[Queen Street Shopping]
My Local Travel Story
I’ve never liked Wednesdays, I think to myself as I stand in the cold at Swanson station waiting for the train to arrive. I look at my watch – it’s already 3 minutes and 45 seconds late. The timetable claims the journey into the city will only take 52 minutes, but I know (and everyone else in Auckland knows, for that matter) that it’ll take at least 60 minutes on a good day. 60 minutes of sitting on my bum and being miserable because I didn’t drive to work.
I’ve parked my dinged-up Toyota Marino on Knox Road, so I send a quick prayer heavenwards hoping that members of the ‘Bloods’ gang two houses down the street won’t consider it worth breaking into.
The train finally arrives and I choose a seat near a window and huddle in the corner. A greasy mark where someone has pressed their face up against the glass obscures my view. An empty Coke can rolls out from under the seat. I grimace slightly before plastering an impassive expression on my face. At least 10 of the 13 passengers in the carriage are similarly emotionless. Six of them are plugged into their iPhones. The only people daring to disturb the aura of peace are a mother with her noisy toddler, and a teenage girl in ripped jeans and purple Doc Martens. She’s having a loud argument with someone on the other end of her cheap Nokia phone:
“What the f**k?! I can’t believe you think I did that? So what if Matt told you I slept with him at Marty’s place – you don’t believe him right? ... You’re shitting me Aroha. Your boyfriends not even hot, why would I sleep with him? Well … f**k you then!”
The girl jumps off at Henderson, and even the train seems to breathe a sigh of relief as it judders out of the station. Thank God for small mercies, I think.
“Is this seat taken?” A woman is pointing to the empty seat on my right.
Yes, of course it is, go away. “I guess not.”
She slips in beside me and I take a moment to scrutinise her newly dyed, long chocolate brown hair. From the side, her slim-fitting navy skirt and black heels make her look fresh, perhaps even young. But then I see her face. It’s time-worn. Her forehead is etched deeply with grooves, and her wrinkled cheeks are sliding down towards a set of flabby jowls.
“Thanks. I’m Roz.” She thrusts a bony hand towards me in greeting. Her voice is loud and raspy, a habitual smoker I decide. “Say, do you have a couple of dollars? I didn’t buy a ticket, totally forgot!”
“You can’t buy tickets on board anymore. Sorry.” This woman obviously doesn’t know much about train travel etiquette. I pull out my phone and pretend to send a text.
I see the pair of ticket inspectors board the train at New Lynn the same moment Roz does. Her face visibly whitens as she mentally prepares for battle, a vein pulsing in her left temple.
“Tickets please, tickets please,” a regal-looking Indian and his squat Asian accomplice call as they make their way down the aisle towards us. I show them mine: ‘Purchased 8:03am, 2 April, 2014. Swanson to Britomart.’
“Excuse me ma’am, but I must see your ticket,’ the inspector demands as he shakes his head from side to side in true Indian fashion. My companion straightens her back and lifts her wrinkled chin in defiance.
“Well, excuse me,” Roz croaks, “But I don’t have a ticket today.”
“You need a ticket ma’am to be on this train. Otherwise I must ask you to get off at the next stop.”
“You can’t throw me off! You don’t understand, I have to get to Grafton right away. My granddaughter is in hospital for an operation, she has cancer and she’s only three. Please you can’t…” Roz swipes a tear away from her eye, “I don’t have a car and the ticket machine wasn’t accepting cash this morning, I lost my Eftpos card last week, and my credit card...” I know it’s all lies but I almost believe her myself. Indecision plays across her opponent’s face before he caves.
“Ok, just once ma’am.” He lifts an index finger to emphasise his point, “But if you come without ticket again, I charge you twenty-dollar.” Finally he turns and strides to the other end of the carriage and I realise I’ve been holding my breath.
“Bloody hell, effing people think they’re doing us a favour. I deserve a free trip every now and then. Didn’t reimburse me the other day when someone thought it’d be a good idea to jump in front of a train in Mt Albert. I swear it took me three bloody hours to get home that night.” She shakes her fist in the general direction of the ticket inspectors.
