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January 15, 2005

Who needs iPods? We've got hands!

From: The Age, Australia - Jan 15, 2005

Deaflympians show Melbourne commuters how to connect writes Alan Attwood in The City.

There's a game I like to play when stuck in traffic at lights. When I hear a tell-tale boom-ba-boom thud from a nearby car, or notice that a neighbouring driver is bopping in their seat or conducting an orchestra while waiting for red to become green, I turn off my own radio or tape then roll a window down to try to identify the music being played.

Sometimes I'm surprised: a businessman in a suit blasting Eminem; a Casey Donovan clone going classical; a bloke with tats in a labourer's singlet floating away with Pink Floyd. Occasionally I've been sprung while snooping. Eye contact is made, which prompts either an aggrieved nick-off gesture from the other driver or an embarrassed fumbling with the volume control. But usually these listeners are in a world of their own; their private vehicles are mobile musical bubbles.

Public transport is different. It would take a brave man in a suit to play Eminem on a boom-box at peak hour on the No. 57 tram. Technology has made this unnecessary anyway. Every month brings new methods of distraction, more and more ways to make public transport a private experience. So I probably shouldn't have been surprised to see that almost all of my fellow travellers on a city-bound train on the Sandringham line the other day seemed to be plugged in one way or another.

Without drawing too much attention to myself, I counted three people engaged in loud mobile-phone conversations, two people with the distinctive white leads to iPod ear-pieces snaking up their shirts, another couple of commuters sporting older-style headphones linked to portable CD-players, and one fellow - obviously a high-achiever - simultaneously listening to something while tapping away at a hand-held electronic organiser.

Whenever a ring-tone was heard in the carriage there was a flurry of fumbling in handbags and cases. I felt awfully old-fashioned just reading a book.

Anyone pondering the global decline in newspaper sales might find part of the explanation in our trains and trams and buses.

There are simply many more ways than there were to spend time in transit. Why talk to a stranger pressed up against you, for example, when you can chat with a friend somewhere completely different by mobile phone? Most of us, at different times, have had to endure one half of a personal conversation conducted at uncomfortably close quarters. Once, after listening for far too long to a traumatic break-up monologue ("I really like you but, you know, I just need some space of my own . . .") it was all I could do not to snatch the phone and say: "'Believe me - this guy is a loser. With NO sense at all of personal space."

To do so, of course, would have caused outrage. This was, after all, a personal conversation. Very personal. Which left those of us in the vicinity wondering why it was being conducted in public. It can't be long, I suspect, before Melbourne's trains adopt the sort of enforced segregation that used to apply to smokers: commuters could choose between Mobile and No-Mobile carriages.

Perhaps, in time, the No-Mobile zones would become the friendliest places to be - Melbourne's transport equivalent of New York's park benches. By taking a seat in Central Park or Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, you declare yourself up for a chat. When I lived in New York for a few years in the late '80s, some of the best conversations occurred on these benches. Or on the much-maligned subway system. Then again, at that time half the population wasn't hiding between headphones.

After my trip to Flinders Street this week in the train carriage disguised as a portable electronics exhibition, I caught a tram along Swanston Street. We were passing the Burke and Wills statue when I started to pay attention to the people sitting close to me: five young visitors to the city, wearing shorts and T-shirts. No headphones, I noted. No mobiles. Then I saw the plastic accreditation tags around their necks. They were competitors and a coach from Russia, in town for the Deaflympics.

As we travelled the few blocks up to the State Library, I watched with increasing admiration as they chatted between themselves without a word. Using rapid-fire sign-language, smiles, gestures and nods they communicated with ease and alacrity. One of them, I picked up, was keen to see the crocodiles at the aquarium. If I'd had more time and less self-consciousness I might have tried harder to pass on some kind of greeting before I got off. Then again, they were doing just fine.

Without battery-powered distractions they seemed more open to new experiences than any city commuter I'd seen or heard in quite a while.

Alan Attwood is a Melbourne writer.

Copyright © 2005. The Age Company Ltd.