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The Toki Ponist on the Mountain
Chapter 2: Joakim

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September 2020

The escalator forces me up platform five of Eindhoven train station. I identify signs, benches, and a kiosk. Last night, while failing to catch my sleep, I came up with a theory. It is a feeble attempt to describe how people navigate train platforms.

There is currently no train waiting or arriving at the platform. That’s a good thing. The presence of trains increases stress significantly and for the theory to work the system must be at rest. The rate of new people entering the platform should also be low enough for everyone to be treated independently. If those conditions are met the commuter distribution is always in a state of equilibrium.

I step off the escalator and walk towards the nearest kiosk for a cappuccino and triple chocolate cookie. What makes a brave new passenger decide where on the platform to wait for his commute? This valuable test subject does not know the length of the train, or where it will stop precisely and where the doors will be, not to mention the permutation of first and second-class cars. In some countries, I know that this information is clearly indicated, but thankfully, Dutch Railways creates enough uncertainty for these assumptions to hold. There is a system, of course, but I assume most people can’t tell.

I pay for my coffee and snack, take a sip, and head for the seating area. Possible factors that may influence a commuter could be a bad childhood, the weather, the amount of luggage that has to be carried around, and the number of disappointingly familiar faces one sees ahead on the platform. Basing my model on such matters would make things needlessly complicated. It would also mean that I have to acknowledge that people are complex and feeling creatures living in this reality, instead of declaring them as lifeless variables in my simplified view of the world. I am not in a state of mind to accept that yet. I blame sleep deprivation.

I do not sit down. Instead, I take up a strategic position so I can oversee most of the platform. Whenever there is infinite complexity, it should be easy to create a first level of order. This situation is not any different, and so the gentle art of testing a theory by observation begins.

The escalator carries my first test subject. This specimen is a man in his forties carrying a briefcase and wearing a trench coat. Add the label Mr. Old-Fashioned Businessman. His stride is fierce, his face is straight and his gaze is undeterred. Subject one is a Pioneer. The Pioneer is one of the four distinct human types that populate a typical platform. The Pioneer wants to boldly go where no platform dweller has gone before. It will walk towards the very end of the platform with pure resolve. However, it is improbable that the Pioneer reaches the end. Instead, it ventures just far enough, so it is unmistakably furthest without losing the feeling of being part of the human community. Competitive asshole is what I think. Also, it has to accept that at some point new Pioneers will overtake him.

Before Mr. Old-Fashioned Businessman has reached his final position, I turn to a slightly nervous teenage boy who is taking up the situation. Angst Boy is calculating the perfect waiting spot. His hesitance tells me he is a Filler. The platform Filler is unknowingly a product of nature’s desire to even things out. Because the distance between two Pioneers is on the outer brink of social distance etiquette, the Filler feels the urge to bring balance. It will take up a position somewhere, but more often precisely between two Pioneers. Despite the uneasiness in most Fillers, his action creates a social bond between three people that excludes nobody.

I have a soft spot for Fillers. I think I am one myself. But I am the observer, and therefore not part of the experiment. This is a silly people theory, not goddamn quantum mechanics. I put the cookie in the right pocket of my winter coat and warm both hands on the poorly isolated coffee cup.

The Sticker is an aggressor. Here comes one: a woman loud in every way and too busy with everything except her position on the platform. She is reading a message on the phone in one hand thereby swinging her oversized handbag all over the place. There is lipstick in her other hand. The method of the Sticker is despicable, unwanted, and highly social. A big difference between the Sticker and the previous two types is that a Sticker targets humans instead of empty space. Remember, the Pioneer claims uncovered territory and the Filler coheres a state of evenly spaced humans. She, however, the woman, the Sticker, she targets an appropriate waiting human and stands insultingly next to that person. This happens not with ill intent. It is with no intention at all. Other than this, Stickers are mostly harmless. Despite their apparent social behavior they almost never strike up a conversation with strangers, though rude stares are often exchanged.

I look at the station clock with its simplistic black and white design. Still a few minutes before my train towards Utrecht Central station arrives. Utrecht has the largest train station in the country and it’s the most central one. I am looking forward to a one-hour trip there to get to work. I watch a few more commuters as they take their positions far away, in between or close to other humans. There is almost a sense of disappointment because I have not really seen any specimen of the fourth type.

Then I remind myself that the fourth type is usually not a very early arriver. As I contemplate this, my eyes drift towards the escalator again. My senses tingle when a man in his sixties drifts up the escalator exuding an air of self-awareness. I bet he fancies himself with a monocle and a pipe. In reality, he is holding a free trashy newspaper. In the manner he carries himself with his chin up and eyebrows raised, he shows me that he is acutely aware of himself but not of his surroundings. This man belongs to the fourth type, I think, but I want to see this play out. The man reaches the end of the escalator and steps off. He looks around in such a dignified manner it would seem that a matter of life and death was about to be decided, such as where to go next. In a slightly more bird’s-eye perspective, however, he is utterly blocking the escalator exit, and commuters pile up behind him. Just when a severe conveyer belt blockage would ensue, the man decisively moves a few steps aside and stops, now blocking a substantial part of the regular stairs. Type four, the Bum. They are impeccable to themselves and a nuisance to the rest of society.

I am lucky to travel after the morning rush hour. If there are too many people, each person loses part of their characteristic behavior and the distribution on the platform appears random. It is important when you establish a theory to recognize its boundaries of validity.

At last, my train arrives. I notice that everyone walks along the decelerating train. I am annoyed how people huddle around the entrance doors. And I pity the soul responsible for pushing the button to open the doors on the outside if nobody is waiting inside to get out. For some reason, they put the button far enough from the actual door entrance that his benevolent act of opening the doors for everyone is met without any respect and he is usually one of the last to enter the train.

I wait till most passengers have entered and head towards the tail of the train. I get in and find a free seat. A sharp whistle announces the start of another commute. I take the cookie from my pocket and set up my breakfast on the tray table in front of me. I close my eyes, sip my coffee and nibble on my cookie for the rest of the journey.

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