Monday, 9 August 2010

Notes from a Field Trip

I had to go out into the distant suburbs the other day. It was an hour long journey, first by train and then by bus. As I travelled further from the centre of the city, what I saw through the window changed. In the older inner suburbs there were attractive solid houses surrounded by generous gardens. When these gave way to newer developments, the houses became more uniform, the gardens smaller. Large highways heavy with traffic sliced through the spread of featureless streets. Looking down each one as we passed, I saw a succession of boxlike houses - some yellow brick, some brown brick, some well-kept, some scruffy, their tiny plots of land generally neglected, possibly because the people who live there have little time for anything except the long daily commute.

I was just wondering what you'd have to do to cope with life in these bleak, blank suburbs when the bus stopped and a young woman of about 24 got on. She was carrying nothing except a packet of cigarettes and a can of bacardi and coke. When the driver politely asked her if she knew that drinking alcohol on public transport was against the law, she said, 'Oh is it?' Then she drained the can, tossed it out the door and staggered to her seat. It was still only 11.20 am.

On the way back, a man who seemed to have chosen a similar approach to the existential problem was already onboard when I climbed up the steps. By the looks of him, he'd been dealing with suburban tedium for a few decades longer than the bacardi-for-elevenses female. For a start, her collection of tattoos was relatively meagre, whereas he was almost completely covered in the things. His face was the one visible part of him that remained unadorned, unless you regard as decorative the 3-cm-wide sores on his forehead, left cheekbone and just beneath his chin. His front teeth had gone missing at some point and he smelled as if he'd been marinated in alcohol and smokes for quite some time.

He was with a mate, whose face was hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt. The tattooed one was showing the hooded fellow photographs of a child:
'Look this one shows the bruises better,' he said, as he passed a picture over. His friend studied it and handed it back. 'Where's her mother?' he asked the toothless man. 'Oh she fucking tried to kill herself last week,' he answered. He gave his friend another picture. 'And they still won't fucking let me have her.' 'Oh that's so shit,' said the guy in the hoodie, 'you should get her, you should piss it in.'

I had to get off then, which I think I was grateful for, except that as I did so, two young women - in their mid-thirties or so - brushed past me, getting on.
'I can't believe it, I'm going to have a husband in a fucking wheelchair,' one was saying to the other. 'It's not what you signed up for,' her companion answered. 'It fucking isn't,' came the reply, 'I'm really,really pissed.'

On the train, things were calmer. Two old ladies in woolly hats spent twenty minutes conversing about almost nothing, providing a reassuring background of conversational white noise. 'I'm not an enormous chocolate eater,' one began, 'I like a bit of chocolate,' the other responded, 'in fact, I have a bit of chocolate if I have a cup of coffee in the afternoon.' 'Do you?' the other answered, 'Well, that is a very sane thing to do.'

Perhaps encouraged by this, her friend began to enlarge on her experiences in the chocolate arena. 'It was Joe's birthday a few weeks ago,' she said, 'I always give her a dvd of a series or a film, but Rose said to me, "Is that all you're giving her?" so I thought I'd better get something else, so we were down at Leigh's Chocolates, and I got her an owl with all the feathers and eyes beautifully marked on it.' 'It would be a pity to eat that, wouldn't it?' the smaller one interrupted. 'Yes, I thought so,' her friend answered, 'I couldn't eat it.' There was a pause while they digested this information. 'But I dare say she ate it,' the old lady added wistfully after a bit.

'I send over to England to get Bendick's Bittermints,' the other one revealed suddenly, contradicting her earlier claim that she didn't like chocolate. 'It's a bit of an expense but Mike's beady eyes light up when the package arrives.'

'All these houses look the same,' said her companion, clearly feeling chocolate had been thoroughly canvassed as a conversational gambit. 'In a few years, they'll have a heritage listing on them,' said the other. They fell silent then. I looked over after a minute or two and realised they'd lulled each other into a peaceful doze.

They woke with a start two stations further on. The carriage was full of shouting and laughter as a mass of schoolboys from an all-male Catholic school got on. Two stood near me, barely drawing breath for the first five or six minutes as they discussed complex technical specifications to do with a computer programme of some kind. Eventually they exhausted this subject and their conversation dried up briefly. They looked about at the other passengers and glanced out the window. Then, pushing his hair back from his eyes and looking into the middle distance, one of them said, a propos of nothing, 'I get really nervous round the opposite sex.' An expression of relief spread across his friend's face. 'Yeah, me too,' he said, with feeling.


  1. I do wish my buses were this interesting. Mine stay resolutely silent. Lovely post, full of touching observations.

  2. Just brilliant zmkc. Your best post yet

  3. Madame - your buses must be full of my father (see post called Throwing it all away or something similar)
    Nurse - I am planning to spend the rest of my life doing nothing except riding on public transport and reporting back on the wonderful variety of human life. It's so easy. You just sit there - it's cheaper than the theatre.

  4. one thing I found very different in Oz compared to england is that in Oz people did tend to make eye contact and talk to you a lot more. as an englishman, this mostly just freaked me out

  5. Yes, friendliness is quite hard to get used to.

  6. This is a brilliant piece of ethnography! I was there with you on the train, I heard those guys talking their umm... shite! And the ladies with woollie hats... yes, I was there listening to them, too.

    I could feel all the connections and see their lives. I've had exactly the same kind of train trip, when I used to live in Bowral and would drive up to Campbelltown to get on the train.

    Loved it, thanks for posting.

  7. Amanda - Many thanks. With the election coming up, I keep thinking of that Chaser running gag, where they do vox pops and then finish with the reminder 'This person votes'