RubberneckersBy Simon J. Green
February 28, 2011
Two senior citizens, women with a slow drawl to their aging voices, I watched as they scrabbled for information. They were desperate for it. The pair strained their ears, they were actually standing in their seats, trying to find the best angle to capture the snatches of detail. A train conductor was the one speaking, his voice being carried intermittently on the air and around the train’s door. I was interested, not in the story of the injured boy on the train track, but why these two women, completely unrelated to the whole scenario, were so desperate for information.
Rubberneckers. The train wreck you can’t look away from. The gaggle that gathers around an incident, all without shame, barefaced curiosity seekers apparently anonymous among their brothers and sisters. You see it all the time. Should a police car pull up to the curb and the blue shirts inside get out, you’re guaranteed at least one curtain will open and its owner peer outside. People love to stick their noses in. The train station I was at with the old women wringing their hands to find out what was going on, that was a non-event. I don’t know what happened, but two ambulance officers, a St John’s officer and two members of the police were poking around the train line on the other side of the station. Two young girls who seemed to know the boy were sobbing and consoling one another, “He’ll be alright, he’ll be OK,” while a policeman interviewed them. Another took photos. I bet you’re dying to know what happened. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. I didn’t find out. I looked though, snuck a peek. You’d do the same. You might be like the fellow who walked over to the other side of the station and looked over, right above the officers doing their work. He just strolled up, hands in his pockets, and looked over the edge.
I thought it was kind of rude.
I saw another incident involving a much larger gathering. Swanston Street in Melbourne, and a large crowd, about thirty or forty regular people crowded around the side of the road. This bulge of humans meant I had to walk around them to continue travelling. Unfortunately, the friends I was with detached and went to join the group. I sighed and sat down on a park bench nearby, waiting, watching as every person in that horde tried their hardest to get a better view. Like the pulsing swarm of punters at a music gig, squeezing and pushing to get to the front row. The main event here on Swanston Street was an act of violence, the aftermath, the punters hoping to get a little glimpse of the tension. At a gig you hope to get a guitar pick or drumstick to take as a souvenir. The gathering of rubberneckers were hoping for a mental photograph of the pool of blood, a broken jaw or a mashed in face. I know what happened in this scenario. Are you dying to find out? There was blood. There was a broken jaw. The police were involved. Tantalising, isn’t it? As a consequence, we were late to where we were going.
Why do people have such a macabre hunger for these sorts of events? Don’t they feel weird about it, standing over an injured boy or an arrested vagrant, staring down at them with no pretence? It’s clear they are there out of interest. I feel rude. Making it obvious I’m having a good hard look makes me uncomfortable. It seems like none of my business. The police are there, the ambulance officers are there, someone’s being treated or arrested, they’re probably a little embarrassed, or will be when they look back on it. I don’t imagine I’m helping that situation much by standing not but two feet away, staring like an open mouthed idiot. Maybe it’s just me.
Whatever the reason, all these people want the information. They want to go home and tell their friends the story that sparked up their otherwise average day. They want to store away the moment to bring out again at a party, when the conversation turns to recounts of similar stories. It’s really a purely selfish interest, a crowd of spectators without a sport.