06 November, 2005

Bus etiquette

I witnessed a trio of old women bring the normal flow of life to a screeching halt this morning when they decided en mass and with a spontaneity that was as dangerous as it was demented to indulge in that textbook preserve of the elderly: an uber-slow conversation. There was no doubt it was an uber-slow conversation, as it took place inches in front of my face as I was waiting to get off the bus with two stupidly overpacked bags of shopping. This phalanx of ponderous pensioners completely blocked my path as they kicked off the usual achingly drawn-out pleasantries. One was getting off, two were getting on. I say that, but they weren't actually getting anywhere. All parties were rooted to the spot. They knew I wanted to get off. I couldn't move. Why couldn't they do an uber-slow on one specific bit of ground, be it stationary (i.e. the pavement) or non-stationary?

I ended up having to virtually push them aside, loudly cursing as I went. Well, it'd been a long time since I'd seen such a blatant disregard for bus etiquette. It's a given amongst all ages, or so I thought, that you converse either on or off the bus, not both. Better still, you don't converse at all. You board or dismount, then do the talking. It's no place to have any kind of chatter, uber-slow or not. Christ, even kids know that, and they're usually the worst offenders when it comes to abusing bus etiquette.

Then again, it's forgivable when you're young, because it's exuberance and ebullience which prompts you to loiter in the gangway or kick the seat of the person in front. When old people do it, it's 100 times worse because old people are neither exuberant or ebullient. They do it out of malicious calculation. And typically they have to be the demographic that spends the highest portion of their life travelling in buses.

Maybe it's because old folk didn't have the kind of tutoring in bus etiquette that my generation received from many years of school trips and educational away days. There seemed to be a kind of monopoly on bus transportation when I was growing up: everyone went everywhere courtesy of Paul S. Winson - the pride of the East Midlands (after Ladybird Books, naturally). Mr Winson's name was on the side of every bus that got hired to take pupils to the local zoo, wildlife park, Ironbridge gorge, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, or even, one time, to West Germany. The same orange and brown livery is there in every photo taken at the time. They must have had a makeover somewhere in the late-80s, though, as the brown disappeared to be replaced by purple.

Yet we were implicitly conditioned to always treat these excitingly huge vessels in exactly the same way. No loitering by the door. Reckless and rowdy kids to the back. Swots at the front behind the teacher. Couples towards the back. Sing the peanut song. Draw in the layers of condensation that quickly caked the windows. Wait for someone to fall asleep then turn their Walkman up full volume.

And it worked, because as we all grew up our behaviour never changed. I remember on that trip to West Germany, well into secondary school, the same rules applied. The bloke who got the Walkman treatment was listening to 'Auberge' by Chris Rea, but still didn't wake up. En route to Ironbridge somebody's condensation etchings prompted a van driver to force the bus into a lay-by to remonstrate over some supposedly offensive language. An overnight trip through France saw a copy of The Blues Brothers on video send everyone to sleep - literally. Except the person who brought the tape.

When I was in my first year at university and had to get the student bus service into lectures, I encountered something I'd never seen before or since: a TV channel just for buses. On cold, wet, ragged mornings (they were all like that in my first year) I'd board this ice-box of a charabanc and be greeted, without fail, with the same transmission comprising of music videos for 'Black Hole Sun' by Soundgarden and 'Out Of Tears' by The Rolling Stones. Neither enlivened my spirits at either the ride or the lecture ahead. The final stage of the imparting of bus etiquette was complete: these are places to be silent at all times, no matter what distraction is placed in front of you.

So now I don't talk on buses at all, let alone when I'm standing at that bit by the door. Except to swear at old people having an uber-slow, of course.


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