The majority of commuters using The Underground on a regular basis can be divided into two distinct groups. First, there are “The Natives.” The Natives are not necessarily London born, but they’ve been here long enough to know the score. If you’re a native and you’re reading this, hopefully none of the following information will be news to you, but I suggest you give it a skim anyway. It can’t hurt to brush up. This article is aimed mainly at the second group: “The Others.” There are no physical or racial characteristics that will help you to identify an “other.” You may have an “other” in your family. You could be sitting next to one right now.
The Others have a very unfortunate lot in life. For whatever reason, they are not aware of the unspoken, yet very real set of rules that govern correct usage of The Underground. This has caused friction between the two groups and as a result the tube has become an environment likely to be associated with negative emotions such as rage, impatience and frustration. This doesn’t have to be the case. After much analysis, I have identified the situations that have the most potential to cause upset and broken the taboo by explaining the aforementioned rules. If you belong to “The Others,” not knowing these rules is putting you at risk. None of this is rocket science, and by following these simple guidelines you will be minimising stress for yourself and for others.
RULE ONE: Have Your Oyster Ready
Just under half of the congestion problems caused at the most popular underground stations could be avoided if you followed this simple step. I get it. You have a lot of bags. You have things on your mind. Multi-tasking is hard. It seems so much easier to wait till you get to the turnstile to begin the daily rifle. The problem is, the natives don’t think this way. They had their oyster cards ready. They had their oyster cards ready yesterday. They were born ready. And whilst you’re rooting around, wondering why your bag has suddenly become a cavernous jungle, you are blithely unaware of the fury you are cultivating behind you. I know what you were thinking. “I only have a purse and a pair of keys in my bag. It will be easy to find my oyster. I’ve got plenty of time.”
I remember an audition I once had in my failed actress days. I thought I had everything planned. I rehearsed my speech in my head numerous times. When it came time to perform, I delivered my monologue with all the passion and fervour I could muster. Upon finishing, I checked my watch. Barely a minute had passed. I was left standing with a dry mouth, trembling hands and three seemingly unimpressed teachers staring at me, waiting to see what I intended to do with the remaining six minutes I had been allotted to perform. My point? The way time works in your head and the way it works in real life: two very different things. You may think you only took 5 seconds to get your oyster out, but to a generation brought up on fast food, escalators and microwaves? 5 seconds isn’t just inconvenient, its infuriating.
RULE TWO: The Entrance Leading To The Platform/Bottom Of The Stairs/ Is Not A Good Place To Stop And Consider Your Life
If, in your free time, you like nothing more than to amble around aimlessly with no particular place to go, by all means, outside of the tube setting maintain this characteristic. But the minute your foot crosses the threshold between the normal world and the tube environment, you better cultivate a sense of urgency. I’ve seen little old ladies taken out by big strapping men built like tanks. I’ve seen a banker literally walk through a small child in order to avoid the agonizing one minute wait for the next train. In each instance, the parties concerned made the fatal error of pausing at either the bottom of the stairs or the entrance that leads to the platform. To all intents and purposes, these areas are legitimate war zones. Be aware that the natives don’t take prisoners. That you would stop for any reason in any of the above places is completely inconceivable to me. The only possible reason I can imagine is that you have a suicide wish but, not wanting to subject your fellow passengers to the trauma of seeing your bloodied corpse on the train tracks, have chosen possibly the world’s least effective suicide method of being slowly jostled to death.
Or perhaps it’s a little more abstract than that. Maybe you’re having a Eureka moment. Maybe you’ve just realised that “Friends” was never really that funny. Maybe you’ve figured out what the hell David Lynch’s “Mullholland Drive” was actually about. Maybe you’ve realised that the guy you dumped at 16 because he was “too nice” was the only true gentleman that’s ever shown you anything bordering on kindness and respect, and the real reason you let him go wasn’t because he was boring but because your self-esteem was too low to accept a loving relationship not plagued with drama and insecurity. Whatever epiphany you’re having, save it until you’re on the platform and out of everybody’s way.
RULE THREE) Escalators. Left Is for walking. Right Is For Standing. Reverse For The Journey Up.