“Suicide?” I’m curious.
“Of course,” she huffs, “Bloody selfish if you ask me – if you’re going to kill yourself, go do it somewhere less inconvenient.”
“That would’ve been a painful way to die.” I imagine a young man making his final defiant stand in front of that train, arms outstretched, and bracing for impact.
“My stop, have a good day dearie.” Roz waves to me as she hops off at Grafton.
A pimply boy dressed in a McDonald’s uniform which is too small for his ridiculously long limbs leans across the aisle and winks at me, “She’s a crazy one. Looks like the old hag from Snow White! Wouldn’t put it past her to push that Indian in front of a train!” He’s sniggering to himself by this point, but I don’t laugh.
Well, you look like the bloody stork from Dumbo, I wish I was brave enough to say.
The train finally pulls into Britomart. In the underground station, concrete walls lit up by multi-coloured fluorescent lights direct passengers towards the exit. There’s an eerie sense to this place – the gentle hum of train engines is broken only by intermittent announcements over the crackling loudspeakers: “Platform four, final call for the nine o’twelve train to Waitakere on the Western Line. This is your final call.”
I emerge onto the street and am immediately confronted by an overweight middle-aged woman waving a charity bucket in my face. She’s wearing a light blue sash, and by the gentle tinkling sound the bucket makes as she swings it wildly at passers-by, I guess she’s not had much luck this morning. I fumble in my bag and come up with a chewing gum wrapper, a pen, and a 50 cent piece.
“Bless you,” she dips her head and makes the sign of the cross as I drop the coin through the slot. She doesn’t look Catholic, but then again, I don’t know very many Catholics. The person behind me is not so gracious:
“What a fluke! I bet you just want money so you can go and spend it on cheeseburgers you lardo.” He flips the bird at her.
I want to say something witty in her defense but instead I shrug my shoulders, duck my head and start striding up Queen Street. It’s a 12 minute walk to work, and I only have 10 left.
I arrive with half-a-minute to spare as I push open the heavy glass door. The accessory shop would be airy and spacious if it wasn’t crammed with jewellery and bags in almost every style and colour imaginable. I like simplicity, but this is a treasure trove for tourists who can’t afford Louis Vuitton or Gucci, and middle class women who can justify spending a sneaky $100 on their credit cards. I place my handbag and jacket in the back room and emerge as a confident saleswoman, a semi-permanent smile tugging on the corners of my mouth, and a well-used phrase upon my lips: “But, you can never have too much jewellery.”
The day is passing quickly. A half-dozen Americans waddle in on the way back to their ‘Celebrity Cruises’ ship. Their matching Nike jogging suits are an eyesore, and one woman has clearly had a face lift. Her puffy botoxed lips are smeared with bright red lipstick, and when she smiles she looks almost vampire-ish with lipstick clumped on her front teeth.
“Look y’all, this here’s a bargain.” She points to a sale stand featuring last season’s necklaces. “Buddy, give me your card. I’m taking these five. How much does that add up to?” She demands.
“$83.50.” I start wrapping the jewellery in tissue paper.
“Ya know, I like your city of Orkland, but I can’t stand walk’n the streets. Why we saw, what was it Buddy?” She doesn’t wait for a reply before drawling on in her Californian accent, “Nine homeless people on Queen Street. Nine I tell you! Supposed to be such a lovely place they told me on the ship, but ya got these dirty people begging. One wanted money for these ugly little pictures he was drawing. It’s almost worse than Paris!”
I hand her the bag and watch her saunter out of the shop like she owns the world, and her husband for that matter. My smile fades to a thin hard line. As much as I feel justified in criticising my own city, I can’t abide uppity Americans who think they’re entitled to voice an opinion of Auckland after one day.
“Well, maybe she has a point.” My blonde Russian co-worker says when she sees my face.
“Russians, Americans, Asians! You’re all too opinionated – ‘Whangarei looks old, Hamilton is boring, Rotorua smells.’ But it’s not your country ok!”
“Yeah and I didn’t hear you complaining about those homeless people this morning either Miss New Zealand!” Svetlana laughs and dashes to the other side of the shop before I can swat her with a duster.
