I was sprinting down Racecourse Road in Kensington, a suburb of Melbourne. Wearing heels, a blazer, and my heavy backpack in 28-degree weather, I was sweating and panting trying to reach the tram that had already left my stop. Dodging traffic, I crossed the street and got to the next stop just in time. I catapulted myself inside before it could shut its doors then continued to breathe as if I was in my final moments. I looked up and made eye contact with a petite middle-aged woman with brown hair and a judgmental look on her face. I heaved a couple of times, almost throwing up from the 100-meter dash. Spotting a seat in the middle of the tram, I walked past a man who had part of his face missing. I must have looked shocked to see someone without a nose or part of his mouth because he smiled at me as I passed him. Either that or he was laughing at my struggle.
A few stops later, a couple under the influence of some substance sat down next to me, repeating over and over again. “you smell like a monkey, and you look like one too!” like a baby’s toy that only has one audio button. In between singing, they were discussing what a horrible man the woman’s brother was for abandoning her mother last year when she was sick. A few minutes later she said, “Well, it’ll be nice to see my mom after all these years,” suggesting she hasn’t been the greatest daughter, either.
As the tram got closer to the city, more and more tourists packed on, prolonging my overheating. The woman under the influence of drugs kept repeating the nursery rhyme, and I still wanted to throw up. I thought about moving, but I was stuck between three girls each carrying two giant UGG bags. I sipped my water and took a bite out of my apple, wishing the tram ride would be over.
But as soon as I had that thought, I remembered the advice my mother gave me every time I grumbled about wanting something to end: never wish your life away. So, how could I wish this ride, and in effect, this life, to be over? Because as the most cliché saying goes, life isn’t about the destination—it’s about the journey.
If over 3.5 million people take the Melbourne trams weekly, that’s a lot of life being lived onboard. A lot of life that most people may brush off or wish to be over. I think of how many hours of our lives we spend in transit, surrounded by people we don’t know, shoulder to shoulder with people who will never understand us.
For the past few months that I’ve circulated Melbourne in the trams, I have seen the kindest, most absurd occurrences, the ones that remind me of what beautiful, odd creatures we are. In my normal tram route, I see the handsome hipsters get on at North Melbourne. I see the middle-aged women as they appear just before Kensington wearing shirts that advertise restaurants like Hogs Breath. The rough sleepers, the people with sunken in, lifeless eyes from too much substance abuse who are in your face constantly? They get on at any point.
I see obnoxious men enter in pairs and split off, not letting the space between them interrupt their normal conversation. “Where we get off, mate?” one will scream in a hoarse and exhausted voice. “I told you already, ya cunt. We get off at Elizabeth Street,” the other one will slur back. The rest of us will look around, make eye contact for a second, perhaps a slight smile, then go back to the empty spaces that entertain our gaze.
I see the caring nature of people, like the time a man appeared to have drunk too much, and everyone else stared in disgust. Everyone except a young man who gently woke him and talked to him until he got off. He spoke casually and nonchalantly, careful not to make the man who passed out feel inferior.
I see the annoyed people, the frustrated locals who are anxious to get home and escape the never-ending congestion. I see the exhausted tradesmen, carrying bags and groceries and still standing, tightly packed in the center, despite having stood all day.
I see people—complete strangers—have lovely conversations. They exchange information, smile, and laugh, despite knowing that they’ll never meet again.
I even often see a rowdy man who looks similar to Buffalo Bill. Once I saw him prop himself up on the railing, thrust his hips, and make loud noises. After tampering with the electrical box on the ceiling, he got into a weak slapping match with an elderly man and shouted, “Suck mi’ cock!”
One late Tuesday night, the tram was stuffed full of tired-looking professionals in black trench coats. There was a bottle stuck in the rear left-hand side door that for safety reasons prevented the tram from continuing. The pudgy driver with white hair flung open the door to his driver’s cabin and stomped through the carriage. He dislodged the plastic bottle from the door and let it shut again. Once released, he threw the plastic bottle onto the street, infuriating two people sitting near him. “Hey!” they shouted as he headed back to his seat, the rest of us bystanders watching in silence. “You’re littering! You can’t litter! Excuse me, sir, I’m going to step out to get that bottle!”
Stopping and turning around, he marched back to them and yelled, “We wouldn’t have to waste so much time if passengers would just pick up their rubbish!” His voice was shaking, and he was turning red, but there was something powerful underneath his quivering. I could tell by the jerking hand motions and inflection in his voice that this wasn’t a normal occurrence for him.
Each one of us has our proud moments, our tiny victories, outbursts, and compassionate urges.
The experience of riding the trams is as much a shared space as an intimate one. Showing ourselves and others sides of us we may rarely expose to our normal cohorts, we display how we react given the stresses of time constraints, how quickly we act when someone needs a hand, and how easily we take out the pains of the day on others.
Melbourne is not my city, and these are not my trams. But from the strangers I’ll never speak to, in each mood swing and laughable moment I witness, I see how remarkable our lives are. I carry these moments off the train with me, stockpiling them in my consciousness to remember them always.
Allison is a devout Latin America enthusiast, who loves a lot of things, but mostly a good cup a tea and loud personalities. You can find her on Twitter: @AllisonBYates and Instagram: @allisonyateswrites