There’s a junction with a pedestrian crossing outside Tooting Broadway Underground Station that’s basically a death trap. So much so, that when my work team had a social event there one afternoon last year, I was circling the group as they got to the crossing saying “be careful guys, don’t believe the green man, look both ways, dangerous here guys, stop chatting, this is no normal crossing, different rules apply.”
No one died that day, but people have been crushed under the wheels of buses at this junction. This has actually happened. I’m no expert on how roads work, or on urban planning, but where I grew up there was a thing that the red lights means the vehicles stop, and the green men mean that the humans can cross. This does not work in the Tooting Deathtrap Junction. You come out the station, you stand and wait. There will come a time when vehicles seem to stop. Then the green man comes on. Several seconds later, buses and cars come careering round the corner. It’s like it’s wired that both humans and buses and cars all go green at the same time. I lived in Tooting for 16 years, for about the first eight I thought this was a software glitch that the local council just hadn’t got round to fixing (to be fair the council tax is very cheap). Eventually you learn: when the green man comes on, wait. Wait for the four or five buses that will come round the corner to mow you down. Once they have passed, you have a window of about three seconds to actually cross the road, before the rest of the traffic goes green again.
I was on my way to work one day some years ago, and had just crossed this road towards the entry to the station. Two men in hi-vis jackets blocked my path.
“Did you see what you did just then?” one of them said. A rosy-cheeked dullard who had local council written all over him. Actually he literally had it written on his vest.
I was filled with adrenaline after crossing the Tooting Deathtrap Junction. “Excuse me?” I said, because I must have misheard him. I thought he’d said “Did you see what you just did there”.
“Did you see what you just did there?”
Oh he did say that. Right. Well, I know what I’ve been doing, but I can’t necessarily have seen everything I’ve been doing. Because, I’ve generally been looking around me while I’ve been doing it, rather than at myself. My eyes, you could say, have been optimally placed on my body for this, and rather badly placed if the objective was for me to be able to see my own self rather than my surroundings. I’m no anatomist but there’s a complex system of nerve endings around my body constantly making me aware, through other means, what I’m actually doing. I know I crossed the road, and I guess I saw it happening from the other side of the road gradually getting closer and closer, but I’m not sure I would say I saw myself doing it.
Add to this the fact this is Tooting Deathtrap Junction. If I wasn’t paying full attention to my environs, my environs would have rapidly deteriorated into the underside of a 155 to Mitcham.
“No,” I replied simply. I was late, I didn’t have time to take him through the reasoning.
He pointed at a cigarette butt I’d dropped on the kerb. Oh that.
“Oh yeah sorry.” Shit it was the cigarette police. The Fag Pigs. The Puff Fuzz. The Nicotine Narcs. The Smokey Stasi.
“Are you OK?” he noticed I was distracted.
“Yeah sorry I was trying to think of more names…” I mumbled, “Marlboro Mafia…?”
“Anyway, why did you drop that?” he said.
There’s complex reasons for this. I don’t think I’ve ever dropped traditional litter in my life. Cigarettes however always seemed different. Partly I think because you can’t just carry them with you, and I always felt funny about throwing into a normal bin in case I started a fire. I think it’s since that time I started a fire. In this case littering always had preference over arson. Also for many years I thought they were biodegradable since you put them in your mouth, they must be right?
I felt a bit bad, since he did have a point – I could have just put in in one of the bi…
“Oh hang on mate, I know why, you did away with all the bins about a year ago.” This is true, they had removed the bins from outside the station, and possibly sold them to pay for these very council workers.
“That’s no excuse,” he said. Remember there was a second one here, he just never spoke. It’s actually made writing this easier, so …. thanks mate. He probably did the paperwork. “You could have carried it with you till you found a bin.”
“Carry it with me on the Tube?”
“You know it’s supposed to be an £80 fine.” Oh I get it now it’s a shakedown. Well, if he wanted money he was in for a fight. “We’ll let you off this time, just don’t do it again.”
I was taken a bit by surprise by this. I had this guy down as 100% jobsworth (I was going to exaggerate and say 110% jobsworth, but not only is 110% a silly phrase, but I feel it’s especially unsuited to a jobsworth, a jobsworth would be absolutely clocking out at bang on 100%).
I was on my way. My opinion of council workers boosted almost back up to Camden Melanie levels.
