Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Freeriding the dark train of anxiety

When I was younger, I used to travel. A lot. Not to anywhere exotic or far away, but to places nearby. Stockholm, Gothenburg, most of the larger cities in the south of Sweden. On occasion to Oslo and Finland, just because they were there.

Thing is, I didn't go to all these places to do anything specific. I went there for the most everyday things. To visit friends, to pick up books at libraries, to breathe the air of someplace that is not home. On occasion, even to help out with everyday chores - because why not?

You might be wondering - just how much is a lot? Once a month? Twice?

That might be considered a lot. I went twice or thrice a week. Because why not? What are friends for, after all? And why buy a particular book when it's easier and faster to pick it up at some local library?

You might also be wondering - just how much did all this galavanting and skedaddling cost?

Nothing. Or, given the scope of things, the next best thing.

At this point, you just might be wondering what sort of privileged past I'm hailing from. What is up with all this going hither and dither for next to nothing? Who paid for all of that?

Here's the deal: no one did. I went anyway. Because why not?

There are many names for this practice. Free-riding, fare dodging, fraud. Depending on circumstances, you'd want to use different terms for it. But the general gist of it is this: getting from here to there on public transit without going through the hassle and hustle of having the proper ticket to ride.

Not the one singular time. Not two times. Three times. A week.

I still remember the first time doing it. I was to meet a friend in a city not far from where I lived, and got to the train station without quite enough time to buy a ticket. The choice was this: either get on the train without buying one, or buy one and miss the train during the time it'd take to complete the purchase. So I thought: hey, better to get there than to not get there. They'll probably let me buy one on board anyway.

I got on board. Sans proper travel documents.

As circumstances would have it, this particular train was slightly overcrowded. Not quite over capacity, but still more people than there really ought to be. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, I had to stand, as there were no seats available. On the other hand, we were quite a few bystanders. I found a standable spot and claimed it as mine, as a body occupying space does.

I heard the conductor approach in the distance. Quietly, I braced myself for the question that is also a demand: tickets please.

Only, the question never came. The conductor did, but only to then pass my by, not bothering to validate my anxiety. Or tickethaving. People around me got asked, showed their various travel documents, bought tickets, all the things that go into the consumer finance of modern train travel. Me? I just stood there, trying to keep my emotions in check (and, I hoped, invisible), until the moment had passed.

Somehow, I apparently looked travel weary enough to not warrant further inspection.

The next station came and went, and the next. The overcrowding situation didn't improve, as those who got off seemed to be replaced by newcomers who were faster on their feet than me. Aside from being mildly inconvenienced by standing around, I didn't mind, though. The experience was new enough to block any such sensations, and I was haunted by an anxiety that came to me in the form of thoughts like "what if I get caught?".

I didn't get caught, but I thought about it the whole way.

It was pretty much the same story on the return trip. Slight overcrowding, standing, looking as if I was bored with standing, not being asked, anxiety running through me the whole way. But, and this is key, at a slightly less rampant pace as the first time. The first time is always the hardest; the second time you have the luxury of looking back at the first time.

The third time is the charm. Not to mention the thirteenth.

As my galavanting became more and more of an everyday occurrence, I aged. I enrolled at the local university, gained new friends, did all the things that goes with being a young Scandinavian without any particular plan or direction. And as a part of this - to this day I'm not sure if my friends or the university played the bigger role - I started to read certain authors. One, in particular, is more critical than the others:


If you've read Foucault, you'll most likely have picked up on the word 'anxiety' above. It is one of the key things he writes about in his works. And, more specifically, the sources of it. One of these sources is the fear of not passing inspection, of whatever kind you might imagine. Ticket inspection is one particular kind of this. Passing tests (such as those encountered in schools) is another. Looking good yet another. Job interviews. Across many particular examples, the general principle boils down to this:

The fear of being looked upon by someone else, and to be found wanting.

It will come as no surprise that being on a train, ticketless, is very translatable to this line of thinking. There are those who are to be inspected (passengers) and those who are to do the inspecting (the conductors). The rules of the inspecting are easy to understand - you either have a ticket, or you don't. Getting a ticket is a predictable action - you can generally figure out how to buy them if you need to.

In short, the rules are simple, and you know what to do to follow them. To pass inspection.

Even when you do follow all the rules, though, there is still room for anxiety. Something could go wrong - you could accidentally buy the wrong ticket, there might be some sort of misunderstanding, a situation might arise where the rules and you don't agree with each other. And when that happens, it is usually on your head.

The fear is built in to the system. Even if the rules are easy to understand, there is always that underlying element of fear. What if I don't pass this time? What if something goes wrong?

As I gestured at earlier, this isn't just something that happens on trains. It happens everywhere, at all times. Whenever we feel that there's some standard that we have to live up to, and that there might be some risk of us not doing it - there be anxiety. There be the fear that we will be exposed as the frauds that we are, not good enough to pass muster. Not good enough to be a true member of the social order.

Be it in small or large circumstances.

Knowing this - doing it in practice - is one of the things that has shaped me the most as a human being. There will, in any given situation, be anxiety, but there will always be the option to not give a fuck about it. Following the rules is no guarantee for safety, breaking them is not an automatic failure. Life happens in this state of uncertainty, and knowing this helps.

It will not, by any means, abolish anxiety. But it will make it that much more livable.

The most important part of this generalized understanding of anxiety is that it is not a thing that happens to you and you alone. Everyone has to pass inspection, and everyone has to face the risk of failing. Everyone. You're not alone.

This is a foundation of solidarity.

As the years went by, I expanded my criminal activities to other transport systems. Not because I needed it, but because it could be done. The general principle was the same: all I needed to do was to fit in just enough to avoid suspicion, and thus inspection. Keep up appearances and carry on as if you belong, and in most cases you'll get along. Looking the part is at times better than being the real deal.

Thing is, though. It is taxing. Emotionally. Humans are not built to not belong, and merely keeping up appearances leaves you tired to your invisible bones. You don't ever relax, and the anxiety never really goes away. Especially if you actively seek these situations out.

I did a lot of that.

Eventually two things happened. The one thing is that I lost the urge to skedaddle and galavant. Been there, done that and so forth. The other thing is that I got the local Pirate Party to pay me to go places, which overall reduced my need to do my thing. If only to replace one form of inspection with another, writ larger.

Surveillance society is a thing, you know.

The reason for me writing this is not to glorify my younger days. The reason is to bring these experiences to you in a form that doesn't require you to muddle through Foucault or get yourself on a train without a ticket. (Both risky propositions, to be sure.) To give you something to point to, in order to be able to say: fuck, it's just not me. Everyone's doing it, trying to measure up for (real or imaginary) inspections, going through the required motions. No matter how ridiculous or ridiculously hard these motions might be.

Anxiety follows from this. It's not a thing that happen to you, specifically; it's what happens to humans, in general, put in the situation you're in.

Don't beat yourself up over it.

(If you've read this far, you'll probably be pleased to know that there is a part 2. Do freeride over to it.)

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