Monday, September 11, 2006

The Interesting Thing About Public Transit

Since arriving in Wellington, public transit has been my lifeline to work. We live on the opposite side of a 'mountain'- read 'hill' if you're from Montana-from the rest of the city, and the only way through when wearing professional attire is via bus. Most mornings, this takes me to the train station where I board a car for destinations on the northern end of the harbour. While it takes a little longer to get around than by car, I somehow don't feel like such a nameless face when I'm on a platform with many other nameless faces. A teacher at an area school made the point that commuting alone creates a sense of separateness, and even conditions us to pull away from people we don't know. I have to say that this is a fairly accurate and astute observation.

While I haven't made any friends per se on a train or bus, I've definitely met a number of characters that have become familiar faces. There's the ticket taker on a frequently taken train of mine who is there every morning, without fail, with a hearty "good morning, how are you today" and a smile (from under a huge red mustache). A small thing, yes, but a nice way to start the day. Then there are the two 20-something guys who always sit near each other, each reading parts of the same paper, buy each other coffees and get off the train together, but never speak a word to each other while actually ON the train. My favourite, though, is the young angry bus driver who works the afternoon shift in Porirua. He's not in the least self-conscious about flipping off fellow motorists, and he'll mutter the most foul obscenities under his breath when the middle school kids press the call button and then don't get off the bus. I always smile and thank him when I get off, and he always says "cheers" with a smile in return.

Even on the street at crosswalks and bus stops people will strike up small conversations with you about whatever happens to be going on. I've encountered this congeniality since the first day we got here, but this willingness to interact has never hit me as strongly as it did at the train station earlier this week.

I was at a coffee cart early one morning waiting for my cuppa. The woman in front of me had placed a rather large order and was frantically counting out coins to pay for it all. To our left sat a train waiting to pull away, and I noticed a conductor waving her arms in the direction of the coffee cart. I thought nothing of it, seeing as it wasn't my train (or it could have been that early morning I-really-need-some-coffee haze clouding my mind). A minute later another conductor came up to this woman in front of me and asked her if this nearest train was hers. When she said yes he told her that it was leaving right then. Her face froze, and you could tell that she was stuck having to choose between dashing for her train empty handed, or asking the barista to give her her money back. Instead of heading back for the train or telling the woman to hustle it up, the conductor took one look at her conflicted expression and politely asked the barista how long it would be until her drinks were done. The cart employees were just about done, so the conductor waited with this woman and even helped her carry her drinks back to the train. Another conductor was waiting nearby to pleasantly shoo them onto a car. The minute the car doors closed, the train took off.

I had to pause at this, dumbfounded by what I had just seen. The first thought through my mind was "well, that never would have happened in Germany". Then I thought, "wait a minute, where would that have happened other than here"? I had just witnessed a quintessentially kiwi encounter. It's this willingness to interact that makes New Zealand unique, a sort of every-day-diplomacy that keeps everyone moving along congenially. Things are rarely black and white, and from my perspective it seems like Kiwis grow up knowing that if you just talk about an issue a little bit all parties can usually get what they need. No need to fuss, shout or throw down ultimatums. One has no reason to pull away from others here; to do so would actually do more damage.

It's nice to know that kindness can happen at 7:15 am before you have your coffee.