London 2014: Tube Stories, Part I

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Riding the tube about London is always interesting to me, though I can see where it would be a drag to someone who had to do it every day for the rest of his life. The trains can be crowded, hot, and dirty. When the tubes are full it’s impossible not to get swept along in the surging tide of people changing lines or going out to street level. Some people tend to ride the tube with their eyes closed, or listening to music on ear buds, or reading a folded newspaper or an e-book, just staring at their feet,or other people’s feet—which calls to mind the final injustice endured by Seymour Glass in J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” when he accuses a woman in an elevator of staring at his feet before committing suicide. On the other hand, there are plenty of interesting people to look at on the Tube, musicians performing in the tunnels, and the rock and sway of the rhythm of life in an incredibly large, crowded, and interesting city.

After three weeks of daily tube life, I haven’t felt any serious sense of danger yet, until one evening last week, and even then it wasn’t so bad. For one thing, there’s just no guns here, or the likelihood of someone having one is extremely small. As our director Lauren says, “I like my chances of being able to outrun a knife.” In addition, the city is under constant video surveillance. There are cameras everywhere, and signs notifying people that CCTV is in operation. I see a car parked on Great Russell street regularly with a CCTV sign on the door and some guy sitting inside the car. Exactly what he’s doing in regards to cameras I’m not sure, but once I noticed he had his shoes off and was sitting there in his sock feet. Lauren told us about some riots that took place a couple of years ago where the authorities pulled people into trial, showed them destroying property on video, and completed the prosecution on the spot.

One evening last week Lisa and the girls and I were riding a not very crowded car. There were probably ten or fifteen people in the whole car. Lisa and Julia Rose took seats near the end of the car, while Stella and I leaned against the end of the car, on either side of the door (that joins one car to the next) where there is space to half-way sit on a little padded ledge. An African man got on at one stop and took the space between Stella and me. She was reading a book and trying to be inconspicuous, as she does often in crowded places, being painfully shy. The guy was dressed in slacks and had a light jacket. He wanted to draw attention to himself. He was drinking from a pint can of Fosters beer, holding an unpeeled banana, and he made a show of pulling a pint bottle, half empty, of some liquor out of his jacket pocket and shaking it to judge how much was left. He said something in a language I didn’t recognize, a sing-songy “oollah-boolah-boolah” sound (and I’m not trying to be racially insensitive here). He also tried to get the attention of another black man sitting across the aisle from Lisa and Julia Rose, but the man, dressed in a suit, was having none of it and ignored the guy. He made a bigger show of waving his banana around, drinking his Fosters, and Stella went deeper into her book. I was standing next to the guy and watching, and I probably should have been looking more at my shoes rather than at him, but I wanted him to know that I was paying attention. As we were getting closer to our stop, the guy started talking to Stella, so I told him “That’s my daughter,” meaning leave her alone. He said something back, but I couldn’t understand it and I said again that Stella was my daughter so he should leave her alone. He got mad, called me “Boss”—it sounded like Baass—and dismissed me with a downward wave of his hand. He went back to fiddling with his banana and I kept watching with what I assume is my I’m-paying-attention-and-I’m-not-fooling-around-so-leave-us-alone look, because when the tube doors opened at our stop, he blocked the door and mocked my expression, which on him was a very unattractive—and honestly not really very threatening—looking-down-the-nose frown, hyperbolized to be sure, but still not particularly dangerous looking look. (It might help to tell the reader that I’m 53 years old, bald, softer in the middle than I’m comfortable admitting, and my mental image of myself stopped aging somewhere in my late 30s to early 40s—when I liked the way I looked a lot better—so I’m always a bit surprised to see myself in a mirror, or being mocked by someone in a subway.) I said, “You’re blocking the door, buddy,” and pointed behind him, then walked past him with my family. On the tube landing I stopped to make sure I had a wife and two daughters safely off the train, then waited for everyone to get ahead of me, which is how I walk in big cities and crowds because Lisa is good with big city navigation and I’m obsessive about watching 12 and 14 year old daughters to make sure they don’t get separated from the pack. I watched the guy follow us off the tube, but it looked for a moment he had forgotten us and was on to his next adventure of the evening, but then as we started walking our way out to Tottenham Court Road, he made a deliberate point of following us. I, of course, made a point of making sure he knew that I knew that he was following us, and it went on for several twists, turns, steps, and escalator rides of the “way out” tunnel, before Lisa smartly sidestepped and stopped in a busy corridor, and we watched the guy head on out past us into the London night.

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