Yesterday, for the first time in nearly four years, I found myself on the tube at rush hour. Since then, we'd been spoiled by our bus-dependent postcode in Islington. Walk in one direction, and the buses would take us to the City, to London Bridge or Waterloo. Walk in the other, we'd reach the West End (without traffic) in 20 minutes or less.
But on this particularly muggy evening, I found myself sandwiched in a Jenga puzzle arrangement of commuters: a woman's plentiful rear end nestling comfortably against my stomach (so much so that I was practically spooning her), a man's hair brushing against my wrist (as I was holding on to an overhead rail), and my behind most definitely touching that of another woman's behind me. Getting intimate with strangers definitely hadn't been part of my plan that evening.
'Breathe,' I reminded myself silently. I tried to channel all the yogic calm I'd amassed over the hours spent in various Vinyasa flow classes. But then the train lurched to a stop and the driver came on, apologizing for the delay and explaining that there were two trains in front of us waiting to clear before we could pull into the station.
That's when I felt my breath begin to quicken and become shallow, my heart beating just that much faster. We'd stopped for merely a couple of minutes, but those minutes of being the slice of ham in a human sandwich felt like fifteen minutes. I knew my mind was playing tricks on me, I knew I was panicking for no reason, but I felt trapped - underground, hot, and surrounded by silent, stony-faced commuters. There was no room to move, to even fidget - no place to go. Momentarily, it felt awful. Luckily, the rush of another train roaring past the tunnel provided a cooling breeze that gave us all some welcome relief.
Rush hour in London means every woman for herself: elbows are jutted out, pushing is not uncommon, and if you're not in front of the door, well, then, you're not getting on. I used to commute on the tube every day. At first, you're polite: you let people on first, you step aside for people who are rushing, you apologize for someone else's elbow knocking into your head. But then you quickly realize: you need to be on that train first (because you're tired and you don't want to stand), you don't want to step aside for anyone else because you're late for work, you don't apologize for knocking your elbow into someone's head because ... she was in your way. Yes, that "you" was "me". Not all of the time, but most of the time.
I hate this mentality. I hate it because I'm an active participant in this kind of rush hour madness. Any etiquette or kindness or courtesy I have is completely eroded in the face of a crowd lurching forward to tube doors.
But mostly, I hate this mentality because it fosters a kind of nagging anxiety that doesn't go away - not even when I've regained my composure above ground. It's pervasive and all-consuming. And to think that this is how the majority of us in the city start and end our day? It's a crazy thought.
By the way, this is what the entrance to Oxford Circus tube station looks like at rush hour:
Whether you're sitting in traffic or squeezing yourself into an impossibly small subway car, what's your commute like? What are your coping mechanisms? Do you struggle with anxiety? I'd love to hear.