(Sometimes I write phrases which seem normal to me, then I realise I am writing this on the internet for several – even as many as a dozen – other people to read, and they might not all be aware of my various terminologies and classifications. Melanie was a chubby-cheeked Kiwi who worked at Camden Council for the brief period that I did when temping shorting after moving to London. I was more than enamoured with her. My entire hydration routine at work was based on when I might engineer a bumping-into-her at the water cooler. I think I said hi to her once in 6 months. Problem was the water cooler was quite a way from my desk. I could see it, but getting there involved a lengthy, L-shaped trek around rows of desks and then along most of the length of the floor. By the time I would get there she’d always be gone, and my pre-planned compliment of her jumper (she always wore jumpers) would once again go unused.
I would have gone further and tried to predict her movements, but I didn’t have time for this. The Camden Council website wasn’t going to update the bin days by itself was it? I got as far as sending her a secret Valentine’s card, a tactic that I would deploy in future workplaces, to the same degree of success. None basically. The closest we got to a relationship was me staying late one night because she was putting up the Christmas decorations. I didn’t want to offer to help, that would have been creepy, I just, you know, sat there….
Wonder what she’s doing now.
Nope, can’t find her. That’s the problem with “people you knew before social media”. They can just drop off the face of the earth, present only in your memory, and the memories of your colleagues who endured 6 months of you talking about them and devising fanciful ways to construct complex accidental meeting scenarios with them.
Anyway… that was Camden Melanie. Worth your council tax alone.) < yes it was some paragraphs ago but I did start this in parentheses
Back to the aftermath of my surprisingly inexpensive run-in with the Wandsworth Council pavemental sanctity officers.
A couple of years later, it was November 2018. I had long forgotten about the near-miss where I had dodged the £80 fine. I had other things on my mind. Firstly I was on my way to see my first ever netball game after work that night (you’ll remember my lifelong passion for netball had begun in April). Secondly, I had absolutely fucked my back to the point where I could hardly walk.
The previous Friday I had been at the work bar, and gone out for a cigarette in my usual place. During this cigarette I coughed; it wasn’t a particularly violent cough, a normal smoker’s-cough cough. But I had done it in such a way that something in my back exploded. I froze for about 5 minutes before hobbling back inside, and it had been getting worse since. I’ve done this a few times, from a cough or a sneeze while just standing or lying at the wrong angle. It’s not a particularly cool injury story, but the agony was real. This was by far the worst. I was in agony just walking around. I was in agony even just sitting down.
I’m fairly sure the pain here was more extreme than when I fractured my rib after being hit by a bus when walking home drunk.
I’d left the house that day only because of the netball. Had I not been going to my first live netball game, it had gotten to the stage where I was too incapacitated to go out anywhere. Even as I approached the Tube station, I was dithering about whether to go as planned to work, or take a right at station and go to St George’s Hospital nearby. Ultimately I didn’t feel I could skip work to go to hospital and then go regardless it to the Olympic Park by 7pm. I’m honest like that.
I approached Tooting Deathtrap Junction – all the more difficult because I was walking so slowly. But if I walked too slowly I’d never be able to cross the road within the three second window between rogue convoy of double deckers swerving round the corner and the lights going green again. I had to ready myself for the fact I’d have to endure the pain and move as fast as possible, like a hunchback who’s really late for an appointment. There was three seconds of muffled “Nnnnnnngggggaaaaaaaaaarrrgggghhhhhh” as I propelled myself safely to the other side. I was out of breath, and stopped to wonder for a moment if this was due to the extreme physical duress, or if one of my lungs was actually filling with blood.
I reached for a cigarette to recover from the shortness of breath. Yes, it doesn’t make sense, but smokers know. I puffed away with increasing calm by the kerb outside the station, and mentally broke the exhausting journey ahead into manageable steps (I think this is how the SAS train you to do it). I just needed to make it to the escalator – remember the agony that will be involved in holding my Oyster card down and going through the entry gates – that is not a maneouvre for people with mangled vertebrae. Then I’d get a break on the escalator. Then a quick walk to the platform, then a break on the train, then change, then relax. It was manageable. I finished my cigarette and hobbled towards the Tube station entrance, pausing once to reconsider if that whole “going instead to the hospital” was a viable alternative. Nope, I wasn’t missing England vs Uganda, I’d been looking forward to this for months.
As I got to the entrance, someone blocked my path. He appeared to be in fancy dress, as a policeman. He sort of had a uniform and some policey trappings but none of it looked right.
“Excuse me sir, but did you see what you did there?”
“Oh mate, I don’t have the cunting time for this. In this state I don’t even know if I could make it to the Olympic Park by 7pm if I went straight there.”
“That’s going to be a fine I’m afraid.”
I waited for the follow-up where he tells me not to do it again and invites me to go on my way. It never happened. While waiting I perused the machines strapped to his chest, trying to figure out why he looked so much like a shit 80s cyborg. One of them had a red light – it was a bodycam. Right, this was serious. Oh the halcyon days when they sent regular council workers out to slap wrists. This guy had equipment strapped to his body to record all the violence, threats and abuse he got. You don’t get violence, threats and abuse from telling people “don’t do it again, now be on your way.”
