I like to think of myself as a pretty public-spirited fellow. I do worry about the privatization of society, about the dangers of everybody getting locked into the metallic bubble that is the motor car and the mental bubble that is the MP3 player, or the mobile phone, or the laptop computer. I get irritated when I hear people complain about Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishnas or charity collectors or people with petitions approaching them on the street. I feel annoyed when I hear people moaning about door-to-door canvassers at election time. Is Come Dine With Me really more important than the democratic process?
I've even written to the papers to take issue with other correspondents who moan about their fellow passengers' activities on the bus-- as though putting on make-up, or eating, was a monstrous invasion of your fellow-passenger's privacy.
But I think we are all anti-social to some extent, as I had to admit to myself today.
I take two buses into work. The first stops in Dame Street. Today, I decided (since I had rushed out of the house without breakfast) to buy a baguette in the Londis near the Wax Museum. The dusky-skinned fellow at the sandwich counter seemed in a bad mood. He put chicken on my baguette without asking, and then-- when he was about to wrap it up, and I asked if I could have coleslaw as well-- protested, "That will cost extra, you know". Later on, as I was queuing to pay for it, the entire shop was listening to him declaim: "We need more baguettes! We just need more baguettes, that's all!"
Buying a freshly-cut sandwich on the way to work, and eating it on the bus, is something I've never done before. I felt strangely gleeful about it. I wasn't in any especial hurry. In my carrier bag, I had A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, which I had started to read the evening before and which I was enjoying even more than I expected to. The morning was the kind of bright, fresh morning that is (to my mind) the weather summer has to offer. I was greatly looking forward to my morning treat.
My second-bus arrived almost immediately I reached the bus-stop. There was plenty of room, and I got my second-favourite seat-- the upstairs seat immediately behind the stairwell, with plenty of room to cross your legs in.
What more could a man ask for? I opened my book on the place I had left off, I took out my wrapped baguette, and then-- he sat down beside me.
He was a rather portly man, though not excessively so. He was perhaps ten years older than me, wore a crisp business suit and spectacles, and was particularly well-groomed (though his chin was rather stubbled). There was nothing objectionable about him. Except--except-- he was sitting right beside me, exactly when I wanted to be alone. I couldn't cross my legs (I can't remember if I uncrossed them as he arrived). I felt inhibited from eating my baguette, especially in such close proximity to his nice suit. He'd completely ruined the moment. I could have thumped him.
I decided to wait it out. I was going all the way to the terminus-- probably, he would get off in the city centre somewhere.
But then something even more outrageous, unthinkable, unpardonable happened. The other seats began to empty, so that there were plenty of window seats available, and he didn't get up to take one. What the heck was the matter with this guy?
I sneaked a glimpse at him. He looked a little unsettled. He was glancing around himself a lot, as though unsure where he was going or where he should get off. He gave the impression of hovering a quarter-inch over the seat. And, though he never looked me full in the face, his expression seemed rather nervous and anxious. Or was I just imagining it? After all, he seemed to be a business-man of some kind. Shy and nervous people didn't inhabit the hard world of commerce.
I thought of my teens and early twenties, when I had struggled with crippling shyness and social anxiety. I could remember sitting on buses and watching all the other seats filling up, feeling shattered that the seat beside me (as it seemed to me then) was always the last to be taken. I remembered how the smallest perceived slight or rejection would throw me into a tailspin. It was awful. Maybe this was a fragile soul who would feel much the same way if I moved seats.
And yet-- despite my letter to the paper, despite my outspoken public-spiritedness, despite my memories of my own morbid sensitivity in previous years-- it wasn't too long before I said, "Excuse me", stepped past the man in the suit, and made my way to a window seat at the back of the bus, to cross my legs and enjoy my book and my baguette undisturbed.
Oh hypocrisy of humanity!