It’s almost closing time so I start tidying up a display. As I re-arrange a pair of blue earrings, I notice two Arabian-looking men in their mid-thirties staring intently at a stand of stainless steel rings. The shorter and squatter of the pair glances in my direction every few seconds, and I can feel his black eyes perusing me.
“Would you like to try on a ring?” I walk over and ask, smiling. But he just stares and I feel suddenly uncomfortable.
His tall, lanky partner gives me a crooked grin and replies in halting English, “No, no. Sorry we just look. I come get you if he need help to choose.”
I flash them my best saleswoman smile and walk to the counter, intent on putting a buffer between myself and the smaller Arab’s disconcerting gaze. From the corner of my eye I can see them debating with each other in a foreign tongue, and assume they must be trying to decide what to buy.
Finally, the lanky Arab saunters over to the counter. Mr ‘Creepy Eyes’ stays put, staring.
“So you have chosen something? Can I come and help?” I inquire sweetly.
He pauses before gesturing towards his companion, “My friend, he apologises that he not speak good English, but he has made choice.”
“Oh ok, what would he like to buy?”
“Excuse me?!” I gasp.
“He thinks you are very beautiful, so he has chosen you. You come with us to Saudi Arabia and you will have everything you want – money, expensive clothes, jewellery. Everything.” He flashes me a self-satisfied grin, convinced he has just presented me with the most amazing offer I will ever receive in my life.
I can’t help blushing in surprise as I decline, “I can’t,” I hold up my left hand, “I’m engaged.”
“Oh that is sad, you miss out.” The Arab leans in closer and rubs his thumb and forefinger together, “Are you sure? He is rich man.”
“I’m very sure.”
I glare at them as they leave the store and mutter under my breath, “You can’t buy me – I’m not an animal or a piece of jewellery. I’m a human being!”
It’s drizzling as I make my way down Queen Street towards the train station. I imagine Arab thugs hiding in doorways and down dark alleys, waiting for me to pass by so they can kidnap me and drag me to Saudi Arabia.
I make it safely to the train however, and choose the last seat on the final carriage. I pull out my book, and soon I am lost in the magical world of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
For those who pass without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave …
I pause and look up from page 113 as the train draws to a halt at Glen Eden station. Daylight is fading but I can still make out the form of a potbellied Polynesian stumbling along the platform.
“Beep, beep, beep,” the doors are just about to close as he hauls himself into the carriage. His t-shirt is ripped and stained, stretched tight across his protruding stomach, and he’s clutching a dirty plastic bag in his right hand. He snorts and sputters as he slouches across a row of seats and lights up a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke on the train,” an elderly gentleman sitting behind him says, “Look at the sign.”
“Don’t see no f**kin sign,” He slurs.
I can smell the drunk man’s foul body odour from half-way down the carriage. Cigarette smoke starts to fill the confined space. He reaches inside the plastic bag, pulls out a Jim Beam bourbon can, opens it, and downs the entire contents. “Holy shit!” Another passenger exclaims.
The drunk gets to his feet, lurches down the aisle, and starts yelling obscenities. We’re almost at Sturges Road station, two stops from Swanson, but I don’t want to stay on board any longer. As I gather my belongings and eye up the best way to make a dash for the exit, two ticket inspectors appear.
“Sir,” one of them commands, “You must sit down and be quiet or we will remove you from this train.”
The drunk laughs raucously and throws his cigarette in their faces. But he’s too fat and slow to make a getaway from the Indian ticket inspectors who grab a fleshy arm each. When the train arrives at Sturges Road they march him onto the platform and leave him sitting on the concrete. A pitiful sight.
I wonder where he will go, or how he will get home tonight, drunk as he is. Does he even have a home? Would anyone want him back?
I’m almost home. I hurry down Knox Road to my car, but before I make it two metres I halt suddenly.
My car’s been egged.
In the dwindling light I can make out the unmistakeable yellow and white stains all over the driver’s side window.
“Wednesdays huh?” I say out loud to no one in particular.