One of the drawbacks to being raised on stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood is that seeing abuses of authority make me want to leap to the defence of their victims.
For instance, I was waiting on the Skytrain platform today when I saw a man hauling a bicycle up the escalator. As he got to the top, I saw that it was a woman’s bike, and that he had several garbage bags bulging with cans and bottles strapped to the handlebars. The man himself was dressed in threadbare clothing that was not too clean, and had a bearded face that look as though he had lived roughly. As he came closer, I smelled beer on his breath. If he wasn’t actually homeless, he was near to that state.
A Skytrain attendant at the other end of the platform saw him at once. Immediately, she started walking towards him.. As she got closer, she seemed to stand straighter and to affect a bully’s swagger – but that could just be my jaundiced eye.
Still, I was completely unsurpised when she started lecturing him about not taking a bicycle up the escalator.
Technically, she was right – not because that’s the regulation, but because handling something the length of the bicycle can block the escalator, and it can easily slip. But she hadn’t said anything to the woman who took an equally-barred baby carriage up the escalator, and she had passed someone eating – something else you’re not supposed to do – on the way to the man. Clearly, she had profiled him as someone who needed admonishing on general principles, someone she could exert her authority over.
The man responded with the assumed cheeriness of someone who has been dumped on many times, but who has told himself that he will be damned if he will let the situation get to him. “That’ll be easier than taking the stairs,” he said when the attendant pointed out the platform elevator.
His cheeriness must have bothered the attendant, because, when he walked away, she followed him. He had to be careful, she said, of not taking more than two bags on the Skytrain. He said he was only going to the next stop, to the liquor store, but that didn’t stop her from lecturing him for another three minutes about this non-existent regulation.
At this point, I was standing about a meter away from the man, and seriously debating whether I should tell the attendant to leave the man alone. After all, he hadn’t done anything. In fact, he had remained polite, despite her unwarranted bullying.
But, perhaps his politeness was what made her so intent on going after him. She stood beside him for a moment, and I imagined that she was debating asking to see his ticket. But she had no reason for doing so. Besides, about then she noticed me watching her. She frowned, and slowly walked away.
The man laughed and made a joke to me about how she didn’t say how big the two bags could be. Next time, he added, he would board with two giant ones.
I shook my head. “Man, she was really on your case.”
He did a double-take, surprised that anyone else had noticed. We exchanged a couple more sentences, then went our own ways when a Skytrain arrived.
Sitting down in a car, I regretted not intervening at this petty bit of tyranny. But maybe my interference would have made the attendant worse. At least I had treated the man the same as anyone else.
I suppose I am as much to blame for my discomfort as anyone else. After all, small abuses of authority are common enough. The only reason I don’t see more of them is that I work from home. All the same, the attendant’s behavior grated, and I resented her intrusion on to my day.