The Five Fifty Four

5.52pm. We pour into the train at Flinders Street, a large field competing for seats. The train is crowded. At 5.54, right on time, the train lurches into motion. Strap hangers brace themselves. Those of us who are seated sink inward into passivity. It is the end of the day.

5.56pm. Richmond Station. Dozens leave our compartment, scores replace them. The carriage is fuller than before. A forest of people grows up around and before me.

A snarl, a growl. It comes from somewhere near the front.

Faces lift from phones and the throwaway gossip paper: What was that? Who was that? Who are you looking at?

The sound is a voice, a localised explosion of menace. Faces turn, necks crane, a space opens around the voice.

Fucking VC! Get back to fucking China!

The space around the sounds widens. I can see a man, Asian, not young, in an aisle seat. Next to him in the aisle stands a short stocky man, not Asian, who glowers at him. In the window seats sits another Caucasian. He shrinks towards the window, away from the protagonists at his side.

The train has started to move. South Yarra station is 100 seconds away. One hundred seconds in which two men play out their scene before an audience of around 100 witnesses.

Asian shit! What the fuck you doin’ in our country? Fuckin shit!

The view is clearer now. There is plenty of space around the men.

Shouter is about thirty, Asian man about sixty. His head is bowed, his thin grey hair hangs, a frayed curtain about his face. Inches distant, Shouter’s arms bulge from his short sleeves, his muscular face and his bullet head twitch. Spittle speeds the sibilants he screams into the older man’s face.

Why don’t you fuckin answer?

Asian man lifts his head. He says nothing. Shouting man’s fists are balls of bone. He lurches with the movement of the train.

We one hundred witnesses lower our heads – in fear? – in shame? – and say nothing.

I know that I am frightened. My heart thumps in my chest. I am afraid of physical pain. I am cowed by all forms of aggressive behaviour. I know that shouting man is my problem and it is I who must act.

What weapons do I have? Words, perhaps. I begin to rehearse some words:

Excuse me mate. You might want to know the CCTV camera is operating. (Really? I don’t see any camera.)

Better tone it down mate. People are calling the coppers on their mobiles. (They are not. Like me, they are all looking the other way.)

Please don’t talk to him like that. (Please bash me.)

One hundred seconds pass. We arrive at South Yarra station. Shouting man swaggers from the carriage, muttering.

No one approaches Asian man, no-one speaks to him of our silence, our abandoning him.

One hundred weeks after the event, I am still rehearsing words.

12 thoughts on “The Five Fifty Four

  1. Beautiful much loved Howard,
    Today for the first time I have read and reread to Bill a number of your stories. I have laughed and cried and thought very deeply about the “life truths”you reveal with your great talent.
    We went onto your blog to establish that you were OK. The horror of Boston and the pain suffered ….we cover you with our love and support
    Bill and Faye




      OF THE SAME…

      thanks for writing



  2. Glad I found your blog!

    Sticky situation. Admirable decision.

    Thinking about what I would have done.

    Reminds me of the concept of dispersed responsibility in a book I recently read.

    When there are groups of people that are witness to victimization, people are much less likely to act.

    The book is called the psychology of persuasion. Fascinating read.


  3. Hi Howard,
    Your story touched me deeply, not least because of your wonderful abilities to tell it. I too have been in situations like that and so share your thoughts and feelings on it. I, too, am afraid of being beaten if I stand up to the perpetrator. Now I am thinking what I could do, would do, hopefully will do, next time I am face with it. Maybe I will quietly sit down next to the person being attacked and say something nice so that s/he sees that not everyone sides with the perpetrator, and the perpetrator sees that his pray has support. Too many people being too afraid to side with the victims made the holocaust possible. Never again!


    • hello susan
      you are right: our guilty silence, our trembling passivity are just what is needed for evil to triumph
      how hard it is to stand up to the bullies of daily life, how heavy is the guilt of inaction
      another reader remarked that dwelling in this guilt can become an indulgence
      the victim is not the guilty witness but the poor man alone
      her remark is helpful
      thank you for your thoughtful reading


  4. Hi Howard,
    thanks for sharing. i know what you mean. i have felt that it’s very revealing in an uncomfortable way when i experience my fear come in the way of how I want to act, of acting in integrity. however i think we keep things stuck when we take on the victim position from not acting how we wanted to act. Thanks to a great teacher I have, i’ve done some work around claiming my opportunism which is acknowledging how i put myself before others out of fear. (We could really have fun with it if we were in person with each other-there’s role-playing etc to be done) it’s not how i want to be but in claiming it, it seems to shift more effectively than feeling guilty, which actually blocks me from really seeing the extent to which i am opportunistic. even though we take responsibility for our opportunism, we don’t need to be blamed or judged for it…it’s another consequence of living in an oppressive society…i’m off to Arabic at Al Quds University in the Old City…i’ve having lots of opportunities to experience my own opportunism..and in Jerusalem in the current climate..yikes….With love and blessings, Malka Melanie Landau


    • hello mml
      as you might see in my response to another reader, you open my eyes to
      a greater issue than the luxury of guilt, which is the need to
      transcend guilt
      you make it crystal clear, deadly pure, and physically frightening
      good on you mml
      as Moses said to Joshua , be strong and of good porridge


  5. Your story, although unfortunately a version of many similar instances of intolerance, moved me in a way that all I am left with is sadness. Sadness for the Asian man who after so many years of no doubt a life full of stories that no-one including shouting man, knows has to be subjected to such abhorrent behaviour. I am sad for shouting man for his ignorance and no doubt has a story of his own to drive him to such abhorrent behaviour. I am sad for the rest of us who often, more often than not, feel paralysed by such abhorrent behaviour.

    Howard, I cannot know that I would have behaved any differently to you and perhaps I too would be rehearsing my words a hundred weeks later. But thank you for sharing and reminding me that if such a thing was to happen in front of me that the behaviour order of the day would to muster up courage.


    • hello Brigitte
      it is a sad thing when good people stand by and watch wrongdoing
      for me the enduring feeling is regret that i was intimidated and the guilty feeling that i might fail again if a similar circumstance arose
      my purpose in writing was to confess, as it were, to try to expiate some guilt
      also, i suppose to rally resolve within myself and any reader to rise in defense of the defenceless
      thank you for writing
      howard g

      future blogs will not all be of this dark hue


      • One huge life lesson I have learned Howard is that when we know better, we do better. You didn’t fail. Something else happened. Not sure exactly what but I am sure is that whatever did happen, you won’t let happen again.

        I thoroughly enjoyed the depth of your writing. The subject is not an enjoyable one but the way you conveyed it made me feel like I was on the train with you.


Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s