Friday, February 20, 2009

The Adelaide Tram

By Bub

I got on the tram, sat down, and it started moving. There weren’t many people on board which was surprising at first, but then I remembered it was early afternoon on a Tuesday. Responsible people were At Work or tending to children at home. I wasn’t one of them. Neither were these people. They were old burn-outs, men and women, with crumpled ochre skin that said they had passed out drunk and stoned in the sun on many occasions throughout their life, and/or they were currently loosing a battle against hepatitis. These people had failed at being homeless and had gotten arrested for the shelter of jail and the free food. They had failed at that as well and were now riding to some sort of transition house in the Southern suburbs. They always let them out at odd times to guarantee as little contact with the general population as possible.

We rode past the Supreme Court with its kangaroo and emu coat of arms, and I was reminded that I had no idea what the etymology of the phrase 'kangaroo court' was. I couldn’t help but imagine actual kangaroos holding court:

Mr. Greenhill: “May it please the court, I appear for the defendant Mr. H. Glengowrie. Your Honour, the defendant has requested a continuance of his incarceration for an indefinite period of time.”

His Honour: “I have the request in front of me; I have but one question before I issue my ruling. Is the defendant Kangaroo, Mr. Greenhill, or is he human?”

Mr. Greenhill: “Human your honour.”

His Honour: “Then let him rot in the street and may his carcass be pulverized by a procession of Utes and Kombis.”

Normally these people weren’t any trouble. The most vexing encounter I had with an Australian vagabond to this point involved passing out a couple gold pieces to the bugger in order to get him to go away and buy some beer and stop thanking me for ‘Arnie Schwarzenegger’.

When I first boarded the tram there were also a half dozen Japanese students. The only way I could discern this is through the staccato consonance of their conversations. Korean is much whinier, and Chinese languages have those ascending and descending tones that are easy to detect. These students tried to sprinkle their conversations with English whenever they could. This resulted in loud airy ‘THANK YOU!’-s and ‘I KNOW, RIGHT?’-s popping, seemingly, out of the ether. At the first stop when half of them exited they had an absurd showdown of ‘SEE YOU!’-s. They shouted this salutation back and forth like a verbal hot potato until the doors of the tram shut. Whoever shouted ‘SEE YOU’ last was the loser. I don’t remember who won.

Two stops down a family of Pitjantjatjara First Australians got on. There were two women made of large boulders with smaller boulders on top and gum-tree twigs sticking out as limbs. One was older and smaller. The other was the child bearing Mother. She was the size of every man she had ever been with put together. There were four angry-faced babies indistinguishable from each other save for slight variations in size. And there was one young dusty boy.

The Mother sat the babies down on the seats across the isle and then stood in the handicapped area along with the older lady and the boy. The boy grabbed tightly onto the Mother’s leg as if he had been dropped into a pit of dingos. He took stock of the situation and relaxed. The Mother was stoic and motionless. The boy had a baseball cap on that had designer camouflage all over it - some kind of pattern that had different shades of green and brown but was more liquid than leafy and would have looked more comfortable on J.C. Chasez than on a soldier.

The boy let go of his Mother and grabbed on to the handicap grab-bar for balance. He noticed me staring at him and I looked down at my knees. I looked back up and caught his gaze. I was captive to the thoughtful and pained look in his eyes. I’ve seen this look on adults before, but never in children. It looked as though he inherited genetically the sadness of his family. Then I looked closer at the cap and noticed it was embroidered with the name “Che Guevara” in some kind of serious 'forte' font. I was confused at first. This was the most commercialized piece of crap I had ever seen the name Che Guevara grace with its presence, and I have seen a lot of commercialized Che Guevara crap. Was it real? Did it actually say ‘Che Guevara’? Was it the same Che Guevara? Of course it was and it did and there could be no other. I then felt a rush of joy, the kind you feel when there are knives stabbing you all over your body but upon contact instead of a piercing sensation there is a refreshing lightness. Like MDMA. I wasn’t sure why this made me so happy. I had learned since junior high school that Che Guevara wasn’t the sainted martyr that he is portrayed to be, but then, no one is. It had to be that Che Guevara - the idea - represented to me the fight for justice. And somehow that baseball cap transferred the hope that’s behind all fights for justice to this sullen and hopeless looking child. He was a dead person walking and this hope was a lifeline.

