The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In the station at the Metro: Ezra Pound 1914
In England, we discuss the weather but don’t like being in it. In London, we talk about the tube and our ‘ghastly commutes’, rarely acknowledging that anyone else in this sardine tin is also a human. As small talk, this is inane and sometimes funny. However, this repeated, even necessary de-sensitisation to our environment makes us aliens to the place we are trying to live and stops us seeing people as people.
Ezra Pound captured the Paris Metro in two lines in his 1914 poem. I have filled three notebooks attempting to lessen the alienation of the tube. Each morning 7.30 to 8.05, each evening as rush hour hits. I write about people, those in my life and those right in front of me. I observe them and try to imagine who they are, where they have come from and how their life is. This is not in order to judge the man whose Lynx armpit I was pressed into on the Northern Line, but because this dissociated way of encountering people as we move about the streets is more alienating than we think. My friend terms this ‘Londonitus’, a gradual disconnection that seeps into you on returning to London. It rids you of your smell, your smile to people that you pass and builds a protective bubble between you and the outside world. I say this as someone from the countryside where you greet every person that you pass, even from the car.
When I first arrived in ‘the big smoke’, I did not know the way to commute. The set paths that people take, turning each day at the same spot, passing through the same shoal streaming from the escalator without breaking pace. I stood at the crossing point, an obstacle to be manoeuvred, amazed at how this regularity, this anonymity was possible. These individuals who must have come from different places, be thinking about different things, now too many faces in the crowd.
I remember being raw, overwhelmed by how similar it was to Metropolis, how the more I stared the less I was able to pick out separate expressions or personalities. The mass moved in unison without pause. I had to prepare myself to face it, harness the energy to be swept up into the torrent before being spat out the other end.
I am now a seasoned commuter, moving through the paces without thinking, pushing into the space, carving my path relentlessly, gaze fixed, forward focus. However, on the mornings I opt for this technique when I arrive my vision is still blinkered. In the 53 minutes of concerted disregard bordering on oblivion to those around me, I forget what it is like to encounter a stranger or meet a friend. There are separate worlds, one where etiquette asks that you acknowledge those around, and another where it demands that you don’t. When we don’t encounter strangers, we forget that they are just people and become suspicious of motives and potential danger wary of every smile or glance. It takes a moment to readjust before I can bring myself out of the deep interiority of the commute to a position of openness and engagement with everyone else.
pseudo-scientific evolutionary theories might argue that it is our instinct to interact with a stranger to assess whether they are friend or foe. On the Tube everyone is necessarily a potential foe. Sometimes I test this, try to make contact catch eyes, smile- that’s when I’m feeling brave. More often I accidentally stare before catching eyes realise I’ve been staring and hurriedly avert my gaze before they speak to me.
Last week I had to cart a washing rack the length of the Victoria line- a clown piece in itself. No one seemed remotely phased, they actively left me too it and made extra space, I didn’t want extra space. I wanted someone to laugh at the idiocy of the situation, or call me out for having the audacity to get on at rush hour with this broken piece of metal. No one flinched. When I saw, someone carrying a life size cardboard cut-out of themselves I did exactly the same… must be a strange person I mused along with the rest of the carriage.
We have the capacity to turn almost anything into background noise. The main street with ambulances racing past and heavy traffic used to distract me. I could not block out the noise and each siren woke me up. Now I find it calming. It has faded into the background a gentle murmur. The same is true of visual stimulus zoning out is a coping mechanism. We cannot encounter that many people as people. It is too exhausting. The streets of London are a jungle to weave our way through, people become obstacles who you would dodge in the same way as a post box.
Perhaps it is only a problem if we spend the day in half-interactions, small talk and these anonymous encounters on the tube, pressed into unknown bodies. We come home and look at screens, or perhaps talk to someone, but through white headphones where those we love sit somewhere between our ears.
I write about individuals on the tube so that I keep seeing. So that I do not stop noticing the particular ways of being that each one has. I do not want to use the Metro or my podcasts to habitually zone out to those with whom I share a ride. I fill the pages with mundane moments, with people I recognise who are often on the same train. Sometimes it is the nicest part of the day.