I took a different tube today. It was a slightly earlier one than I normally get. Jubilee Line. It was 8.30am when I got on at West Ham and packed: prime time for those Essex commuters to be getting into for work at Canary Wharf, London Bridge and Waterloo. Apart from being slightly more crushed a stop earlier than usual, it was a fairly unremarkable journey. However, at Canning Town, a young man got on who rather irked me. I say “got on” but the carriage was heaving so he literally pulled himself on. He then pushed his way through a young woman about my height (5ft2inches) before pushing past me too with a look of steely determination.
My assumption was that one of us hadn’t spotted a bit of space in the central part of the carriage and he’d gone to fill it. But as I looked, I realised there simply wasn’t any space at all. The man stopped before fully passing me and kind of sucked up the space I had had. He was a big guy in terms of height and a rugby player physique. I shrank back into the man behind me before pushing forward into the woman in front of me. I’m seasoned commuter now but this was a bit too much of a personal space invasion.
I should be clear that people being jackasses on the tube is no new thing. There is a strange competitive mentality that comes over people that renders all other commuters fair game. People are busy, people are stressed, people are just trying to get home to see their families or get to work on time to pay the bills. You forgive a certain amount of jostling, being cut up, and generally not afforded the normal dignities of polite society.
But this guy’s behaviour intrigued me. The way he bowled through me and another equally short slight woman, to get a non-existent piece of space puzzled me. I couldn’t really get over him either because my face was pushed up against his back and I couldn’t reach my book. I noticed that at the next station he tried to position himself for the priorty seat, you know the one for disabled people, pregnant women and older folk.
Now I like to sit down on the tube, sometimes I need to because of a back/hip problem thing I have that’s flares up randomly, but I’m fairly reconclied to the fact that a Jubilee Line tube calling at Canary Wharf at 8.45am on a Tuesday is not going to have a seat for me. I was a little taken aback by the temerity of the man! Then someone behind me shifted and I was able to look at the man properly for the first time, all be it, the back of his head.
I’d realised he was tall when he got on. I hadn’t realised how tall. His head was grazing the tube carriage roof. His shoulders were slightly slumped and he was gently bending his knees. That’s not a comfortable stance and probably pretty painful after a few minutes. He got the priority seat during the mass exodus that is stopping at Canary Wharf. And do you know what? If he’d offered me the seat (as sometimes does happen) I would have told him to have it.
It made me think about how we expect people to fit themselves (in this case literally) into spaces that can’t hold them. Like the education system. And then these individuals have to create ways of adapting to it, ways that we may not always be able to understand or approve of. Actions that frustrate and annoy us, and in my case could have set the tone for my whole day. We then judge the individual for these actions, rather than asking: why are they doing that? The guy on the tube may have just been a jackass regardless of the height of tube train carriages, but the question was actually worth asking.