Going Underground

When TC’s American ambassador Chris visits London, one of her favourite outdoor pastimes is playing ‘Spot the Psycho’ on the Underground, even if she does seem to think that the majority of fellow passengers should be locked up in strait-jackets. I reckon this is largely the result of “tube catatonia”, the fixed stare adopted by most passengers in order to get through the hell of moving from A to B. Rush hour is bad enough for us locals, never mind someone from Arizona (a state bigger than Britain, but with a sixteenth of the population) to whom it must seem like cruel and unnatural punishment.

One was thus inclined to take her tales of encountering the seriously disturbed with a grain of salt, despite some corroboration of public transport weirdos from TC’s ‘zine reviewer, Lino. But they do exist, and I bumped into one on Thursday night — probably my first such genuine encounter in ten years of using the tube.

I was coming back from Euston, where I’d met a briefly visiting friend for a couple of pints, and was now heading to Tulse Hill, groaning under the burden of a large cardboard box of videos. This was still the tail end of rush hour, so the train was busy; the only seat was in the corner, next to a woman, in her 50’s. She had her bags on the seat.

I said, “Excuse me, can you move your bags please?”

Looking straight ahead, she ignored me.
Ordinary people might have taken the hint — not Jim McLennan after two pints.
Very pointedly, I repeated the question.
Equally pointedly, she ignored me.

Yet again: question, but no response. I reached across her to move the bags.
Oblivious no longer, she snapped, “Don’t touch them!” and held onto her scabby luggage.
Umpteen possible responses flickered, Terminator-like, across my brain; I settled for ‘sarcasm’.

“Oh, so does your luggage have a season ticket then? Or do you simply not understand English?” — from her accent, she sounded East European, maybe some kind of Czech gypsy. This probably explained why my withering satire was, indeed, withering on the vine. One other passenger, however, stood up to offer her seat to me — gratifying, but not the point, so I politely declined.

King’s Cross. A lot of people got off, so I could now sit down on the seat opposite her. I was *miffed*, latent British xenophobia boosting my anger (how DARE they come over here and behave like this!), though her behaviour would have been unacceptable from the Queen Mother. Adopt tactic #2: replace Terminator with Rambo, something about “you wanna fight a psycho; you gotta become a psycho”. I start staring at her, fuelling my gaze with every ounce of hatred in my veins.

She noticed. Then looked away. Looked back, clearly unsettled, then away again. Result. She said something to me; I didn’t hear it, and kept right on staring, cold and level. If her head had exploded, I wouldn’t have been too surprised. She snapped something else at me, another unheard question. Stare. Stare. Stare. Angel station. One more incomprehensible piece of gibberish, then just before the doors closed, she broke, scooping up her rubbish and slinking out of the carriage. Tube psychos 0, Mildly Pissed + Severely Pissed-off Scots 1.

To my surprise, someone opposite said, “What was THAT all about?”. This rare break with tube protocol (don’t look at anyone, and never speak to them) allowed me to rehash the story — or at least, my side of it, her mileage may have varied. Still, I’m sure it kept the rest of the carriage entertained for a couple of stops. I can’t deny it was gratifying; if I ever get out to Arizona, I’ll try it on the local psychos there. Or perhaps not — out there, there may be fewer loonies, but they probably all carry big guns…