on a bicycle and consisted of a pleasant, leisurely ride along London’s Regents Canal and Park, although cycling through the latter was not without risk as I precariously dodged the police who were trying to fine good and honest folk trying to get to work.
Like so many other big city phenomena, the morning commute brings together complete strangers who never talk, sometimes touch (by mistake) and whose eyes tend to fleetingly meet, only to quickly and perhaps embarrassingly look away.
Every morning we go through the same motions of unacknowledgement, pretending we don’t exist beyond our preoccupied selves, keeping strangers as strangers. It’s sad if you think about it. It reminds me of my time at the Medical Research Centre’s mouse genome hub in Harwell, outside Oxford. There, busy scientists were scurrying away, looking down their microscopes, working their pipettes, breaking the boundaries of science but forgetting the very human social traits of light conversation, smiling and acknowledgement.
‘I don’t care if nobody says hi back to me‘, exclaimed Anna-Maria, the Argentinian DPhil student. ‘I will continue to say hi until one day, maybe one day, someone will take their eyes off the ground, look at me and say hi back‘.
Not that I profess we should do this during rush hour at Old Street, where zig zagging your way to the ticket barriers requires focus and determination, and where a polite smile would cost you your place in the queue or worse, you’d be mistaken for a freak.
More often than not it crosses my mind who my fellow commuters are, where they are going and why; what their names are, what they do for a living, if they have siblings or even a favourite colour. Most of us appear lost in thoughts. Perhaps thinking what the new day ahead will bring; perhaps not thinking at all, but daydreaming away, subconsciously contributing to the great unacknowledgment.
This week I observed seven fellow commuters, standing (she was unlucky) and sitting (they were lucky) opposite me. They probably have nothing in common, apart from sharing a ride to work and being observed by me. All in the name of talent artistique.
Poem on the Underground
Standing, casually leaning
Handbag in the fold of her elbow
Staring out into the void, blindly
He’s reading her newspaper
She doesn’t notice
Sitting, ankled crossed
Listening to music, tapping away
Like her own silent disco
Putting on make up, lipstick, mascara
Curling her eyelashes with what looks like
A medieval torture instrument
Arms crossed, feet together
Looking down at his phone,
Glasses sliding down his nose
Catching up on work, playing games
Some wearing shoes, some wearing boots
Some carrying a rucksack, some with a designer hand bag
Or carrying a brown paper bag with an empty cup of coffee and a half eaten brioche roll
Yawning, eyes closed
Picking his nose
Getting sleep out of his eyes