It was hot. It was ten o’clock at night. There had been some sort of an accident down the tram line and the last two trams hadn’t come. When one finally came it was crowded. Nobody seemed too upset – it was just one of those things.
I stood strap hanging for about ten stops and there was a seat. For a packed tram, late at night, it was quiet.
In front of me a bag-lady with a coke bottle with some kind of alcohol. Don’t make eye contact. Eye contact can lead to difficult conversation.
Across the aisle were two young Chinese students. They talked, loud, faces forward not turning to look at each other. I thought of Maxwell Smart and ‘The Cone of Silence’. This was the negative image. They protected themselves from all the rest of us by spreading out a barrage of foreign sounds that no one could penetrate. It was very effective.
Sitting opposite them was a couple. They were young, married, Islamic from the dress and silent. Don’t make eye contact. They knew that at this time of night some confrontation could appear from nowhere. It does happen. It’s sad. We are an open people, but a poison has infected our body. What will it take for us to be an open people again.
The lady with the bottle of booze gets up and goes to the door. She gets off at the next stop. I breathe more easily.
I turn my head and look out the window. Someone sits in the bag lady’s seat. I don’t make eye contact but I can see him reflected in the window. Then he starts talking. Loud. Is he talking to me? He must be, there is no one else. He looks straight at me and tells me why he is late. No. Not me. He has his earphones in and he’s talking to someone at the other end. And he is cross. It isn’t his fault he’s late. They all went to the pub after work. He doesn’t care if the dinner is ruined, he had something at the pub. His eyes are focusing on mine but he doesn’t know me. She is crying and he tells her to shut up. He’s an obnoxious bastard. Noxious. And now it’s her fault he stayed at the pub. At least his work mates appreciate him. Then he looks at me and grins. You understand don’t ya mate! I do understand but not what he thinks.
He gets off at the next stop. We all breathe more easily.
But someone else staggers down the aisle and drops into the bag lady’s seat.
Don’t make eye contact. I look and his eyes are closed. Then he opens them and says something to the Islamic couple. They smile sheepishly and say nothing. I didn’t hear what he said.
He turns to me and his lips start to open but he closes them. And his eyes. I look at him and he opens his eyes and contact has been made.
“Twenty Dollars, Mate. That’s too much. Isn’t it. For a packet of cigarettes, Mate. That’s too much. Isn’t it!”
I agree and tell him that maybe he might need to give up smoking.
“But it’s too much, Mate! Whadda you reckon, Mate?” he says and turns to the Muslim couple. “Do you smoke, Mate?” he asks them. “It’s too much, isn’t it.” And his new mate, the Muslim smiles and agrees that it is too much but he doesn’t smoke anyway.
“Are you a Muzzi, Mate?” he asks. “One of me mates at work is a Muzzi. He’s from Shree Lanka. But he’s pretty black. You ain’t from Shree Lanka, are you. You aren’t as black as me mate from work.”
His new mate tells us all he is from Syria and his wife is from Lebanon.
“It’s not polite for a fellow to tell a Muzzi that his wife is real beautiful, is it! Me mate from work, the guy from Shree Lanka that I was telling you about, he told us all it ain’t polite. But your wife is real beautiful anyway. Sorry if I’m being a bit impolite but I was just telling the truth.”
The ‘Muzzi” and his wife smile, and she is a little embarrassed. But I don’t think anyone is going to make a fuss.
The two Chinese students have stopped talking and are smiling as well.
Then he says, “Bloody Hell, Mate. I’ve missed me stop. Anyway it was nice talking to youse all.”
And I think we all felt much the same.
As he stood up to go he staggered and he turned to me and said, “Sorry, Mate. I’m not drunk, Mate. I’m just got a bit of a condition. I got a bit of brain damage from when I was born. But people think I’m a piss-pot.”
And the ‘Muzzi’ stood up, helped to steady him so that he wouldn’t trip going down the step. And they shook hands.
There was a bit of a silence for a bit. Then the bloke from Syria turned to us all and said, “It would be nice if there were more people with a bit of brain damage, don’t you think!”
I would too.