Ever heard the phrase “Do Like The Romans Do?” This is something you really need to take into account when using the escalators. You have eyes. You can see everyone standing on the right. So tell me why you chose to casually stand on the left? There is absolutely no excuse for this kind of behaviour. Be alert. Take stock of your surroundings. If you are lucky enough to have some time on your hands and feel like surveying the lovely posters advertising messages such as “Real Men Get Raped,” that can be currently viewed whilst on tube escalators, by all means be my guest and stand on the right. Otherwise, do not occupy the left side of the stairway unless you intend to haul ass.
RULE FOUR) Don’t Be A Maverick. Check How Much Money Is On Your Oyster.
Feeling crazy eh? Thought you’d get some kicks by walking all the way up to the scanner not really knowing if there’s enough money on your card? Take it from me, the thrill you get from taking this kind of chance is cancelled out by the high pitched beep and judgemental red light that tells you and everyone in the immediate area that you don’t even have £1.35 on your oyster. Seeing that red light is soul destroying. The shame. The guilt. The downcast eyes. The experience of being denied entry beyond the grey barriers is one that will take a part of your soul that can never be replaced. This is one of those rare instances when everyone really IS looking at you. And trust me; no one is fooled by the faux face you pull that says, “Oh would you look at that? I could have sworn I topped it up.” You knew damn well there was a pretty high likelihood you didn’t have enough.
The saddest part of all of this is that I know this is the one rule most people will ignore. There’s an endorphin rush you experience after finding you had more money on your card than you realised that too many of us find so compelling, we’re willing to take the risk. Tragic.
RULE FIVE) TFL LIES. Plan your journey properly
First of all, don’t bother printing out a TFL map. I mean, really? Printing out maps? Is this the 70’s? Trust me, no matter how accurate you think the map should be, it will never correspond to the concrete mess that is London city. Throw it away. It’s useless to you. You don’t know where you’re going? Just do what I do. Find the nearest tube station to your destination, get there, then wander around hoping it will materialise in front of you. You’d be surprised at how often this works for me.
The idea of London as this super-efficient, hustle and bustle city, where the fast pace of life is easy and uninterrupted is just that. An idea. If we couldn’t handle 3 inches of snow, that we had known was coming literally WEEKS in advance, what makes you think we can navigate the complex system that allows the tubes to run smoothly? The Barcelona Gaudi Cathedral will be finished before the tube engineering works stop. If TFL tells you it will take 15 minutes and one change to get from A to B, allow at least 45 minutes for your journey. There are too many variables within London transport that make it an unreliable service. Oh sure, TFL will tell you your journey will take 5 minutes. But what it won’t tell you is that several times along the way, the train will just stop. For no reason. For long periods of time. If you have a driver inform you of the cause for the delay, count yourself lucky. Often you’ll just be left sitting in a dark tunnel with a bunch of people you don’t know. Waiting. And I think I mentioned how The Natives feel about waiting…
RULE SIX) London Buses. The Old “Taking The Aisle Seat When The Window Seat Is Free To Avoid Having To Sit Next To Anyone” Trick.
I get it. You don’t want anyone to sit next to you, so you perch uneasily on the aisle seat hoping everyone will pass you by. Here’s the thing though. Everyone else gets it too. The fact that you’ve chosen not to take the window seat doesn’t make me think that the seat next to you has magically disappeared into an alternate universe. I don’t assume that the reason you’ve chosen to sit in such an illogical place is because there is an uncommonly small person, invisible to the human eye, occupying the seat. I think you are such an anti-social douche that you will make yourself look like a moron just so you don’t have to come into contact with another human being.
What you’re not counting on are the obstinate individuals such as myself, who are prepared to be just as awkward as you are. I don’t like having to remove my headphones to ask you to let me sit down, but believe me, I will do it. And when I do, don’t be difficult and make me sit in the window seat just because you’re too stubborn to defect from the image you’ve projected of yourself as someone who likes sitting in the aisle seat. Don’t glare wordlessly at me because I had the gumption to see through your flimsy ruse and took the seat that was rightfully mine. You’re not 14 anymore. You don’t want me to sit next to you that much? Have some balls and speak up. If not, shut up and deal.
I know. It’s overwhelming. There’s a lot to absorb and The Natives will not be patient whilst you learn the laws of this strange new world. How will you cope?
Just remember the most important rule: Natives know their own. They can smell fear. Until these rules are as familiar to you as the lines on the palm of your hand, you’re just going to have to fake it till you make it.
Take a deep breath as you feel the barriers close behind you. You’ll do just fine.