December 20, 2009

If you ever want to punish someone, send them to Oxford Street at rush hour the week before Christmas. The other night I agreed to meet two friends at 6:30pm at a restaurant in Soho. As soon as I got off the tube at the Oxford Circus station, I worried I wouldn't have the stamina to follow through. It took me twenty minutes to get from the tube exit to the corner where I could cross the street. Naturally, it was raining so there were umbrellas to contend with. I had to choose what was most valuable: my wallet, my gloves or an eye.

I don't know why it's called rush hour anyway. It's never just one hour. The idea that it begins at 5pm and ends precisely an hour later is absurd. Anyone who's ever tried to get a cab at 4:30 in Manhattan knows you have to start waiting at 3. And it never helps when someone suggests taking the bus instead. The bus is fine if you don't mind arriving at your destination in a different season. Especially in London where the bus routes require hours of plotting in advance. I'll get on the bus at Ladbroke Grove in winter and when I get off at Liverpool Street, it's spring.

Both New York and London are equally terrible at the holidays because both cities are packed with tourists. But on the tube in London, at least people manage to find a way to cover their mouth when they cough. In New York, there is no room to lift an arm so people don't bother. They'll cough in your ear.

Also when exiting the station, in London, if someone wants to get past, they'll gently tap you on the shoulder and say, "Pardon me." Even if it's in a hostile tone, it's still a verbal request. In New York, there are no words. Just the silent language of a shove. I prefer this method although it doesn't go down well in London. People glare at me and rebel by moving slower.

Both places seem to attract people who will stand still reading a map in the middle of the platform. However in London these people are usually in transit to the airport or the train station so they also have giant suitcases with them that block pedestrian traffic completely. In New York, if you're thin, you can squeeze by. Maybe because in New York, the platforms are wider. So the likelihood of getting accidently pushed on to the tracks is less - unless it's on 34th street and Macy's is having a sale.

In both cities there is the back-pack person with no spatial awareness. This person rides the subway or the tube during the busiest times and has no regard for what happens when the train sways. Their back-pack smashes into your face if you're seated and if you're standing, it pins you against the door or worse - another passenger. Here's what I've learned. Punching the back-pack doesn't help. The person can't feel it. Also, trying to talk to them is useless. Why? Because usually the back-pack person is also listening to an iPod and can't hear anything.

The iPod person is blissfully unaware of any chaos. They move excruciatingly slow as they climb the stairs or stand on the wrong side of the escalator. There's no point in communicating at all with them because there could be a fire and this person wouldn't react. My frustration is tempered by knowing that they have to listen to the music on such a high volume in order to tune everything out that one day they'll go probably go deaf.

That will show them.