After talking to Kerrie this weekend about my short time in England, and after gazing longingly at my map of the London Underground, I was reminded of this story that I had written while watching a science movie during a sub job a few years ago. I can still remember the exact smells and sounds of my first ‘tube’ trip — from Heathrow Airport to the Tower of London.
It was like stepping into a science fiction novel. Except I saw no aliens or space ships.
On second thought, I did see aliens and space ships.
Around me Londoners swarmed and swelled, each individual body searching for a spot closer to the tracks, milling around like a pack of ants. Ants with suitcases. And scowls.
Their cranky nature was due to two things: the lack of standing room in this Heathrow Underground station waiting room and the apparent ignorance of the London Transport System to fix the problem. But all together, they were what they were – a mass of travelers, people who had just been somewhere and now were returning (or arriving) somewhere else. And while the places they had just been were all in one way similar – they all had water, land, air, green things, life – each place was so vastly different. They all just happened to be in the same place at the same time waiting for the same tube train. I can’t think of anything stranger or more alien than that.
These tube trains! With a great whoosh a train came rocking into the station; the spaceships arrive on two rails in these parts. The waiting hoards began to get off and on. Each customer knew where they needed to be, what to do, where to get off. Except me. I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had been so caught up in being amid London’s crabbiest that I hadn’t even figured out the system. I looked around, remembering that I had never been on a train, let alone a subway car. I saw the posters and signs splattered around the tube tunnel. I took in the colors and linguistics of an Underground advertisement, thinking it was silly to advertise for something you had already paid for. I considered the Millennium Dome, a large dome that had opened much earlier in the year, as I passed a flyer telling me to “Come visit! And don’t forget to bring lots of money to spend on pewter figures and stuffed beanie animals!”
Finally, after what seemed like a ten minute trial, the crowds thinned enough to plow through. My suitcase, a fine specimen designed by Marlboro, subtly adorned with a square-foot logo and given away free to those who had smoked 700 packs of cigarettes, lumbered along behind me as I struggled to lift it into the tube car.
While the throngs of people outside had fought their way in, I considered the fact that I would have to stand for a few miles. Once I walked inside, however, I noticed something peculiar: all of those people that had shoved their way to the front of the group had disappeared. The cars are much bigger than expected. Being from a small South Dakota “city,” I had imagined everyone jumping onto a city bus, smashing and shoving the person ahead of them in an effort to gain a spot. Faces would contort against the windows as the bus driver casually waved three more people on.
This was not the case.
First of all, I was not in Sioux Falls. The public transportation was going to accommodate more than 17 people at a time.
Second of all, I was being completely blind to the enormity of a subway train. While watching the entire train pull into the stop earlier, I had foolishly assumed that the only cars were those in front of me. My mind somehow forgot the ones that had just passed. Of course, later I realized there were a lot of trains. And a lot of people.
And a lot of room.
I sat down near the back and looked up at the train map for the Piccadilly Line. Similar to the larger Underground maps (except, obviously, singular in its focus) these smaller versions outlined the line a traveler was currently on. Each stop and crossing line is illustrated with the simplicity of the full map. They are awesome.
The train lurched forward and a gentle voice called out to me. Oh yes – the tube speaks. It reminds everyone to keep their hands away from the closing doors. It tells every captive traveler what the next stop is. It goads us into minding the gap. I want to meet the woman who recorded the “voice of the tube.” I want her to say “mind the gap” and “Marble Arch” over and over again until I fall fast asleep dreaming of the third rail and the rats (of which I only saw a few, I’ll have you know.)
Honslow Station. My “lots of room” became “a little bit of room.”
Everyone I was sitting next to had headphones on or a newspaper; sometimes both. All I had was this suitcase and a backpack. After crossing numerous time zones (and sleeping through none of them) I had arrived in London 14 hours later than I had left. Doing the math, I noticed that it was 9:30 in the morning.
Damn. Morning rush.
Acton Town Station. My little bit of room became no room at all.
Everyone I was sitting next to, I had now noticed with full awareness, was listening to the new Eminem album. I knew this because everyone I sat next to was carefully touching thighs with me. My suitcase and backpack were now sitting in front of me. I was suddenly very embarrassed about that Marlboro logo.
Hammersmith Station. People were standing now.
I felt guilty for taking up so much space. I contented myself with gazing out the window. Trees and houses whizzed by as the commuters stood unaware. It was great. I was seeing blurred versions of the backyards I had only seen on television. Little window sill gardens and eight-foot square lawns sped by. I had never wanted so little of a place until I saw these cracker box houses, all of which saw on lanes probably named after former lords and mayors. Drudyhill, or Kingfisher, or Springfulbonnet lane. I wanted to stand up and ask everyone “Why aren’t you watching this wonderful display of Englishness?”
But then I would have lost my spot. And I would have broken the eerie silence that had taken over the train car.
No one uttered a word. Faces stared straight ahead, some staring at the Guardian, some staring at the Sun, most staring at their knees. The only sound was the muffled voice of Marshal Mathers emanating from the headphones of the young adults.
Earls Court Station. People started to get off.
I looked around. I was in London. I saw the obligatory double-decker bus, once to cliché to me but now as inviting as a warm bath.
And, of course, as fate would have it, this was the station I needed to switch trains on.
I crawled out from the car and looked around. I took my first breaths of true English air. It smelled like diesel and commerce.
I had never felt so at home in my life.