For most, abandoning the commute has proven the most popular side-effect of 2020’s bizarre bat binge debacle. The government has taken to yelling at people to go back to the office, admonishing that we will otherwise have the mass unemployment of Pret workers on our collective conscience. Yet home we stay, reluctant as teenagers. lurking in our beds until 8.55am, staggering down to zoom from the waist up, kindly sparing colleagues our hairy legs or stripy PJs, taking tea from favourite mugs, knocking off to watch The Chase, do dinner for a reasonable hour, have actual conversations with spouses and children – why, what a coup, what larks! Give that up to surrender £800 a month, 4 hours a day, to rub against a bundle of reluctant sweaty strangers? Nah, you’re alright, cheers. The shoe menders and sandwich makers can upskill.
And yet. I would like to make a plea for the commute. As the weird months wear on, I find myself missing it. My daily trek saw a set of pack animals, made anew each morning, pushing and panting to be top dog. Each commuter an actor in his own private drama, yet also unwilling captive audience to the rest. The snatched phone conversations, the slight whiff of last night’s booze or curry. The faces and ankles and buttocks and deodorants you get to know and expect, even sniff after, wistfully, when they take their annual leave. Satchel or sports bag, tablet or ink pen: those tiny microcosm displays of status, or brazen indifference to status, which is often more alluring; the silent mini-dramas that unfolded each morning, choice of seat companion, fellow traveller, someone to snore against.
I take it we are all familiar with the yes/no game? It’s simple: you size up a stranger and decide in an instant whether or not you’d shag them. Useful for passing time on tube journeys and supermarket queues, fun to play with a friend. Deciding whether to spend an hour or more nestled against a stranger feels to be a variation of it. I can’t help but feel bereft when a stranger glances at the empty seat beside me then strolls on past to look for a more salubrious travel companion, even though I desperately don’t want a travel buddy reading my texts, breathing my air, taking up the space where I want to put my handbag. Essentially, I don’t want anyone, but I want everyone to want me. The quintessential writer’s curse.
The double seat is the Holy Grail of rush hour commuting. Those trying to defend their annexed territory often do so by sitting in the aisle chair, the tantalizing clearing of bare flocked fabric by the window often protected only by a carrier bag of empty lager tins and a half eaten West Country pasty. But this is a more than adequate defence to put off all but the most determined marauder. To engage the occupying commuter in conversation, to catch an eye, to dare challenge them with the rhetorical, oh so English question, ‘Excuse me! Is anyone sitting there?’ No. Such a provocative public confrontation is unthinkable to many. Those unwilling to engage in such physiological warfare quickly retreat to the vestibule to stand, sulk and lick their wounds, the occasional glance of pity thrown in their direction by their seated peers.
If that sounds ghastly, I suppose it was, a bit. But it’s peculiarly human to miss the ghastly. And beyond that, I miss those peers – or rather, I miss the chance to reinvent myself anew each morning, to appear new and interesting to strangers. Formerly the prospect of this harmless pleasure gave my days colour. No one at home is impressed by my job; no, nor at work. They know too much about it to find me impressive, ever. Pre-covid, however, the commute offered the chance to try on a new personality each day. A shy smile that told of sexual promise, perhaps; the frenzied keyboard tapping that indicated tremendous industry and importance. The difficult novel placed by the coffee to indicate brains, the pen working its way slowly over a thick creamy page. The huge headphones and flickering audio lines on a screen that marked me out as arty, creative, and therefore cool, cooler than a spreadsheet, surely, or would only other arty types assume so? Maybe I over imagine and overstate my own aloof allure. Yet imagining myself briefly intriguing was often the highlight of my day, and I’ve had to swop it for the certain knowledge no one finds me even slightly interesting. There’s Melissa writing those stupid boring things nobody reads, again; maybe we should stage an intervention. No, I doubt my family even give me that much thought. There’s Melissa, why is she sitting where I want to be rather than cooking?
What do they amount to, all those carefully constructed social cues and signals, and what does it mean to lose them? When we’re surrounded by people who are sick of our predilections; when we’re stuck with the personalities and expectations we’ve endured for years? It feels like a bereavement. I’ve lost the pleasure and possibility of promise. I miss the stories we tell ourselves, and want others to intuit about us.
That astonishing intimacy with strangers for a tiny fragment of time each day felt conducive to creativity too. He looks tired, she did her mascara in a rush: the imagined stories we weave around each of them, the assumptions we make, often without noticing: he’s put upon at home, she’s close to screaming point. The man tapping into his phone all morning long, blushing and squirming, the recipient surely not the haggard harridan who dropped him at the station.
I did most of my writing on trains, and much of my reading. Lockdown saw me read less, create less, procrastinate more. At home there’s always someone burbling away at me, child or spouse, someone wanting something doing for them, mainly that I listen to their burble, and worse, respond to it; or even if not, there are too many ways to distract yourself, those niggly jobs that only seem alluring when you’ve something hard to write – drawers to tidy, cuffs to iron, ovens to clean. Trains – if you pack properly for your commute, using those great wells of motivation that seem so much deeper before the moment they’re required – offer no such distractions. There’s you, and your scabby laptop, and the wifi is so lousy you might as well write something. Your fellow commuters’ smells and coughs and verbal tics seem that much less infuriating when woven into your work. These are humans who can inform your creativity, rather than distract from it, because they have no claim upon you. And as the covid debacle progresses, these are the only humans I truly miss. The ones for whom I could be any version of myself, and better yet, a different version daily.