Who in sweet hell thought a mixture of steel and grey paint would make a good start to every workday? I’d always thought graffiti was supposed to be a sort of colourful revolt against dull concrete and metal, however the daily rotation on the clock tower across the road is certainly no Michelangelo. Unreadable black spray-paint is only so inspiring.
The positioning of Woy Woy’s 128-year-old train station will always count for something; a picturesque entry and exit point for the south Central Coast’s Peninsula, just 10 metres from the bay that shares the town’s name. But the structure itself has become as contradicting as the people that use it.
I walk down the ramp to where a crowd has gathered, on the Newcastle-to-Central platform. It’s a sunny yet cold Wednesday morning, and the majority have crammed under the shelter to avoid the sun’s glare – mostly men in suits and women in pencil skirts, gazes fixed upon the dark asphalt, or the darker headlines on their phone screens. Some pore over thick books with eyes that look like they will fall onto the page. A recent study from Lifeline Australia says over 80% of Aussies believe that society has become a lonelier place than it was in the past , and here it’s not hard to see why. How can so many people be so close together, yet still be so isolated? You would have better odds of a first-ever Central Coast snowstorm than seeing someone smile in this crowd.
But I suppose that’s painting the scene with a broad brush. Further down the platform, a group of elderly couples are sitting with hiking packs, chatting away. Crowds of kids in green uniforms shout and grab each other’s backpacks as they wait for the 50-minute trip to their school in Asquith. Nearby, a mum and dad try to keep a hold on four luggage bags, as well as the hands of their young children. Those interacting with somebody else seem so much happier than those standing alone.
Having skipped brekkie, I feed $5 into the Up & Go machine next to the hiking couples. It graciously returns me just a 50c coin. Awesome. But I can’t help smiling, remembering how train station vending machines have never been cooperative with me. When I was around fifteen, my mate Lewy and I used to take our bikes to visit another friend who had moved to Warnervale. We had just discovered the miracle of coffee, and decided on our way home that I would have enough time on a stopover to jump off and grab us two from the machine at Gosford Station. The vending machine didn’t appreciate our urgency and I ended up catching the next train home, arriving at Woy Woy twenty minutes later with a cold coffee in each hand, only to find Lewy holding a bike in each of his.
I’m headed into the city to visit friends and I need to get some Uni readings done. In one of the ‘quiet carriages’ that make up the front, back, and two centre carriages of the train’s eight, I sit next to a tiny old Asian woman. She frowns like I’ve sat on her birthday cake. The air – the only part of the train’s insides that isn’t coloured a kidney-purple – is thick with a hostility that only the twice-a-day repetition of hour-plus train trips can bring.
Then the worst happens – a phone rings. The default iPhone tone echoes throughout the carriage. Everyone looks up to glare holes through the person responsible, this abuser of our right to remain silent. In their defence, this is probably the early-morning alarm tone of 90% of the people here. The culprit – a lady with greying brown hair and a bright pink cardigan – looks around nervously, waits for the ringing to stop without taking the call, and shrinks into her seat.
I sit and watch her for a while, with my web design readings open on my lap, thinking of what the call might’ve been about. Could’ve been anything really – a neighbour calling to let her know her dog, Spud, had pulled off a great escape by leaping a two-metre fence, or a friend wishing her a happy birthday. It could have been the hospital, ringing to say that a loved one had been in a car accident. Maybe it was a bank rep, calling to ask if she was aware her credit card had been charged $400 for the purchase of 800 low-grade Yo-Yos from a shady eBay seller based in Sweden. Who knows? Who would ask?
She puts her phone back into her not-purple handbag. I look out the window at the Hawkesbury River as though playing a part in a 90’s music video. Work? The aquarium? The casino? I wonder who the woman is, and how anyone even defines that. A man with a belly forced into a light-blue shirt and tie starts snoring across the aisle. Where does he work? Is he at the bottom or top of the corporate ladder? The woman on my left shifts in her seat as I start scribbling words onto my book margins with a highlighter: TRAIN TRIPS. SILENCE. HOSTILITY. PHONE. PINK CARDIGAN. My highlighter squeaks, and she exhales loudly. Why is everyone so cranky? sunder
The word sonder comes to mind; a term I’d come across for the umpteenth time through a Facebook meme the night before. The word doesn’t seem to belong to any dictionary andI tracked its origins to a webpage that was later published as a book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig . Sonder means the realisation that every other person has their own histories, loves, hates and attitudes; their own friends, families and enemies. It means that even though in the overall scheme of things they may just be one random passenger sharing a train trip, but every stranger is just as complex as you – which also means there are thousands of reasons as to why someone might be in a bad mood.
I shove my book into my bag and stand up – it is way too quiet and it’s doing my head in.
The ‘quiet’ carriages mean well. They aim to make trips more bearable and ‘provide you with a quiet environment when travelling longer distances’ . And the stress that comes with commuting is by no means an imaginary thing – a direct link has been found between psychological stress and both rail and automobile commutes: longer trips tend to increase passengers’ stress levels, with crowding and noise said to be particular contributors .
