Commute Week: Sam Brooks muses on the commutes of his life – what they meant to him at the time, and what they mean now.
As a near lifelong Aucklander, I’m also a near lifelong participant of the Auckland commute – a commute which I will apparently spend 20 working days in each year. This is terrifying to me, but it also gives me pause and makes me think about the varied commutes I’ve had, because I’m a reflective and very navel-gazing human being, with an uncommonly god memory.
For the past few years, I’ve managed to limit my commuting to walking, simply by virtue of living in the city centre, being a freelancer and generally refusing to be seen anywhere outside a half hour radius of my house. This has continued to the job I have right now (thanks, The Spinoff!), and my first regular commute for work – a half hour walk.
As commutes go, even though it’s a half hour walk down the hellscape that is Queen Street, I could do worse.
And I have done worse – god have I done worse.
Intermediate school – finger-painting, cooties, Tamagotchis, Tamagotchis being banned from school because they were the absolute worst. You know it.
I went to St Mary’s Primary in Papakura (shout out to literally nobody!) and never lived more than a ten or so minute drive away from the school. My grandfather Sydney (nicknamed ‘Lofty’ because old people have amazing nicknames), who probably should not have been driving at that age and definitely shouldn’t have been driving 15 years later when he still had his licence, would pick me up and take me to school, and then home again at the end of the day.
He was always the closest car parked to the school in the afternoon. He became low-key famous (or at least as famous as you can be amongst the parents and guardians picking children up after school) for this, and for his shoddy 1984 Ford Laser, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t even cool back in the ’80s. He’d ask me what I learned at school today, and I’d talk for 15 minutes straight because despite having a speech impediment I was a chatty kid and a goddamned nerd who was cruel enough to make an 80-year-old man listen to Sailor Moon trivia.
By the end of my time at intermediate school I had gained enough agency to walk myself home, but my predominant memory is still those conversations with my grandfather, belted up tightly in the back seat, prattling on about one thing or another.
Then came high school. Through whatever wisdom my mother had, she decided to send me to an all-boys school – shout out Sacred Heart College! – which was about an hour’s away (20 minutes if Auckland traffic was good, and it frequently was not). And because she was a sane human being, she decided that I should get on a bus because no way in hell was she doing that commute as well. A parent’s sacrifice is a parent’s sacrifice, but a child’s sacrifice is a parent’s choice.
Though now it obviously makes no sense, at the time was a specially chartered school bus that went from Papakura through Takanini and Manurewa, then made a beeline straight for the school. On a good day, we could get to school at around 8:10, but on a bad day – and my lord, there were bad days – we would get to school just around the time homeroom finished, and deal with the administrative nightmare that was checking into school. And on the way back? You were looking at getting back to Papakura anywhere between 4 and 5pm.
That’s an hour’s commute there, and an hour to an hour and a half’s commute back.
So, as you can imagine, this bus was hell on earth. This was a time before portable music devices were a thing. I had a disc Walkman on this bus, and would regularly burn my own CDs to play at way too high volumes. Do you know how much effort it takes to burn a CD? To make up 72 minutes of music that will be stuck permanently in that order on that CD? Do you know what it’s like to want to skip a song, and then to press skip and have to wait for the disc to actually skip to it? And to do all this with a bunch of sweaty teenage boys around you, hoping they’re not hearing the K-pop that is obviously spilling out from your headphones because you have it at maximum volume to drown out said sweaty teenage boys.
Hell, this was a time before phones were properly a thing. I remember when the first guy on our bus got a camera phone. We all lost our goddamned minds! It was the future in front of our faces! And this was a flip-phone! I remember it like it was yesterday, or maybe 14 years ago, because that’s when it was. My point is that there were limited ways to distract yourself from the world around you. Even if you had a book, you had to actively shut out the voices and actions of those around you. And given that everybody else on the bus was a teenage boy, you wanted to shut out those voices.
This bus was always overpopulated. A full bus is bad at the worst of times, but a bus full of puberty-hitting boys who are just learning about not only their odours but each others, and also how to deal with those odours is… a lot. There was a bizarre and rigid social structure around the bus where the seniors sat up the back of the bus – which was a clear violation of every American depiction of school buses I’d ever seen, where the uncool kids sit up the back – and everybody else filled up the rest. The Manurewa kids were often left standing because they got on the bus last, unless it was on the bus back from school, in which case it was a complete shitfight. Not an actual fight, because I went to a prissy Catholic all-boys school, but there was some gentle shoving and pushing.
If you got a seat you were lucky, and if you had to stand you had to stand. No doubt this had lead to the titanium-strength ankle muscles I have today, and the fact that I never fall over on public transport, on the rare occasions when I deign/am required to take it.
Because I’m a masochist, I continued to live in Papakura despite going to film school in Mt. Albert. And despite having no driver’s licence. Did I have any inclination to get a licence? Yes, briefly! But I proved such a poor student at the intricate art of driving that it was decided that I probably shouldn’t pursue it any further. Anybody who knows me will know that I shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a car, given that I’m almost hit by a car any time I cross the road. (In fairness to me, cars generally stop for me! Four times they haven’t. But they haven’t killed me yet, so still I cross.)
