made the mistake the other day of communicating to Sleepy Jack Hanrahan
the gist of a farcical little scene I’d witnessed on the new Sydney
tram. His response was, "Yeah. Funny people are always happening on
trains, light or heavy . . . Which reminds me."
not waiting for an invitation, he launched headlong into the following.
afternoon not so long ago I was sitting in a suburban train bound for
Sydney. Just before Lidcombe, thinking of the virtues of a multicultural
Oz (as one is wont, isn’t one, around Lidcombe?), I made the mistake of
mumbling the word “Australia”. All at once the young woman next to me
gasped and stiffened, fearful perhaps that I was some fugitive axe
murderer about to let fly. When nothing bloodthirsty eventuated, she cast
a few furtive glances around and under the seat, no doubt in search of
lurking implements of mayhem. I have to assume that, finding none, she
must have put my muttering down to mere eccentricity, for she managed to
ignore me for the rest of the journey. Just as well, too, since in my bag
was a complete set of enlarged Cleudo weapon replicas — lead pipe,
candlestick and the like — together with a piano-sized bust of Miss
Now, I don’t
suppose anyone actually relishes being looked askance at in trains. Yet I
must concede that I’ve always enjoyed my share of oblique observation of
others on public transport. To me it seems right and proper to drink in as
much as you can of the old human panorama, provided you do it discreetly.
engaging as I know you found that short voyeur’s prelude, what I really
want to relay is a far more piquant yarn. It concerns an oddball I used to
run into about 20 years ago on the Epping line.
We were just
pulling out of Strathfield station one afternoon, when we heard a blaring
cry from the carriage door: “Are the treens leet?” Then a pause, then
once more, “Are the treens leet?
The voice in
question was distinguished not only by its volume, but also its timbre,
which gave the impression that its pent-up energy came forth through
too difficult to identify the source: a thickset man of about 30 with a
daft look on his face, who, upon entering the carriage, flung himself
clumsily into a seat and proceeded to talk repetitive nonsense in a loud
voice. He was still gibbering when I alighted 15 minutes later.
behaviour — which regularly began with that question, enunciated so
dementedly — led me to the not very “wild surmise” that he was from
some part-time sheltered workshop. Personally, I found it all quite
entertaining, and began to look forward to his Monday appearances. (He
only surfaced on Mondays.) Luckily, he was as much a creature of habit as
I was, and always boarded the same carriage.
personal contact — one-sided though it was, since I declined his
patently earnest offer of conversation — took place one day when he
plumped down on arrival in the seat in front of me and immediately turned
round with a frightful leer to deliver his grotesque refrain.
ignored him, he arose briskly from his seat, and sought company elsewhere,
shouting, “Silly old codger. Silly old codger.” All this, I might add,
was accompanied by a series of high-pitched giggles.
occasion he hurled a rolled-up newspaper across the line at West Ryde,
aiming at the afternoon commuters on the opposite platform. This time it
was maniacal laughter echoing down the corridor.
As a rule,
though, his outbursts were not addressed to anyone in particular. This was
fortunate, for that particular carriage seemed always to carry a number of
solid, sober looking men (depressed stockbrokers, no doubt), any of whom
if so accosted could have given quite an energetic and effective account
of himself. Even so, his main expectation of a reply seemed to be of
males, though he did once bellow horribly at a young woman fraught with
imminent child, who, had she been made of less sterner stuff, might well
have caused a headline-making disturbance of her own.
ultimately became of him? Did he do more harm than good, and get placed in
restrictive care? Maybe he patronises the Liverpool line instead — or
the Manly ferry? Or did he retire wealthy, having sold his life-story to Sixty