October 12th, 2009

me: ooh!

The Four Stages of Enlightenment: London Underground Edition

Until last week, I carried a photo in the back pocket of my handbag. It had been there since the day I found it outside Highbury & Islington tube station. I stood there for a while after picking it up in front of the dodgy burger stand, futilely scanning the crowds to see if I could spot the owner though I knew full well it must have been lying there for hours. Something about her face arrested me. She was young, but she was also weary. Her jaw was set firmly and she stared straight into the camera. I thought she must be a fellow immigrant. Her taut, guarded expression reminded me of myself, posing for the umpteenth set of such photos for heaven knows what official purpose, doomed to be filed in a cabinet locked in a cold halogen-lit room and never looked at again.

She has experienced the sheer exhaustion living in this city can bring. Bone-tired is the only expression that describes it accurately. She knows the phases of learning to travel the underground as a commuter, which are as follows.

  • Stage One: Bewilderment You are trying to stay out of everyone's way while furtively working out whether "Eastbound" on the Piccadilly line is going to get you to Kings Cross or not, without stopping at the bottom of the escalators like the tourists. This phase can last anywhere from a couple of days to a month, depending on the demands of your workplace and how much you go out.

  • Stage Two: Satisfaction You know your route. You know exactly where to stand on the platform to board the carriage where you're most likely to get a seat, or at least be able to read the Metro* without holding it an inch from your nose. Or, if you don't care so much about a seat, the carriage nearest the exit at your alighting point. If you're extremely lucky, these two will coincide. Mostly, however, they don't. This phase lasts a couple of months to a year.

  • Stage Three: Rage You have now been doing this for far too long. You are tired of the crowds, tired of the smell of a thousand different flavours of soap and deodorant, tired of other people's drawn faces, tired of their obstinate refusal to make eye contact. You hate the idiotic bumbling of tourists with a white-hot intensity. (It's a wonder they don't melt under the collective incandescent heat of Londoners' annoyance. You wonder how you never noticed it before.) If someone is so injudicious as to deliberately attempt to block your way into the carriage, you plunge in, elbows out, not apologizing or speaking, and make sure to get a good jab in under a rib. Both combatants then pretend nothing happened and seethe silently, loathing one another. This phase can last anywhere from years to forever.

  • Stage Four: Resignation This is a blissful, Zen-like state. You have learned, at long last, not to care about anything other than the book you are currently reading or the fact that you'll soon be home. You are completely detached from the crowd and your surroundings. You don't need headphones. Even the book is superfluous, though not having reading material does make the journey seem longer if you aren't sleepy enough for a nap. If you can move quickly through the station or up and down the escalators, you do. If not, you wait patiently.

    Stage Four takes years to achieve. There are many moments of false enlightenment, particularly during Stage Two. But Stage Four, true Stage Four, for an immigrant, is a hard-won victory. It leaves lines on your face and a certain steely, faraway expression in your eye. The girl in the picture I carried had reached it.

    * Free morning paper, distributed at tube stations and bus stops. Clever types describe it as "yesterday's news, today".