Back the halcyon days of 2009, the Newmarket train station had yet to finish its renovation and so it was split into two. If you wanted to transfer from the Southern line to the Western line, it meant you had a ten minute walk to do so. So if your Southern line train was late, it meant you either had to run to the Western line or, if you were me, accept the fact you were going to be late for your 9am class and stroll over to the Western line.
It was the same deal on the way back: If your Western line train was late, or you happened to catch a weirdly timed train that didn’t coincide with a Southern line train, then you could end up late home or waiting around at the Southern Newmarket station for over an hour. If this sounds insane or indecipherable to you that’s because it was! And it is.
Thankfully, at this point in my life I had not only made friends, but made friends with people who had cars, but also licences to drive those cars, and also also people who lived close enough to me to give me a ride in, because we were in the same course. I look back on this now and I’m genuinely stunned that these things all managed to align for me, for all three years of my university career.
These commutes became a huge part of my university life, and god knows I remember more about them than anything I actually learned at the institution I went to. I learned how to DJ to slowly force my music taste upon anothers, I learned the back roads of every goddamned suburb between Papakura and Mt Albert, and I learned how to properly time a difficult conversation you need to have with the person driving you so that there’s maximum time to have the conversation and minimum time you have to spend in the car afterwards.
I look back on that time with incredulity. How on earth did I, a massive control freak who could not be less chill, happily accept being taken everywhere by my friends? Oh wait, I’m tremendously lazy sometimes and unwilling to inconvenience myself even slightly. That’s how.
Which brings me back to my current commute: the half hour walk down Queen St. Or, if it’s raining and I’m feeling lazy, a 25 minute Red Link bus – yes, it takes almost as long as walking. It’s almost as if the traffic lights in the CBD are synced up to cope with pedestrian traffic and not road traffic (that is, actually, exactly what it is.)
Or, if I’m going the opposite way up Queen St, I’m a bit tipsy (full-on rat-arsed) and it’s raining, I might Uber. The proliferation of Uber in my life, and the lives of others, terrifies me and makes me a little bit glad it wasn’t around when I was younger because I can’t imagine how much money I would’ve spent to avoid public transport just to be able to sit in the back seat of a clean car, look out the window – my headphones securely in – and pretend to be Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. I imagine I think about Uber the way that a few generations above me think about the deep freeze – they remember what it was like when you couldn’t freeze food within an inch of it having any flavour – and the generation under me won’t know what it was like when you couldn’t get somewhere slightly too far to walk at the call of an app.
It should go without saying that walking is my favourite commute of my life so far. I rank it far above a school bus, slightly less far above a train and just a bit above being a passenger in somebody else’s car. Even on the dark and bleak scene that is Queen St and its seemingly unplanned miasma of designer clothing stores, tacky souvenir stores and three Burger Kings, there’s an ownership that you can have over a walking commute that eludes you elsewhere.
I can choose to stop wherever I want: maybe I’ll go to the Lush and spend too much money, maybe I’ll get a glass bottle of Coke from the Esquires rather than a tin can from the dairy or a plastic one from the sushi place. There’s also a meditative order to a walking commute – you know you’ll get wherever you’re going, regardless of the route you take to get there. You’re not beholden to the whims of public transport, or the whims of someone who owns a car and who ludicrously has plans that might not involve getting you to or from a location. It’s just you and the road, and hopefully the cars that don’t hit you while you’re crossing that road.
As human beings who live in the congested 21st century, we spend a lot of our time commuting, and it’s both heartwarming and bleak to reflect on our commutes – what they meant to us at the time, and what they mean to us now.
I absolutely hated my school bus commute at the time and I feel little better about my university commute, which involved me bending and breaking to the illogical ebbs and flows of public transport and more logical needs and desires of real life people. Now that I’ve settled on a commute that I properly have control over, it makes me realise how much control we cede to our commutes.
But that control can actually be freeing and even more importantly, can open us up to moments that we wouldn’t have elsewhere – moments that make those commutes special, that anchor the facts around them in a memory.
I remember being ten and sitting in the back seat of my grandfather’s Ford Laser, even though it was just me and him in the car. The front seat was where adults sat, and children sat in the back seat. I remember when he said I could sit in front, because I was a grown-up now. (Little did he know that I will never be a grown-up, and I am exactly the person now that I was when I was ten.)
I remember being 14, being clearly very gay, and being a little bit excited to get on a bus with 50 boys and then realising that I had apparently wished upon a monkey’s paw because this is the absolute worst application of a gay boy being excited about being in an enclosed space with other boys.
I remember being 19 and having a delayed mental breakdown about the death of one loved one or another, and asking my friend to ‘just drive’ even though we’d gotten to my house, because the moment I stepped out of that car, stepped out of the ride home, whatever was at home would become real.
And I remember – experience – my walks to and from work now, amping myself up for a day of hot takes, inside jokes and wondering when the hell they’re going to finish the hotel outside the window, or winding myself down and walking up the Children of Men-esque hellscape that is Queen St.
Read more of Commute Week here
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