Other People on the Subway

By Dana May

            Each subway ride is a gamble.  We all get on, hoping to reach our destination at a reasonable time.  This desire alone is a longing, as we wait in limbo down there for a train to arrive or in a stalled car.  I pass the time letting my phone or a book fill in the void.  Other times, I people watch, or even try to engage with my fellow passengers.  

            For a while, I used my subway rides to practice flirting.  Nothing crazy—like starting conversations with people I found attractive.  I focused solely on making eye contact, that entry-level sign of showing interest in another person.  The trick is to not come off like a creep.  This needed practice.  I would get into a car and survey for who I thought was the cutest person there.  If our eyes met, instead of looking away, I would stay and smile.  Sometimes, they would smile back.  This is where I would panic, not knowing what to do next, and looked away.  What do you do next?  I still don’t know.

            My peak eye-fucking moment was on the Williamsburg bridge heading into Brooklyn one sunny afternoon.  I like to sit on the south-facing side of the train, so I can take in the Manhattan cityscape.  Opposite me sat a young woman and an older woman who had to be her mother, judging by how similar they looked.  Some Hasidic women are sexy, even while wearing taupe tights and orthopedic footwear.  Their fashion choices of long sleeve blouses and below-the-knee skirts can come off as hip, depending on the New York sartorial microclimate you happen to be in.  One of my favorite games to play on the subway is “modest femme hipster or Hasidic bachelorette?” 

            This woman was cute.  We made eye contact.  It felt transgressive to keep her gaze and smile.  I thought she would look away, but she did not.  This unnerved me. She kept looking right at me and I kept chickening out and being the first to look away.  I looked up and she was already there, meeting me like we were at the dark end of the street.  Not in front of your mother! I thought, scandalized, blushing. I searched for annoyance in her, to confirm whether she liked what we were doing or if I was reading this all wrong.  I could not gather anything other than perhaps her curiosity, bolder than my own.  We all got off at Marcy.  The experience was inspiring—I felt anything was possible. 

            I made less of a point to practice the basic building blocks of seduction after another subway ride. I had just been waxing the virtues of eye contact to my friend, how “it is all but lost in modern dating,” as we sat down for our evening ride home.  An impish man laid down across from us, dressed all in grey, his head propped up by his arm.  It didn’t take long for us to know that he was staring at us with a goofy grin.  His face would brighten up if we looked at him, smiling wider with each acknowledgment of his presence.  We tried to ignore him and carry on, and even had a laugh about it, given the topic of our conversation.  But laughing just encourages them.  He was a hammed-up troupe of eye-contact-as-creepy. 

            “Ok, dude, you’ve got to stop.” I said to him.  He didn’t say anything, his smile just continued to grow and his eyebrows wagged up and down, fueled by the attention we gave him.  

            “You’re ruining everything.” I said before we got up to leave and switch cars at the next stop.

            Sometimes, there is no one to even consider flirting with on the train, but anyone can be intriguing if you put your mind to it.  An actress friend told me of an exercise she learned in one of her classes.  The rule is to observe anyone doing anything while imagining them as an actor playing a role. “You will see Oscar worthy performances everywhere you go.”  I was ready to be moved to tears by a woman scrolling through her Instagram.

            I now pass time on the subway looking for riveting performances.  Most are short one-person acts exploring loneliness through screen worship. Such a natural ease in expressing trenchant despair buried deep under passive numbness.  Ravaging.  Other poignant deliveries of the nuances of the human condition include tourists wading outside their comfort zones, people sleeping, and mothers spotting their children as they stand up on their seats to look out the window.  Sometimes, I accidently break the fourth wall when they feel my eyes on them and we look at each other.  I look away as fast as I can, like they did not just catch me staring at them like a movie goer. Sometimes I smile.  They might smile back.  They carry on with the scene.  

            Most subway rides don’t put one in morally ambiguous situations. Someone gets up for the pregnant lady or old man.  A concerned citizen has the gumption to call 911 instead of walking over the person passed out on the subway floor.  At least one person will tip a spirited pool dance routine or a person announcing to the car that he and his family are homeless and are collecting money for a hot meal or a room for the night. Someone does the right thing to make the guilty feel better.  The apathetic are happy to not care any such way as long as a certain level of decency, however degraded, remains.

            One week, on two separate occasions, I sat in a subway car across from men smoking cigarettes.  The first one was a construction worker who opened two miniature bottles of vodka, hitting each one back and—with the utmost discretion—dropping them to the floor to roll around by his tan work boots.  He looked like he had a long day, the way he cupped his rough, dusty hands around his face.  After finishing his drinks, he pulled out a pack from his sweatshirt pocket.  I watched him extract a cigarette and hold it between his fingers.  I, and probably the other women around me, wondered if the man had the nerve to light up on the M train.  He did.  He was big and sullen and no one wanted to mess with whatever he was feeling at that time.  So, we let him smoke.

