Best of 2010: Vote 1 bus 'bludger'


Bus story, by Chris Johnston

First published in Eureka Street on 9 August 2010.

There are many reasons to take the bus. It's cheap, reliable and easier on the environment than individual cars. There is no need to hunt for a carpark. You can lose yourself in a book instead of battling traffic.

More obliquely, public transport offers brief, slightly awkward interaction between people who might otherwise never meet or talk to each other. There is a fragile sense of community in the routine elements of bus travel — the tight smile that accompanies an impatient glance at one's watch; the sideways shuffle to allow another person to sit on the bench and wait; the occasional remark about the weather.

For the most part, though, we are silent, hoping that either the seat next to us remains empty or that its eventual occupant doesn't want to chat.

Buses are microcosms of society. Passengers scraping together coins to pay the fare share limited elbow room with smartly dressed businesspeople. Recent migrants and fourth-generation Australians, young and old, parents and singles board, sigh at the graffiti, wish the buses were warmer, and eventually get off at their destinations.

Last week, quite unexpectedly, a group of us participated in an event that seemed to blend social experiment with participatory democracy.

It was a bright, cruelly cold Perth morning and the bus was slowly filling up with people on their way to work. The collective mood was not cheery. Around halfway to the city, the bus stopped to pick up a passenger. And stayed stopped. After an animated discussion with the young man who had boarded, the bus driver opened his compartment door and stood in the aisle, brandishing the man's wallet before him.

The bus driver was indignant. 'Look at this', he said. 'This guy here has tried to give me a ticket that's two days old and he hasn't got any money or cards in his wallet.'

This is not the way bus trips are supposed to go. We looked up hesitantly from books and magazines, cautiously removed earbuds. The subject of this unwanted attention was young and blond, wearing the universal uniform of young manhood: jeans and a hoodie. He could have been desperately poor or just short of cash. He was also — as convention dictates in awkward situations — looking at the ground.

One could sense a wave of empathy for our new companion, mingled with impatience at the delay in our journey.

The driver asked us, 'Well, what do you reckon? Should I let him on or not? Yes or no?' This, again, was unexpected — Australians aren't generally good with audience participation. There was a muted response from the jural public. 'Come on', said the bus driver, exasperated. 'What is it: yes or no?' The response this time was decidedly in the affirmative. 'Let him on', called one man, accompanying a chorus of yeses.

The bus driver exhaled loudly and handed the man back his wallet. 'You're lucky', he informed him. 'If I had had the casting vote, I wouldn't have let you on.'

The reprieved passenger quietly took his seat, the driver admonishing his retreating back for failing to thank anyone. The remainder of the journey took place in the customary silence. No one said 'bludger', 'freeloader' or 'slacker'. We returned to our reading and iPods. Those without either continued looking through the windows.

The outcome of this informal plebiscite might well have been different had the young man been Indigenous, had he had a disability or had he been unable to speak English. Who can say what influenced the collective decision? Still, there was something reassuring in the fact that a group of randomly selected commuters immersed in their own lives and concerns paused to give a stranger a break.

The world, we are told, is becoming a grimmer place. Stories of man's inhumanity to man are so commonplace as to be almost overwhelming. The level of disconnect between individuals and groups within our society grows; disengagement with political and civic life deepens.

The individualism of modern life is echoed in the relentless focus of the current election campaign on personal benefit: what will this or that candidate do for me? 'This election', says Tony Abbott, 'is about you.' Indeed.

Yet there is beauty in the banal moments of everyday life. The backdrop of the global political scene and the grind of work, bills and worries make us grateful for those unexpected moments that see us cast a quiet vote for simple human solidarity.

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a Perth-based lawyer and freelance writer.

Topic tags: sarah burnside, bus, democracy, plebiscite, vote, freeloader, bludger, slacker


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Existing comments

This piece certainly deserves at least one grateful response. Will print it off for my husband to read in bed. Thanks.
Mary Long | 07 January 2011

I remember this article. Not sure if I commented on it at the time. It's a good one and I'm pleased to see it back in Best of 2010.

I would be really interested in a study that tests these situations. Attempting the same thing with various groups (non-English speaking, Indigenous, disabled) would be a very interesting experiment ...
MBG | 19 January 2011

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