A very commonly used mode of public transportation in Krakow, Poland is the tramway. They are much like what we call the trolley. They ride on rails imbedded into the street and draw an electric current from live wires suspended overhead. There is always one operator who “drives” the head car. He controls the accelerator and break pedals, the occasional track change, and the opening and closing of the doors. On less popular routes the head car drives alone. On the more popular routes it pulls a second or even a third car, these cars having no real “authority figure” looking over them.
Upon boarding these trams, the passenger is supposed to pull out a previously purchased MPK ticket (Krakow universal public transit ticket) and cancel it by inserting it into a small machine near the door. The machine “cancels” your ticket by stamping it with a few bits of information: tram number, date, and the time. About once a month you may encounter a “ticket-checker,” a plain-clothes employee of the public transit system who will pull out his badge and ask to see your cancelled ticket. If you don’t have a ticket or if you’re ticket was not recently cancelled, you are in deep trouble.
On these trams the Poles follow much of the same social behaviors they do in any other public place. They never draw attention to themselves, and try not to pay too much attention to anyone else. If they are aboard with a friend they converse very quietly and discreetly. They take any remaining seat after boarding. Once the seats are full then they start standing and holding the handrails above. After each tram stop, the driver will ring a bell and all the doors automatically close until the next stop. I’ve rarely seen any deviations from the well-established tramway etiquette…until one day last Spring.
It was the first really hot sunny day of Spring. I needed to take the tram home in time to meet my landlord, but I had no tickets. I thought I would just board the second or third car and risk getting caught without a valid ticket. I stepped aboard the third car and noticed it was totally empty except for two elderly ladies sitting together in the fourth row. It looked like my lucky day. I walked past them and sat in the sixth row. It was looking like a quiet tram ride home and I felt lucky.
A few tram stops later I noticed two “soccer hooligans” waiting to step aboard. They both had shaved heads and were holding opened beer bottles. I was on my guard, but tried not to look “on guard.” One was wearing a full track suit and the other had only the track pants on, remaining shirtless. He was quite muscular and looked somewhat intimidating. They both appeared drunk and took their seats in the first row. I could keep my eye on them and felt at a safe distance.
The guy in the full track suit must have been extremely intoxicated for he couldn’t do much but rest his forehead on the handrail in front of him. A few moments later the shirtless guy broke with tramway etiquette and stood up in the front area near his seat and faced backwards towards the two elderly ladies and myself. I kept an eye on him and was almost expecting trouble. What he did next I was most unprepared for.
With his half-empty beer bottle in hand he began swinging his other hand left and right while making rhythmic “beatbox” sounds with his mouth! He was giving us a performance! He bobbed his head and swayed and sauntered to the hip-hop beat he was mouthing. Poomf - tss -tss - Drrrrst - tss - tss - Poomf - tss - tss - Zrrt-zrrt-drrrst! I was totally taken aback at this impromptu drunken display. I was unsure whether it was intended to entertain or to establish some type of urban attitude or territorial claim. I simply watched him out of the corner of my eye. The two elderly ladies sat there as if nothing was happening, staring straight ahead.
With his arms and legs still gyrating and swinging to the beat, he began to incorporate a few Polish words into his rhythmic ditty. Poomf - tss - tss - Drrrst - “Policja” - Poomf - tss - tss - Drrrst - “i Milicja!”- Poomf - tss - tss - “Policjarrrrrrst” - tss - tss! It was turning into some sort of urban musical about the police and military police! The tram turned a few rough corners on unsmooth rails and the drunk shirtless hooligan almost fell a few times. This did not, however, stop his performance.
At first I was very cautious not to do anything to upset or get the attention of these potential trouble-makers. I attempted to pay them no attention, but how long could I pretend not to notice? The two old ladies remained still as stone, conditioned after decades of emotionless societal behavior under communism. I, however, was an American raised on Saturday Night Live and punk rock. How long could I hold back my reaction? Soon I was doing everything in my power not to break out laughing. As potentially dangerous as this situation was, it was also one of the funniest things I had ever witnessed! I felt like a seven-year-old trying to hold back from laughing after farting in church.
Then I started to actually appreciate this little staged show intended for two elderly ladies and myself. Still without looking directly at the shirtless guy, I began thinking about how I was witnessing a very spontaneous social reaction delivered through music, voice, and dance. Sure, this disenfranchised Polish youth was drunk, but he was also attempting to express himself in a most unorthodox way by Polish societal standards! I began to notice how good he actually was at making these rhythmic noises and hip-hop dances. How long would the show last?
Three tram stops after they boarded he was still sputtering and gyrating. The bell rang and the doors had closed. His buddy in the full track suit lifted his head and began babbling excitedly about how they missed their stop. The tram began moving along until the shirtless guy quickly pressed the emergency button above the front door! I had never seen anyone dare to press this button. The tram screeched to a dead halt, but the doors remained closed. Then the shirtless one pulled violently on the door handle until it finally gave and the door grudgingly opened.
Before departing he grabbed two of the overhead handrails and jumped up, doing a complete flip in the air and landing back on his feet with a large cheesy grin! While his barely conscious friend in the full track suit stumbled out the door the shirtless performer looked back at the two ladies and I. He laughed out “Przepraszem!” (I’m sorry!) and ran out.
They both ran around the next street corner and were gone. The tram bell rang a few times and the door closed again before the tram resumed forward motion. The two ladies sitting ahead of me finally spoke. They were commenting on what nice weather we were having this Spring day, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened! I safely made it to my neighborhood without a valid tram ticket, and wondered if any of it had really happened.