But it is hard to judge whether staying quiet in a carriage crammed with people is truly helpful, or if it fosters an atmosphere that makes you worry about getting king-hit by a stranger for sneezing. If we’re all glued to our phones in silence, will that silence really be more beneficial than talking to each other? The CEO of Lifeline Australia, Pete Shmigel, summed up a recent Lifeline study on loneliness: ‘for a society that is more technologically connected than we have ever been, these [survey] results suggest we are overlooking good, old-fashioned care and compassion when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.’i
Tiptoeing my way down the aisle, I realise that a prohibition of noise reads like something dystopian out of V for Vendetta. Especially when that silence now spans half of almost every train in NSW. We live in a time where a whole train carriage might antagonise you, simply because your phone went off. Is breeding a culture of isolation really the answer to the stresses of everyday commuting? More importantly, is this change dangerous on a wider scale? Nowadays it takes insane courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger in public, spending two days afterwards critically analysing every word you said. It’s just how it is, right? We were raised not to talk to strangers. Nobody told us to try again at an older age when we could judge our own safety. But loneliness has become rampant in modern culture: Australia’s suicide rates are at a 13-year high, with loneliness also being linked to higher instances of heart disease, stroke and generally shorter lifespans .
We are in mortal danger of falling out of touch with each other.
But how can we battle this culture of isolation? Just yesterday, as I drove 45-minutes along the M1 from work, although I was just listening to the radio on my own, I’d thought about how time seemed to pass so much quicker while listening to completely average people call in and tell stories on the Hamish and Andy show.
I’m not alone in finding pleasure in other peoples’ stories. It’s human nature. Clinical psychology theorist Miller Mair argues, ‘Stories are habitations. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than as story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart.’
Mair went on to argue something very similar to the recent term sonder: ‘We are, each of us, locations where the stories of our place and time become partially tellable.’
How can it feel lonely on a train packed with people, whilst being alone in the car listening to people sharing personal stories is inclusive and entertaining?
Paul J. Zak of the Harvard Business Review pins this on the release of our feel-good chemical: ‘Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.’
Zak says that the tension of a good story creates empathy between the teller and their audience: ‘If that story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.’
What if the characters Zak mentions, are ourselves? If we are in the company of others each day, full of stories that make us feel good to tell and hear, then why not take advantage? Even if they are silly stories, like someone missing a train at Gosford Station ten years ago for a crappy vending machine coffee. And of course, not everyone sitting silently on the train is sad to be doing so. Mny people would prefer to just read a book or sit on their phone. But these, like us, are just containers of stories. Encouraging ourselves to at least be open to a chat might be helpful. You never know what one conversation could do for a person. Plus, if a culture of storytelling takes off, it’s only natural that we’d all get better at it.
Unfortunately, it seems the culture has spilled over. I’m moving down the train through carriages that aren’t officially “quiet” but you’d still hear a pin drop. I have to walk down a few before I find one that’s comfortable. And it isn’t just one or two people talking in here – it’s the majority of the carriage, and the tension from the beginning of the train is nowhere to be found. I flop into a spare seat and soak up the noise.
Across the aisle, an elderly man with slicked brown hair talks on the phone. He is trying to jam the handset inside his earhole without realising it’son loudspeaker. He has a thick accent that makes it tough to figure out what he’s saying, and by the responses he’s getting from the speaker it seems the other guy’s struggling too: ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Righto.’
From the seat behind me, one elderly woman is trying to convince another to go to the Avoca Picture Theatre for the Melbourne Cup in a few months’ time.
‘It’s only $48 per person,’
The other woman gasps.
‘But you get to have champagne in the garden, have some fish and chips from the nice shop nearby, and you get to watch the race on the big screen. AND you get dessert! But I’m not sure whether that’s before or after the race. So it’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive if you look at what you get for it.’
The other woman doesn’t respond, likely just as confused as her friend’s last selling point.
The city’s skyline comes in view. The lady rambling about the picture theatre makes me think of the places we go. They too are just containers of stories: how many people have passed through the doors of the theatre over its’ lifetime, and what lead them to go there? All the questions in the world are answered with stories. The amount that must be held within the walls of every building here is mind-blowing. The sky-high apartment buildings, small shopfronts, the old brick factories that seem abandoned but have new Hilux’s in their parking spots.
When I exit the train at Central, the atmosphere again turns hostile. People crowd toward the exits or to other platforms to switch trains. You half expect to see a lion named Mufasa being trampled somewhere in the middle. It’s also kind of like how I’d imagine the inside of a beehive; everyone too busy to talk, and there’s a sort of buzzing hostility hardwired by efficiency.
The bees swarm past around a dozen or so people, huddled in sleeping bags on the station’s stone floor. How did they come to be here, in this position? I pause for a moment, but then keep walking. Even after reflecting on the value of being open to other people, it still seems too weird to ask and too out of place to strike up a conversation.
There’s more than just our daily commute that would benefit from hearing other people’s stories and understand deeper understanding of each other.