My tram is late, the wind is freezing. Trams aren’t usually late, but they are stressful, because it’s never clear whether you are supposed to touch off. You say, confidently; ‘Don’t touch off, it’s more expensive. If you’re only in Zone One, you don’t need to’. But someone else says you do, ‘Because otherwise you are charged to the end of the line’. I don’t understand how people are so certain, either way. I avoid trams, they stop too suddenly. Today it’s less confusing as I’m getting off at the last stop. I will confidently tap on. I will confidently not tap off.
The 9.58 tram seems to have slipped existence, because the 10.04 is right on time. I get on. Don’t make eye contact, don’t sit down, what if a full-fare commuter wants that seat? Will I know when to appropriately offer it up? What if they thank you, but say it’s fine? It’s all too complicated. I stand. It smells, bringing to mind an old house musty with cheap cleaning product. I forget to block my nose. I get used to it with time, but it remains at the edges of my mind.
Stop 38. People get on, people get off. Look at your phone, music in, look at the ground. Stare out the window. The cold almost-winter air blasts as the doors open.
Two men get on, one stands next to me, a younger, shorter man. Probably a student on his way to uni. The one in front is older, wearing a suit and yellow tie. Hair graying. He’s standing too close. I feel bad because, if he was not white, or if he was not old, or if he was not a he – he would not be standing as too close. Power is such a balance. Judgement is such a balance.
Stop 22. I notice a movement in my periphery. Looks like a woman, wild, greying hair. Sitting in the seats to my left, she flaps her arms, silently. She restrains herself for a moment, then it starts again. I remember Kayla from the ABC show ‘Unemployable Me’. She was looking for a job where they wouldn’t mind that she swore uncontrollably, and flapped her arms and said ‘chicken’ repeatedly. It didn’t define her, and she didn’t want it to. I’m proud to see respect and acceptance on this tram today.
I admire my brand new Indigenous Pride badge I have proudly placed on my blazer. Symbolic of solidarity and respect, I hope it starts conversations in people’s minds. I hope we all are forced to think about the stolen land this tram carries us through.
At stop 17, the woman starts unzipping her jacket. I wish I could just chat to you, become a better listener. I remember how when I wore my back brace, people asked me the same questions over and over again. It didn’t bother me, I didn’t feel judged by their curiosity. But no, the thing to be done is to stay engrossed in my morning commute, in my tired-looking stare into the distance. I remain standing.
I wonder if I could, or should, offer assistance. No, that would be patronising. I should mind my own business. She’s unzipped her jacket and puts it next to her.
She has thrown her jacket outside the seating booth. I’m pretty sure it was involuntary.
Everyone noticed, I think. I don’t know what to do with myself. There’s a quietness that weighs down the tram. A stalling weight of – inaction. I glance at the jacket. How do I get it back to you? The old man is in my way, so is the student to my left.
Please be in a movie-like scene and go and do the right thing. I don’t know who I am urging, the men around me, or myself. Someone. Yellow Tie turns around, picks up the jacket, thank you.
Thank you for doing the right thing.
He hands it over and says, in such a condescending way, in such a judgemental way, ‘I think you will want this’. Was it supposed to be lighthearted? Instructive? She throws it away again. Silent movement, in another setting perhaps she would be a dancer. ‘Oh, I guess you don’t,’ the old man says. How dare he. How dare I.
Stop 14. Yellow Tie moves to another part of the tram, the jacket remains in the stairwell. Worried eyes glance, questioningly, I don’t know what to do. We reach Flinders Street Station. Lots of people get off, there’s more space now. Perhaps I’ll find the courage to act as I should. Go get the jacket, be patient, be gentle. Not sympathetic, not looking down, just – helpful. As one might help a woman with her pram get onto the tram. But I just stand there. I’m standing in glue.
My mind is encased in high pressure weight, closing in. My badge is gaudy, I don’t do dirty work, I just like the pretty colours of activism.
The pressure releases as an older woman climbs on, looks at the jacket, concerned. She looks like a really kind Grandma, the ones that give big hugs and lots of cookies, the ones that understand. Some guy silently gestures to the flailing woman. She gets it. She gives the jacket to the woman, considers, then places it on the ground next to her. It’s okay, I tell myself. When I’m older, I’ll be able to do that too. Be better at acts of kindness. Be better.
Stop 12. She tries to grab her jacket, but I don’t know what happens because I’m still staring ahead of me. Focused on the music. Focus on the music. Stop 11. She stands up, seems calm. She’s controlling her arms. I look up, a glance, just a moment. It’s going to be okay. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Stop 11. Turns out she is a man. He is not holding his jacket. The smell, I had gotten used to by now. It was coming from his cigarette. His hair is greying, it’s wild, partly plaited. He’s moved to the doorway of the tram. He keeps looking back at his jacket, eyes frantically wandering, wondering.
It’s on the floor where the woman left it. He cannot pick it up.
Why am I shaking? The jacket is on the floor. I grab it, I hold it out, he walks off the tram. He didn’t see. He gets off without his jacket. Doesn’t turn back. He looks like the people I walk past on the street, who I always mean to talk to, but next time, I’ll stop and talk next time. I’m too young, I’ll be able to when I’m older, I will.
People are looking at me in my stupid posh school uniform, with my stupid pride for a people I do not represent, with my stupid hand outstretched with this man’s jacket. It’s warm. Blue and white. I drape it over the seat.
There are less people on the tram now, they cannot see me shaking. I acted, but I was too late. I don’t know what my fear was, but I was gripped by it.
Excuse me sir, I think you dropped your jacket. I’ll just put it on the seat next to you. Can I help you with anything else?
Kayla wouldn’t be proud. I am not proud. It was so simple. I was so scared. So weak.
Stop 5. My music has blurred into a wash of sound. The tram isn’t going the rest of the way, I’ll have to walk quickly. At least I don’t have to tap off.
The dancing man does not have his jacket. It’s the first cold day of the year. I get off the tram.
I should have been bold, I should have thought quickly. I dream of starting conversations, inspiring others to do the same. But we all pretend we cannot see, we cannot hear. We all hope someone else will act. At least, I do.
I hope it’s not too cold on the street tonight, if that is where you are. I’m sorry I did not act. I’m sorry I could not. Pathetic, I know. From the comfort of my house to spill out these words of apology. Maybe one day I will no longer be hopeless, actless, spineless. I hope you are warm.