Like any good New Yorker, I mind my own business on the subway. Unless I’m in a bad mood, like that cold day last week when nobody was emailing me back, and my jeans were too tight, and I was late for a meeting I didn’t want to go to and this kid turned his profane rap music up to full volume on the platform. Black and brown teenagers are often overpoliced in public spaces, but this kid was as white as Post Malone.
I spotted a small child a few feet away. Perfect. “Turn that off!” I boomed at the teenager, modelling my voice on that Theranos scammer. “Can’t you see there is a small child over there?” I didn’t care about the child — she was probably listening to a podcast about murder, anyway — I was just cranky. But more than that, I didn’t need anyone breaking the social contract we all silently enter into when we disappear below ground.
Swiping that MetroCard or jumping that turnstile admits us to a world full of complex rules. I don’t mean “let the passengers off first” or “don’t spread your giant, important legs” or even “pay the fare.” The MTA is about to hire 500 new police officers “mainly to support fare evasion and homelessness outreach mitigation efforts,” according to its budget proposal. This has many riders incredulous — both at the cost, which is $50 million a year at a time when the subway is running a huge deficit and desperately needs investment in repairs, and the fact that the New York Police Department says crime on the subway is lower now than it was last year.
I don’t want to romanticise the subway. It drives me crazy with delays and crowding.
Concerned riders have shared videos and photos of police tasing and pointing guns at black teenagers for not paying the fare and hauling away a weeping food vendor’s cart. I’ve noticed graffiti saying “More churros less cops.” I’m tempted to take out my pen and correct it to “fewer cops,” but otherwise I approve of the sentiment. I’m not worried about an immigrant woman providing treats for a dollar apiece or people who need to get somewhere but can’t afford the $2.75 fare. I am worried about overcrowding, delays, the welfare of MTA workers and, of course, small children’s ears.
The rules I truly care about are the ones that aren’t written down, like “don’t bother each other” and “keep your eyes on your phone screen at all times.” Sometimes, when I take a break from staring at mine and stretch my crooked little neck up to see how many stops I have left, I accidentally lock eyes with someone else. We frown at each other and go back to our screens. As it should be.
That said, every now and then, paying attention can be wonderful. I looked out the window of the B train one afternoon and watched as a woman who had been sitting opposite me took two steps onto the platform, looked at her hand, and then whipped her head back at the train with horror. Right then, the man beside me lunged at the man opposite me. I thought he was attacking him, but he was reaching between his legs because he’d spotted a diamond ring on the floor. He leapt toward the door and handed the ring to the frantic woman, whose face broke into a huge smile. It was as if she were getting proposed to all over again, except this time by a stranger speckled in cement. He apologised to the guy he’d jumped at and we all shared a laugh. It felt good. Thirty-five minutes later, I waved goodbye to the speckled man. He made a “Who the hell are you?” face. He’d forgotten we’d shared that moment and, honestly, that made it perfect.
I don’t want to romanticise the subway. It drives me crazy with delays and crowding. When I first moved to New York I was wowed with the possibilities for a dreamily inclusive future that the trains opened up. I would gaze starry-eyed at an elderly Orthodox Jewish man dozing beside a guy with a mohawk and a leather jacket reading beside a woman in a sari holding a biracial baby, etc. Six years later I just want to get a seat so that I can trawl Instagram and eat my churros in peace.
Perhaps I wasn’t being naive, though, according to the book “International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train,” about the busy Queens subway line where 80 languages are spoken. “A most remarkable characteristic of the process whereby one becomes an urbanite on mass transit is that the ethnic and racial categories that might seem to distance one from fellow passengers are usually and quickly dismissed as secondary,” the authors write. “This process of knowing-yet-ignoring whereby riders become ‘blase’ New Yorkers on the subways is essential to the establishment of a community in transit.”
Still, I worry that we’re not all in it together. I wonder how many rich people ever use the train. I wonder why Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA are prioritising the wrong solutions, and I wonder if I can stand many more years of unreliable service. Then something happens that gets me all mushy again.
Last month, I was in Bushwick waiting for the M train to take me into Manhattan when I saw someone sprint onto the platform and just make it through the closing doors of a J train. He hadn’t noticed that he had dropped his wallet on the platform. A woman picked it up and looked at me, making a “What do I do now?” gesture. I reluctantly took out my headphones and asked to see the wallet. The man’s ID was in it and I quickly found him on Instagram. His bio stated he was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, and his account showed his work. He’s a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Hunter, a conceptual artist. I messaged him and waited to hear back. Then the M came. I got on with the woman and her small child, who leaned against me as I showed them the artist’s work. The artist responded right as we boarded the M, saying he would get off the train three stops later. He did, and so did the woman and her child, who waved back at me like we were old friends. I carried on and from my seat on the moving train, I saw that the artist got his wallet back.
— Maeve Higgins is the creator of the audio series Aliens of Extraordinary Ability and a contributing opinion writer.