As a non-driver who lets the train take the strain, eating and drinking onpublic transport is second nature to me – as it is to a huge number of people. Yet, collectively, as a country, we seem to have a real problem with it. On buses and trams, you increasingly see signs banning consumption (albeit rarely enforced, in my experience), while, in recent years, eating in transithas become a recurring point of contentious public debate. One of the first thingsBoris Johnson did as mayor of London – and remember this when people tell you what a “laugh” he is – was to ban alcohol on public transport. Earlier this year, the distinctly creepy Facebook group Women Who Eat on Tubes – wrong on numerous levels of snobbery, sexism and privacy invasion – prompted a swift, sit-in picnic backlash.
At the opposite extreme of this standoff, you have equally selfish people. On one flank, there are those people who want to eat leftover curry on the tube at 7.30am. On the other, there are delicate flowers who never eat in public, and who cannot stomach the thought of someone sucking a boiled sweet three seats away. We will have to leave the psycho-sociological analysis of these two tribes (I’m saying that they are both Thatcher’s children) for another time.
Surely, however, it is not beyond us to fathom a few simple rules that would enable us to share public transport, eaters and non-eaters alike? It is a task of reconciliation, I would argue, which in our increasingly time-poor world is a perfectly reasonable ask. If I am rushing from work on Friday night and want to eat before meeting a mate for a pint, why should I suffer the disapproval of other passengers (much less a fine) because I want to eat a ham sandwich en route? Compared with BO, barging impatience and barrel-gobbed businessmen that we all have to suffer on public transport, surely eating is a minor irritation?
Here are the rules:
Pick up your debris I’m convinced that, deep down, the issue is less people eating on public transport and more the mess they leave behind. No one likes having to make space among empty boxes, cans and apple cores on a train table; much less tiptoeing through streams of spilled drinks and rolling bottles on the No 8. Trains have bins (as do the streets you’re about to exit on to) – use them. If you get crumbs on the seat, brush them to the floor as you get up. And remember, if you stick chewing gum anywhere, you are going to hell.
Think logistically A side issue to litter is how easily eaten and contained your meal is. Be it couscous or a sandwich overloaded with coleslaw, if there is a chance you might drop it on yourself, then equally it may end up on the floor or, worse, a fellow passenger. This is no place to be squirting soy sauce on your sushi or trying to dress and toss that salad. Think clean, compact, odourless food.
Noise abatement Naturally, the person next to you is not going to appreciate it if you spend the journey shelling pistachios or crunching Pringles. You need quiet food: pasties, sandwiches, certain salads, pizza, chocolate etc. Ultimately, however, the food itself is less important than the way in which it is eaten. Eat with your mouth open and, invariably, you will make a noise like wet flip-flops slapping on lino. The only thing more likely to set your fellow passengers’ nerves on edge is if you then proceed to ostentatiously suck each finger clean … after each bite. True, on the bus, I might wipe my mouth with the back of my hand or my hands on my jeans. You may find that disgusting, but it is not an invasion of your personal space – so no sneering. See also retrieving pips/stones or food from between your teeth. Hang fire. No one wants to see that.
Don’t be a scary weirdo There is an art to non-threatening drinking on the train, particularly if you are male. Sitting, legs splayed, amid a raft of empties with your loud, cocky mates is not going to endear you to anyone. The only thing worse is being that bloke who, grim and scowling, works his way through six cans in a two-hour journey, as if just released from prison after serving seven years for his last drunken, onboard GBH. You want to keep yourself to yourself? Fine. But relax your body language, be civil, smile. And don’t get so larruped that, as you stand up, you land in someone’s lap.
Follow your nose In a confined space, at the wrong time of day, any powerful odour (from hot food, particularly) is likely to make someone, somewhere feel queasy. It is not just those mackerel pâté sandwiches that have been in your briefcase all day. Even those foods that we are supposed to love the smell of, such as bacon or fish and chips, will stink up the place and, potentially, irritate. There needs to be compromise. Eaters are obligated to minimise (it is impossible to entirely eradicate) any olfactory disruption. But if you have thoughtfully brought aboard a banana rather than an overripe pineapple, a cold pie rather than a kebab, a burger (but minus the kimchee, hot sauce and blue cheese dressing), then other travellers need to suck it up and accept this minor imposition.
Can we move forward on that basis? Are you a conscientious in-transit diner? Or will people eating on your train or bus always make you feel sick?