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London Underground


It should be an Olympic event.

You start in good spirits but end up sprinting and out of breath. It involves maneuvering around large serpentine lines of people, trudging through electronic turnstiles that are programmed to close on your groin area, and elbowing, nudging and kicking through crowds of bodies to squeeze into a crammed subway car with 15 million other malcontent morning commuters.

This is the true face of hell. This is a workday commute on the London Underground.

Given the transportation options, it's really your best bet. Overground isn't much better. Road rage makes jaywalking pedestrians a moving target. Double-decker buses are too slow. Exhaust fumes are so potent that after a whiff or two you'll understand how John Lennon came up for the lyrics for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. And unless you've got sterling coins dropping out of your behind like pigeon crap, taxis aren't affordable.

Therefore most people commute by the Tube. Walking to most places is probably quicker, but we can't be bothered with petty details like that. The stations alter between high tech and under-construction nightmare. One moment you think you're in an Arthur C. Clarke novel and the next, you're walking through the rubble of World War Two bombings. Going through the subterranean maze of corridors, escalators, tunnels and passageways can make you feel like a hamster in those fancy cages with all the plastic tubes. Only there's no food pellets at the end of the tunnel, unless you consider microwaved samosas and "Scottish eggs" edible cuisine. Talk about indigestion.

People are ruthless during peak commute hours, for the suits on their way to corporate land aren't too happy about playing sardine. I haven't seen the signs, but I think smiling is outlawed during commuter hours. You can't blame the frowns though. If you were being pushed and prodded by morons trying to cram their way into a tiny space where there's obviously no room for them, you'd have a hard shell too. I like to wear my big hiker's backpack on the crowded trains because I smash people in the face from behind without even feeling it. It makes up for all the times schmucks have tried to get on the train before I can squeeze out, making me wish I had worn my football helmet and pads. I've been crammed up against so many people into so many compromising positions that I could probably write up a new edition of the Kama Sutra. Talk about twisted tunnel passages.

At least the suits have their tabloids though. The Sun, a Murdoch paper, is the number one read paper in the country and it may have something to do with the fact that ever day there's a different topless girl on page three. Unfortunately, all the dead trees end up on the floor of the train, as there are no trashcans at all anywhere. This is about as close as they come to recycling in this country. Supposedly, you can't find a trashcan anywhere in this city because they were a prime place for IRA bombs. Personally I'd prefer to have clean streets and stations, but some bright guy upstairs thought tripping over old newspapers and McDonald's wrappers is preferable to tripping over bloody corpses. It's a tough call.

I guess the Tube's not all bad. After all, you get to see and hear all sorts of interesting things. During a single trip on my way back from Heathrow airport, I was lucky enough to witness: an Italian teenager belt opera at the top of his lungs for six stops, a groping yuppie couple sucking face for four stops, and the icing on the cake, a disabled homeless man stinking up the whole train for my final two stops. The best was when he incoherently muttered about having not eaten in weeks, replete with drool oozing out of his mouth. A second later, he rescued a brand new can of beer from his dirt-smudged windbreaker. So much for pity.

The religious freaks are always a riot too. I must be a magnet for one guy in particular because once a month I find myself right next to this preacher. One second, I'm staring aimlessly at an advert for Virgin Atlantic brand fungus remover, the next I'm deafened by some Jesse Jacksonesque Jesus freak screaming at the top of his lungs. This guy has it down perfectly. You can only understand every third word and its timed so the speech ends just as the train pulls into the next stop. It's frighteningly intriguing, although when he's done, my ears feel like they've been to a rock concert.

At least he doesn't ask for money. There's one guy who gets on the tube with an accordion, while his son, in tattered rags, goes up and down the aisles with a Pringles can to collect spare change. I'm tempted to give him money on the condition he stops playing, but he'd probably misinterpret my tip as encouragement to play louder and more off-key. This is almost as amusing as the medical students that dress up in women's clothes with enormous balloons for fake breasts as publicity stunt to collect donations for the sperm whale cancer fund.

Busking isn't legal, but that doesn't stop most folks. My personal favorites include the little drummer man, an African dude who is always at the bottom of the Piccadilly escalator playing the same drum pattern over and over, day after day; and the Buddy Holly lookalike I see every now and then in random dark corners who wears a vintage '70s ruffled leisure suit and cranks out bad rockabilly tunes on a fuzzy mini-amp. They're worth giving money to if only because they provide such great amusement. Where else can you hear a polka cover of Sting or a butchered Beatles rendition on three string violin in the span of five minutes? It's better than a jukebox on crack.

The tourists are also a blast. It seems like no matter where I go, I always end up stuck behind a large refugee family, blocking the pathway as they try to translate the tube map into Bulgarian. Or the drunken Spanish guys who start cursing and shoving subway staff people for being caught over ticket fraud. Or someone asking me for directions. Like I ever know where the hell I am. Sometimes I have to check my underpants just to remember my name when introductions are beings made. Talk about awkward.

At least there are vending machines underground. For a mere forty pence, you can get the best Cadbury milk chocolate bar on this side of the galaxy. Many a drunken nights they've provided a great midnight snack, although even more drunken nights they've also stolen my change. I've gotten into some pretty ugly brawls with these machines and they usually win. Those cheeky bastards.

The announcements stating stops and destinations are always an auditory delight. There's nothing sexy to me than hearing a pre-recorded British female voice saying, "Mind the gap" or "Next stop, Cockfosters," in a lifeless monotonous tone. Even better is when the actual drivers get on the intercom to explain the delays. "Uhm … we've just been informed that there's been a fire on the tracks ahead, so there may be delays. May be five minutes, may be five hours. Sorry." Thanks for reassurance, dude.

Perhaps at this point you're asking yourself why I don't work for the London Underground public relations department. Tempting thought, but they've got more image issues than a blind optician. In fact, fixing the overpriced, under repaired Tube is looking like its going to be a big issue in the upcoming London mayoral elections, although so far they've been too distracted with scandals that make Bill Clinton look like Ward Cleaver. Libel and hookers should replace the tradition British stereotype of tea and crumpets.

Some argue that partial privatization may make things better, citing New York City's subway system as a model to abide by. Other argue that this would only make things worse, as private companies would be free of public accountability and put profits over safety. But if you ask me, whether the Tube is in the hands of private investors or run through the Westminster bureaucracy, its going to be the same. After all, it was only very recently that the House of Lords got rid of heredity appointments. If you think about it, most private investors are born with similar silver spoons in their mouth. I don't know if there is any easy solution to fixing the tube. Population control might work, but that would turn the Viagra market flaccid.

The day before I got here, I read about the Paddington rail crash on the Internet. It didn't make me unpack my bags and cancel my flight, but it was quite an omen. I don't really fear for my life, as the possibility of being squashed from a falling anvil is as likely as being in a rail crash. But a sick part of me almost longs for the brave new world of e-commerce, internet villages and webbed workplaces, where geographical boundaries on the map of the time space continuum will be redrawn. I naively look forward to the day when movement is obsolete, when we can work, shop, sleep, eat and shit all in front of the glowing plug box without ever getting off our lazy ass.

Why?

Because if I'm still in London by then, I won't have to face another stinky armpit in the face on the London Underground ever again. I won't have to fight like a salmon upstream on the stairwell to get out of the station. And I won't have to get elbowed in the kidneys by an elderly lady's cane as I try and squirm into the last available seat on an overcrowded District Line train. It's enough to make me miss Los Angeles, which has its own nightmarish freeway gridlock.

Now that's a scary thought.

"Fish Rap Live! is a biweekly alternative newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Check it out online (www.porter.ucsc.edu/fishrap)

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