The easiest way to get into trouble in London is to break the escalator rule. We were warned by friends and family before moving to London about the escalator rule; stand on the right, or walk on the left. We stuck to this advice and have avoided any issues on the escalator, if only I could say the same of tube station stairs. There is no rule for stairs, which allow passengers to travel both up and down. Occasionally they are divided in the middle by a railing in the middle and signed ‘keep left’ or ‘keep right’, but generally there is no guidance. Should you stay right like on the escalator or should you stay left like the traffic on the road?
For nearly two years I ducked and weaved up and down stairs all over the city without incident, then came the fateful day when I descended into Paddington station, keeping to the right. A woman ascended the stairs toward me. I had a vision of being stuck in the ‘both step left, both step right’ dance with the lady and to avoid this I decided not to go left or right, but continue straight ahead. Unfortunately she had the same idea and we ended up face to face, her expression telling me that she was not amused. In an effort to rescue the situation, I flattened myself against the wall and made a sweeping gesture with my hand.
“After you” I said and gave her my most charming smile.
“Of all the unbelievable arrogance” roared the woman, shoving past me.
I could hear her continuing to shout abuse at me as she climbed, and I hurried down the stairs away from her. So the rule for stairs is, go left, go right, go straight ahead, but if you see a woman approaching with a face like thunder – get the heck out of her way.
Down on the platform, a blast of hot stale air heralds the approach of the tube. The doors open and hopefully everyone obeys the second rule of tube travel; let passengers off before boarding. If everyone does this there is an orderly flow of passengers like a wave rolling onto the shore then retreating out to sea. However, all too often there is one idiot who tries to push their way through the flow of disembarking passengers like a salmon swimming upstream. If only there were a grizzly bear waiting for them with open jaws.
Once in the carriage, there are often more people then seats. I have witnessed great consideration in tube carriages, with passengers giving up their seats for the elderly, women who are pregnant or with young children, or so a passenger can sit on the end of a row by a pram, or even a suitcase. I’ve seen passengers offer to swap seats so that friends or a couple can sit together. Just witnessing these acts of kindness can cause people to drop their ‘tube mask’, the flat blank facial expression replaced with a smile. It is not all heart-warming though, some young men and women seem constantly engaged in a game of musical chairs and will elbow people out of the way to get a seat, or sit intently studying their magazine to avoid eye contact with the pregnant woman with the ‘baby on board’ badge standing in front of them rubbing her lower back. The ‘baby on board’ badges are available from London Underground Customer Services and are a fantastic idea as they remove any ambiguity as to whether the lady is pregnant, or rotund. They allow passengers to avoid both the inconsiderate act of not giving up a seat to pregnant woman, and the embarrassment of offering a seat to a lady, indicating that you think she is pregnant, when in fact she is not.
Tube travel can also provide you with unexpected moments of camaraderie with strangers. Standing areas sometimes have a pole in the middle for passengers to hold. I was travelling on the tube one day with a rather scary looking youth using this as his personal leaning pole, forcing a lady to hold on behind his neck, and me to hold on just below his bottom. We exchanged a look communicating that we both thought he was an inconsiderate jerk, but didn’t say or do anything. Everything was fine until he shifted unexpectedly, causing my hand to come into contact with his bottom. He spun around, but took in my small size and frightened expression, apparently decided it wasn’t intentional and turned back around. The lady and I exchanged a wide eyed relieved look, sharing the experience without either us saying a word.
Tube travel can be an assault on the senses. I spent one morning commute to work unsure if the smell wafting through the carriage was vomit or a lunch containing Parmesan cheese. On other trips I have discovered that deodorant and toothpaste are not daily use items for some people, whilst others douse themselves with perfume producing a scent so strong that it travels on in the carriage after they have disembarked. Hearing also suffers on the tube, inevitably the passengers with headphones turned up loud enough for you to hear their music clearly have poor musical taste.
Tube passengers with backpacks can cause havoc. It is a case of out of sight, out of mind for the backpack wearer on the tube, with the passenger moving as if they not double their actual depth, squashing and sideswiping other passengers with their canvas companion. I imagine they would remember they were wearing a backpack if you were to unzip it and begin extracting items to give yourself some space to breathe, but I am yet to test this theory. It is often a backpack wearer who squeezes themselves onto an already full carriage, their backpack obstructing the doors and preventing them from closing. Rather than stepping off, waiting a few minutes for the next tube and letting the rest of us continue on our way, this person will just push forward all the harder until the doors close behind them. Oh how I long to push them off.