On normality

Thought I’d share a few things about travelling the London transport system over the last couple of weeks or so.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that everything has been “normal”. People are definitely trying to behave normally (or are behaving as abnormally as they always used to) – but there are a lot of things that indicate quite the opposite. You get on the tube or the bus – and the first thing you notice is that you are scanning the entire carriage or bus for a) people who look unusual or b) people with big bags or rucksacks.

London is full of unusual people – and it used to be part and parcel of big city life to not give a damn. But now you do. And people with big bags and rucksacks; well you wanna make sure that the people with these bags don’t look unusual either. Because if there’s a (formerly usual) unusual person with a big bag or a rucksack- then a little warning thing inside you makes your adrenaline go a little – but you try to stay calm – and instead focus the rest of your journey-time energy on keeping an eye on said unusual person with rucksack.

For example – the other day I got onto the top deck of the 79 bus – and everything was just fine. I went right to the back – and I sat in the middle – arms folded – like a guardian angel keeping watch over things in front of me. A few stops later – a formerly-usual-but-now-unusual guy – (with alarming rucksack) – gets on bus onto top deck and staggers towards a seat not too far in front of me. It could have been just a bad night-before for this guy: perhaps he had a hangover or something? But in his somewhat dazed demeanour – he starts to fiddle about with his rucksack. My alarm bells start ringing. And they ring even louder and more violently when the guy suddenly stands up and digs deep down into the pockets of his jeans. What is he looking for? A detonator perhaps?

Chewing gum. Just chewing gum. That’s what he was looking for. He sits back down and starts chewing. A few minutes later – he suddenly gets up – picks up his rucksack (which is black and grey incidentally) (just like mine) and switches seats. Alarm bells ring even louder than before. Why is he switching seats for no apparent reason? This cannot be right! He slumps himself down in new seat on other side of the aisle – still only a few seats in front of me. A few minutes later he does the same thing! Now I am beginning to panic – this is most unusual. My heart thumping – I force myself to calm down as best as I can. Only to have any attempts at calmness to be SHATTERED by the fact that the same guy is now visibly praying. Yes: PRAYING. On the top deck of this bus! His hand gestures, closed eyes and general body motions clearly indicate that he is praying!

A sudden sort of calmness sets in – like a feeling of hopelessness. I figure that there’s no use panicking. If he hits a button and the bus explodes – then I’m gone. And I probably won’t feel a thing.

I turn up the volume of my MP3 player – and immerse myself in the music.

A few stops later – it’s my stop – and I get off as usual. As I get off the bus – I look up towards the top deck. The guy is now sat on the seat right at the front of the top deck. I laughed to myself. Like I’d survived some kind of cruel test.

Later. I get onto the tube. Same protocol: everybody checks you out as you get on – and you check everybody else out too. (Previously it was only the older Indian ladies who congregate on the bottom deck of the bus who checked you out so blatantly. So overtly – like they are checking to see if you would make suitable marriage material for their daughter or something.) But you also notice that there aren’t as many people talking to each other any more. Or perhaps that’s how it was before – and now you notice it? Who knows? What you do notice is that there are a lot of people wired for sound. iPods, walkmans and MP3 players etc. Lost in music. Not a bad way to go I suppose. I’m doing the same.

Someone left a comment to a previous posting below – one that pointed me to a BBC News page where readers were invited to feedback their comments on the aftermath of the bombings and attempted bombings. There was one particular piece of feedback that got me thinking. It was by an Asian guy (that means “South Asian” for you North Americans reading this). He said that he had taken to carrying a copy of “The Economist” magazine with him whilst riding the tubes to work and home. The idea being that he couldn’t possibly be a suicide bomber and be reading The Economist. Surely? Anybody suspecting him would soon feel very reassured that he was just an ordinary Londoner – and not a terrorist.

What a great idea I thought to myself. Since I am Asian and carrying a rucksack – I, too, would buy some intellectually-stimulating reading material next time I ride the tubes and buses. That way I could reassure my fellow commuters that I’m a good guy. So I did. The very next day in fact. Exactly 7 days after the attempted bombings on the 21st. A Thursday. The platforms and carriages of the trains at Kingsbury and Wembley Park were deathly quiet that day – and there were police in day-glo yellow jackets EVERYWHERE. I had popped into the newsagents on the High Street right next door to the tube station and pondered at the magazine shelves. What should I buy?

You’re not going to believe this: I bought a copy of “Wired” magazine. How stupid I felt when I got onto the Jubilee Line at Kingsbury. I had to quickly put the magazine back in my rucksack. And this act in itself invited too much staring. I could hear the alarm bells inside other souls going off.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t!

Elsewhere, the big (South) Asian guy with an equally big rucksack. Written in bold letters on the back of his bag are once innocent words that make me shudder: “Just Do It!“.

Anyway – today I worked in Oxford Street – shopping heaven for tourist London. A nice sunny day. Just as busy as it’s always been around here. People doing their thing – as if nothing had ever changed.

Everything seems to be normal in Oxford Street – Central London
(Right outside Bond Street tube station)

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