The People You Meet on the U-Bahn

Some people spend a lot of time at home, some at work, others at the library, and some creative minds in the bathtub. I myself, as a German college student living hours off campus and a proud owner of a public transport ticket for all of Berlin, provided by my university, spend some quality time on the metro every day, which among the German-speaking people is known as the U-Bahn.

Another day, another train ride. I push the green button on the yellow doors, but only one of the two opens and I am pushed a few steps back by all the people trying to get out. I try to get in as the wagon has emptied out at least a little but I already feel several elbows on my hips and feet on the heels of my shoes.

Walking in between the rows of seats, I try to catch a free spot but instead I see several of the people I call outsiders.They prefer to take the very outer part of the seat, instead of making themselves comfortable by the window, the space by it left empty so that those who wish to sit may perform a sometimes remarkable climbing act.

I keep looking but there is no chance of getting to rest on this ride. Rush hour is coming closer and everything is occupied by either travellers and tourists with their luggage, mothers securing that Mercedes of a baby buggy in front of them, or the elderly, waving their disability certificates into the faces of those who want, and who do not want to see it, hoping that at the sight of the piece of paper someone will feel ashamed enough to get up and give them their seat.

At the next stop we are joined by a young man in shabby clothes, a wrinkled Back Factory coffee cup in his hand, a cloud of strong odor following him as he walks down the wagon, asking whether anyone has any money for food and shelter, maybe a hot shower. The homeless are probably the most common passengers. Some play an instrument, others read poems out loud or sing songs. Almost all of them sell the Motz or Strassenfeger magazine, made and published by the homeless people themselves. Some of the faces are new to me. Others I already know by name from my previous rides even years ago. They often take the same route.

The homeless man gets out after someone hands him an orange and some change. He did well getting off so soon because shortly after, the conductors join us to see if everyone has paid for their ride. A woman comes up to me, looks at my university ticket and demands to see my passport. I have mine with me but the person opposite me has neither passport nor ticket and the conductors take the man with them, so he can be charged his €40 for “driving black” or Schwarzfahren as we say when someone is on the train without a ticket.

The tooting sound of the closing doors floats above our heads, the doors shut and we are in motion again.

“You can’t just leave me now!” someone shouts. “It is your baby, too, you know?” I turn around to see where the drama comes from and spot a woman with a blond ponytail and a neon yellow shirt. She has her phone at her ear and her face looks desperate. I have never understood how some people are capable of discussing such private things on a full train, not to mention all the noise around them. I might just as well call  them those who don’t care. 

Finally a seat is free. To my right there is a woman with red hair and a book in her hand. Across from me, a young man with hair gel, a leather jacket and torn jeans listens to the music on his iPod at full volume. I get out my headphones and let the tunes of Brahms accompany me to the last station of the route. Someone takes the seat next to mine. I look out of the window and pay no attention, until I feel an elbow touching my side. Lack of space, I think to myself and keep looking at the blackness passing by me. There comes the elbow again. Nudging me slowly, as if to say “hey there, here I am.” I look to my left discreetly. The stranger in his business suit next to me is neither too big, nor is someone pushing him. He is looking away though so I assume his move was unintentional. There it is again. Damn elbow. What is this? A touching contest? I feel like screaming hysterically but if I say anything to him, he will just turn tables and it will seem as if I am bothering him and not the other way around.

My station is being announced. I make motions to indicate that I want to get out, so that Mr. Elbow can get his feet out of my way. “Do you want to get out?” he asks me with a smile, using the informal version of “you”, which is very uncommon among strangers here.

“Yes”, I say, trying to stay calm and get out onto the platform, breathing the stale air of the tunnel as I am on my way to the stairs.

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