Ode to Barry

Train travel. People say they hate it. I thought I would dislike parts of it. But I’m going to miss it. All of it.

Maybe because it symbolises employment. For the past year I’ve made an almost weekdaily (don’t you love it when I make up words) journey to my place of work…which will soon evaporate due to an inevitable end-of-contract reality. And so too, my return train journeys from one side of our city’s pretty, ancient river to the other.

Recently, after almost a year, I began to recognise some of the same faces I’ve been sharing those carriages with. Imagining their stories. Wondering if they recognised me and our travellers in common.

It occurred to me that it perhaps took longer than it should have, to recognise these kindred passengers. What sort of jobs did they travel to each weekday? Did they enjoy their work – was it their vocation or just a paycheque? What calorific secrets hid in their lunch bags? Didn’t he have dreadlocks last week? Wasn’t she wearing that suit yesterday? Wow, that must be her new grandbaby, and proud daughter! I can really see the family likeness. How sweet.

Will they notice when I’m no longer there, commuting beside them, quietly but observantly. Would they recognise me in a future shared cash register queue? Would I be able to place their face, or would I go on wondering for weeks about its familiarity, as I have done with one particular woman I’ve noticed twice on my journey home. It was the set of her Botoxed lips, the angle of her chin, her straightened shoulder-length hair. I still can’t work out why she looked so familiar to me, or where I’d seen her before. Why did I feel like I knew her?

I’ve pondered why people stand the way they do, why the boozy breath, are those shoes even comfortable, does he know what a great dad he is, that bag must be heavy, can the river get any flatter or shinier this morning, please stop raining, this must be a learner driver!

In true introverted style, I’ve struck up just two in-transit conversations in the past year – both in the past two months. For the first, the train had largely emptied and two women – one from Albany, the other from Melbourne – sat right behind me chatting about how friendly people in Perth are. So, without hesitation, I turned around and said hello, coincidentally proving them right! I enjoyed their anecdotes and shared my observations of how friendly and accommodating the people of Melbourne had been to me the previous weekend.

Another chat was with a 20-something man as we both admired the gorgeous innocence of an infant girl, hair sticking straight up and clear blue eyes focused intently on her grandmother’s animated face. We spoke about his nieces and nephews and how he was their favourite uncle. And we touched on how quickly babies grow up and out of our arms into walking, talking dynamos with their own agendas, in record time.

In retrospect, I guess more conversations would have been better. It is amazing how silent a completely packed train can be at peak hour. Everyone is very polite, aware of their impact on fellow passengers, knowing the journey will come to an end sooner rather than later…just grin and bear it inside your own little bubble, even if it does rub against that of several others.

Except for the odd one or two train riders, who carry on conversations that entertain everyone else whether we want to partake or not…

From face to face D&Ms to mobile phone whinge sessions, I’ve heard my fair share, and still marvel at how some people just don’t care if others hear the intimate details of their dinner menu, disrespect for each other, contempt for former partners or the details of their drunken weekend shenanigans.

When my phone silently vibrated with the terrifying prospect of another wanting to talk to me while in transit, I held my breath until it stopped. There was no way I was going to reveal lamb and rosemary sausages, cheesy mash, steamed vegetables and honey carrots, was my chosen comfort food for that wintery eve.

Getting onto the train each day has been like re-joining the human race anew every 8-12 hours or so. It’s been levelling, I’ve never felt unsafe. I suppose it’s become comfortable, like a familiar neighbourhood.

But the most inspiring experience has been the friendly smiling face of Barry, the endlessly nodding Transperth man who greeted and good-byed me at the start and end of every day.

I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more constantly genuine public servant. Known to all simply as Barry, he would routinely chat to passing commuters about the weather, the day of the week, how long it was until the weekend, smoothing our ride into and out of yet another working day where the tide of humanity is largely faceless, anonymous. He welcomed the company of eccentric bus and train spotters, guided unfamiliar fare payers and trained colleagues all while cheerily nodding to his passing fan base, all thankful merely for his presence.

There were the regular newspaper readers, book addicts, mobile phone interfacers. Then there was my usual parking spot, only available prior to 8am, my preferred side of the train where I was guaranteed the longest river view possible, and my habit of trying to count the abundant black swans on Lake Monger. It’s been an absolute pleasure to go on this ride.

Which must be why violent attacks on mass public transport nodes, rip our communities to the very core, attacking our sense of personal and societal safety for evermore.

I really hope my next job allows me to catch the train, it’ll be like a homecoming.

PIC:

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1845: an early English steam locomotive. (Lambert/Getty Images)