Saturday, February 23, 2008

The subway is a funny place

One thing that you cannot escape on a subway is being with other people. I know that sounds obvious, but I am sometimes surprised at people on the subway who act as if they are irritated that other people are present. If you open yourself up to the fact that, yes, there are other people and they are pretty damned fascinating to watch, you can actually have quite a good time while traveling to and from your destination.

Here are just a few of the things that I observed today on the subway:

- As the subway slowed to a stop in front of me, I noticed car after car go by filled with people, but the car that stopped in front of me was less than half full. Those who have traveled the subways a lot know that this is rarely a good sign. It usually means the temperature in the car is unbearable, or there is a stench that renders it unrideable. The latter was the case here- there was a very stinky homeless man on the train. I decided that I was going to muscle through it and got on anyway. Luckily, my nose seemed to get used to it, because after several stops I didn’t really notice him anymore. What I continued to notice, however, was the way that people expressed their displeasure over the smell, especially those who chose to complain about it loudly, or worse, laugh about it while saying horrible things. I wonder if the homeless person heard them, and understood they were talking about him?

- Later, the car became even more crowded, with people crammed shoulder to back. I had a seat and was happily reading my New Yorker magazine. Over the buzz of people’s conversations I heard a man say sharply, “Just stop it, ok? Stop it!” It sounded like an exasperated father admonishing his child. Instead, I learned that it was a middle-aged passenger getting irate with another passenger for elbowing him. “You are elbowing me on purpose, and your know it, dude. So, just stop it!” The other passenger may well have done it on purpose or it could have been an accident. But he was clearly enjoying the debate so he keep inciting the victim, telling him that he "couldn’t help it" and that the crowded train made him do it, "Do you see all of these people?" At the next stop, a bunch of people got off, including the elbower, which prompted the victim to exclaim, “What a jerk!” as he scurried to grab one of the rare, vacated seats. It was like watching two children in the back of a car saying, “Mom! Jimmy’s on my side. Make him stop!” I couldn’t help but giggle.

- On my way back home from my appointments I was serenaded by a three piece mariachi band: A guitar, a bass, and an accordion. And a singer, of course. They were all wearing cowboy hats, and the singer walked through the car with his hat extended asking for change. The bass instrument had etchings of tropical flowers, and if I closed my eyes I could imagine being at a restaurant in Old Town, San Diego drinking huge margaritas. It made me homesick and it made me smile. And quite a lot of people gave them money, which was kind of nice.

Living in New York City has made me appreciate that I live in the world with other people, with strangers. In California I only spent time with those that I knew and interaction with strangers was minimal at best. My idealism has actually increased while living here- I still do see things that make me question my vulnerability in public settings but ultimately my life is richer for being open to it.

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