“Are you OK sir?”
I startled myself out of a daze, briefly wondering if I’d passed out from the pain while standing up. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve broken my back – oh you’ll like this, from coughing. I’m in agony and can barely walk. Was tempted to just go to the hospital the agony is so… agonising. That’s why I’m struggling to speak and breathe and am standing with a posture like a Disney villain. I’m in excruciating pain.”
“I’m sorry to hear that sir.”
“Great, I think we’ve established that I’m suffering enough here to forego even a wrist-slapping, which could aggravate the back situation. I’ll be on my way.”
“If you could type your name and address here for me please,” he handed me a tablet thing – another machine on his chest identified. Oh he probably just wanted to keep a record of who he told off. I hunched over the keypad and typed my details. At this point I made an unforgivable mistake and entered my own details. This vast error haunts me to this day, and ever since I have kept in memory a prioritised list of enemies’ names and addresses should I ever be in this situation again. I handed the tablet back to him. I say handed, I leaned forward and waited for him to take it out of my clutches – it was the only way I could hold anything without triggering the screaming back pain.
He pressed some buttons, his chest machinery kicked into action, lights flashing and beeps. Paper started coming out. It was printing. THAT’S what the mystery third machine was. NEAT.
“Thank you sir,” he handed the paper to me and immediately broke eye contact. He was still standing right in front of me, he was just looking straight past me, like we were done, and he was steely-eyed in preparation to ignore any further dialogue.
I looked at the “receipt”. Fine was £100.
A HUNDRED POUNDS OF ACTUAL MONEY.
I looked at him “You … you … you absolute fucking …. love that bodycam don’t you? You know something, you’re a fucking … lucky little tinker having that bodycam. I’m going to totally fucking … walk away since you have that.” I hammed up the hunched hobbling for the camera and bit my tongue. Inch by inch I shuffled past him as he eyed more targets.
Now, I know he was just doing his job, and so of course it would not be right to have a go at him, although I was clearly in a lot of pain and not having a good time and due leniancy (after all he didn’t know that I did it all the time). But fair enough. What was out of order is that this was weeks before Christmas, and the council had sent out their fancy dress policemen to scam as many people out of money as possible.
I paid the fine. It was awkward as I had to call them up because the website listed on my “receipt” genuinely looked like a scam site from 2002. I mentioned this to them, and that ultimately at the end of the day they were softening people to the usual suspicions they might have about strangers asking for their card details on badly made dodgy websites and that the end result would probably be a huge increase in cyber-crime across the borough, dwarfing any environmental damage caused by a few cigarettes while also putting out of work those hard-working street cleaners whose livelihoods people like me were trying to save. But if that’s what they wanted…
I couldn’t let it lie though. From that, the last day of November, right through to Christmas, he was there every day looking for profitable victims. It wasn’t right. After about a week my back had recovered and I had a plan. I had my cigarette outside the station as usual. He’d be somewhere. I’d walk around and make sure I caught his eye. I’d go out of sight, and sometimes see him following to check on me. I’d smoke away. When I finished my cigarette, I’d wait till he was looking, then bend down and stub the cigarette out on the ground, making sure I got all the ash away, then palming the stub and getting back up. I’d walk towards him to go in the station as I reached in my back pocket and dropped the butt in the cigarette pack which I would have left open.
The idea was he would accost me for dropping another cigarette, I’d prove to him I didn’t and show him that I put it in the packet, then rail on him for harassing me, pointing into the bodycam, something something class-action, various phrases I’d heard in legal films, and possibly mentioning all the financial hardships since the £100 fine, little Timmy missing out on Christmas presents (YES, I was still sore about this fine, even if I accepted I was in the wrong, I was still annoyed, and willing to invent children to prove a point).
But he never bit. Maybe they had a policy of one fine per council tax-paying resident. Or maybe he – normal job-doing person as he likely was – just felt one was enough. Or maybe he’d been doing this so long, the petty goading scams of these devious smokers were all old-hat to him. Maybe his career had been littered with them.
You might be wondering about this photo which introduced the story. I had a bunch of cigarette butts to pick up from my own patio due to an incompatibility between size-of-ashtray / amount-smoked / regularity-of-emptying-said-ashtray. But I was scared of accidentally picking up, or being attacked by, creepy crawlies. Lacking gloves, I came up with this ingenious solution, repurposing leftover party balloons as rubber sheaths for each individual butt-picking finger. I appreciate that last sentence could be misconstrued if read out of context.