Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been dallying with danger so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London, No 179: touch too much on the tube.
‘Your hand is on my bottom.’ The young woman’s outraged voice cuts through the fetid, sweaty air, striking icy fear into a carriage where 150 people are squeezed in to a space designed for half that number. My head is forced down by the curve of the ceiling and I cannot move it but I sense the agitated rustle of other people’s heads turning this way and that, all struck by the same urgent and appalling thought as they try and locate their hands in the tangle of limbs, back packs and briefcases lodged between their middle areas: My God, am I the bottom-groper?
It’s evening rush hour on the Northern Line, not nice for anyone, but particularly miserable if you are stuck in the confined space by the door, forced to put your chin below your chest to fit in. Trapped like this, I would struggle to grope myself, but my ears are free and there is no mistaking this woman’s anger. ‘Whoever you are,’ she continues with calm but furious indignation, ’please take it off my bottom right now.’
Although everyone who lives in London is occasionally obliged to put up with the miseries of rush-hour tube travel, finding your body repeatedly pushed against someone else’s body while pretending it isn’t happening remains a deeply unnatural situation. And we really are pushed up against each other in here. Any tighter and we’ll be exchanging bodily fluids – though not nice ones.
Sweaty, breathless, claustrophobic, wedged groin to buttock and elbow to arm pit with complete strangers, things are so inappropriately touchy-feely that even an Italian politician might find things slightly too intimate. In such circumstances it is hard to distinguish between a genuine attempt to retrieve a set of iPhone earplugs that are falling out of your pocket and an unwarranted attempt to unhook a skirt zipper.
And someone is taking advantage of the situation; we have our very own ‘bunga bunga’ merchant on board and I know exactly where he is. Below my face another is uplifted to mine, I am looking directly into a pair of eyeballs that stare boldly straight back at me. Although the man they belong to is not wearing contact lenses with ‘I am up to no good’ written on them, these are not the eyeballs of someone who is innocently engaged in travelling from Leicester Square to Tufnell Park. Small, furtive and clearly enjoying himself, the man’s gaze may be on me but his hands are on someone else.
Walk a mile in another man’s shoes and you learn what his life is like. It is not, as yet, possible to walk a mile in another woman’s bottom, but you don’t need to do that to realise that this city suffers from a large population of men who see their Oyster card as a licence for travelling hands rather than discount journeys across zones 1-6.
This is an upsetting and dispiriting state of affairs but happily, female Londoners are increasingly refusing to put up with it anymore. Like the young woman on our carriage they are starting to fight back, embarrassing their assailants into shamefaced retreat. And it works: when the train stops at Goodge Street, the small man steps off and is swallowed by the rush of people on the platform, a cowardly man beaten by the bravery of one woman who refused to be bullied.
There is a little more room on the carriage now. I can get out of the corner and straighten my neck and the woman who shouted ‘Your hand is on my bottom, please take it off now’ is able to look around in search of the groper. Her angry eye immediately settles on me: I begin to blush.
And Another Thing … Four more ways to avoid unwanted contact
ON THE MASSAGE TABLE: Want a back rub without the rub? Then try one of London’s many reiki practitioners, who will plugyou into ‘universal energy’ by massaging the air next to your skin rather than your actual skin. Nonsense? Perhaps, but no one touches you.
ON THE BUS: Being squeezed into your seat by the last man in London to read a broadsheet? Increase personal space by making your own garlic sausage sandwiches the night before. For more room, eat between stops.
AT THE BANK: Five people are paying in cash to cover lunatic cocktail sprees with their cards the night before – but there’s only one pen on a chain. Avoid the crush by filling in the form while you’re on the spree. What could go wrong?
AT A FESTIVAL: Seven uninvited drunks decide to sleep in your tent. On the plus side, they have a wheelbarrow full of cider; on the minus, it’s a two-person pop-up. ‘Great,’ you say. ‘We can all listen to my best of Coldplay collection!’ End of problem.
Read about more of Michael Hodges adventures.