            A few days later an older man lit up while leaning against the door of the subway car.  A younger woman with fun plastic glasses, some would say a peer of mine, spoke up immediately and told him he could not smoke on the subway.  He shot back, calling her a bitch and saying he did what he wanted to do.  I looked around at the crowd—each subway train a snapshot of humanity and its varying degrees of potential for revolution and chaos, given any random situation.  I gathered from this particular ensemble cast that no one else would stand up for her, but that they would intervene if the guy got physical.  This was enough for me to say, “yeah, whadda thinkin’?” and have him call me a bitch as well.  He took one last puff of his cigarette before throwing it down and putting it out with the heel of his shoe.  

            The general rule I have picked up so far living here is that no one is under the obligation to interact with another person while on the subway.  You can say “please” and “thank you” and recognize other people existing around you, but the vast majority of people travel in a way to avoid that as much as possible.  This brings a certain amount of peace to the experience, but we also ignore and create suffering.  Or, there are an infinite number of ways to make an ass out of yourself, depending on who you ask.

            I moved to New York City with a heavy Nalgene bottle full of spare change.  This is a remnant of a childhood pastime. I still took pleasure in the ritual of emptying these money receptacles, stacking the coins in piles, and sliding them into paper rolls.  During one session, in my tiny bedroom in my cramped apartment on Franklin Ave, I ran out of penny rolls.  I had enough pennies to fit snuggly into a clear plastic bag.  I liked how all the various shades of copper looked in one vessel.  To others, this was merely a horrific stockpile of germs, but I reckon I had some four dollars in that bag, hundreds of pennies.

            I learned from an insulted street musician that few people hustling for change appreciate receiving pennies.  It is degrading to reach down to the bottom of one’s pocket to toss a few pennies into a cup when the other hand is carrying, say, a coffee beverage with an Italian name or a smart phone.  A few pennies are, indeed, not worth a dime.  Hundreds of pennies, in one package, I thought, that was a different matter.  In lieu of going out and purchasing more coin rolls, I decided I would pay these pennies forward, en masse.

            I put the penny package in my backpack and headed for the C stop on my way to work.  Walking down the entrance stairs, a familiar panhandler asked me if I had any change to spare.  

            “I do!” I said.  I stopped to unzip my backpack.  I gave him the bag, smiled, and pulled out my metro card to enter the platform.  I turned around to see the man, older and street weary, holding up the bag of pennies, a look of confusion on his face.

            “That was a shitty thing to do,” my girlfriend at the time told me after I relayed the story to her, “what the hell do you expect him to do with all those pennies?”

            “I don’t know.  He can take them to a bank and have them converted to dollar bills.”

            “So, you expect him to go somewhere and stand there while someone else counts all those pennies?”

            “Yeah, I guess.” I had not considered the possible transgression of my gesture until this moment.  I reflected on my own life and what would have lead me to think this was an okay thing to do.

            “I once made some teenager do that when I was nine and purchased a plastic dinosaur with change from my piggy bank.”

            “That’s terrible.”

            “It took a long time to count it all out.  It was about nine dollars.”

            “All in pennies?!”

            “There were some nickels and dimes and quarters, as well, if memory serves.”

            “And your mom let you do this?  That poor kid.”

            “Yeah, we waited around.  I think it was a velociraptor.”  

            And that is the luxury of having a piggy bank.  I stopped picking pennies off the ground around this time, another old habit that felt healthy to break.  Although, I still pick up quarters.  Pennies are just burdensome.  

            Another subway ride that weighs on my conscience happened one Sunday evening on my way back from a long trip.  I entered a car and sat down across from a man who looked tired and strung out—nothing out of the ordinary.  I soon noticed the wet patch on his sweatpants, gushing from his crotch and spreading down and through his thigh and onto the floor.  Veins of liquid started moving towards me.  I got up before his urine reached my side of the car.

            I moved next to a woman, who was about six feet from the man.  She looked at me with disgust.  I thought it was obvious that I got up because the man was pissing himself in front of me.  I realized that if I tried justifying my actions to her at that moment, it would only further support her poor opinion of me.  She must not have known he was wetting his pants, because I doubt she herself would have stayed seated to have his pee touch her sandals.  I watched the tributaries of piss grow stronger, spreading further out across the train floor.  I hoped she would look where I was staring and understand.  I got off at the next stop.  

            Most of the time, we just want to be ignored on public transit, and ignore everything beyond our personal attention absorber.  We hope to stay in a monotonous cocoon on our way to point B.  Until, out of our own volition or not, we interact with other people.  I just want to return from the underground unscathed, but with resurgence comes tests and follies.  Maybe someday I will even get a phone number out of it. If hell is other people, then it must be interesting at least some of the time.  Maybe you get around down there by subway—who the hell knows? 

Leave a Reply