I caught his gaze again, this time purposefully and smiled. His look turned even angrier than it had been. Then it occurred to me. This little boy wasn’t old enough to understand injustice at an abstract universal level. This little boy hated white people. And he hated me. My glance turned surprised and urgent. I wanted him to gleen from the way I was looking at him that he had me all wrong. I was different. I was on his side. I listen to Rage Against the Machine, for the lyrics for fuck-sake. And besides I wasn’t all that white, my grandfather I had never met was supposedly Cherokee, and I had some gypsy blood or something. But he couldn’t tell this from the way I looked at him. By this time his Mother was scowling at me as well. I noticed and smiled nervously back, then quickly turned my head and looked at the wall that was eight inches away from my face.

I was sure she would come over and dash my head with a spare boulder that she had kept hidden somewhere. I had seen Her People do this to each other over much less. I bit my cheeks.

Luckily, one of the tram conductors had stepped out of the pit and began taking tickets. He walked up to the aborigine Mother and asked if she needed any tickets. She stared at him blankly.

He asked her again.

She hardened the look on her face and murmured “Ye.” She did this by sliding out her bottom jaw and exhaling the word like someone does cigarette smoke when 'French-inhaling'.

“Alright, what type of ticket do you need?”

She stood still and focused her peering on his nose.

“Miss?” he asked the way you ask someone if they are asleep. “What type of ticket do you need Miss? An all day pass? Two-hour ticket? Concession?”

She reached down and pulled a five dollar bill from her pocket. Then she leaned back a little and held the bill up to her shoulder with her elbow sticking out forty-five degrees from her profile. It looked taunting. Like she was keeping a vicious dwarf from jumping up and snatching it. She said nothing.

“How ‘bout a two hour ticket, then? That’ll be two-dollars-forty?” The last sentence was a command but came out as a question the way that Australians pronounce all sentences as questions to keep your attention.

Her dour face became impatient as if she was the one just doing her job trying to sell him a tram ticket. She placed the non-taunting hand at where her hip would be if she were not a solid round mass, and said nothing.

The conductor began to look tense. I cringed expectantly.

Instead of yelling or getting upset he just began punching buttons on his change sorter and gently forced the change from five dollars minus a two-hour ticket into her empty hand. He then reached up and grabbed the five, scanned her a fresh ticket, reached back up and placed the ticket in her shoulder-hand. She stood as frozen as a corpse. But the defiant look in her eyes made it so that you couldn’t help but feel shame for the conductor.

He turned and began hobbling down the aisle.

“Tickets!” he half-shouted in the general direction of one of the remaining junkies.

“I don’t ‘ave one, and I’m not gonna get one eiver you fucking arse!” the junkie yelled back.

The conductor tried to ignore it and kept waddling at the same pace as before. The little boy smiled.

“That’s right, arse-hole, you can fish around in my pocket too if you want but you wont find anything you bloody poof!”

The little boy laughed aloud. Nobody had fished around in anyone's pockets. Still, passengers all around exchanged sympathetic glances with The Mother and the heckler. The conductor winced and tightened his lips. Then he kept going as if nobody had heard or seen anything. He had been defeated in every way possible at this point, but tried to save face by retaining his role and false air of authority. It was very English of him.

He finally came to me. I too did not have a ticket. But, I had the decency to lie about it.

The tram arrived at Mosely Square in the beach-town of Glenelg, which was the end destination. We either had to get off there or go back they way we came. I stayed seated a moment longer than everybody else so that I wouldn’t have to sway back and forth in a queue or a bottleneck with the homophobic junkies and also so that the aboriginal family wouldn’t think I was following them. All the passengers exited the tram including myself. The conductor stepped out too, but only for a smoke before heading back into the city.

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