Boston's MBTA complex fell apart this winter, when 110.6 inches of snow illuminated how my city's subway system (the oldest in America) is also one of the most decrepit in the country, with entire lines shutting down for days at a time due to mechanical failures. New Yorkers endlessly whine about the subway and the constant construction that delays and closes many of their own lines, but truth be told, every city, big or small, has its issues. San Francisco's access to the BART ends at midnight, and some major-to-mid-major cities don't have commuter train systems at all. (Here's looking at you, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, and a surprisingly large number of others.)
Okay, fine, subway systems are extremely convenient ways of shuttling people around crowded cities. Given that people generally move to cities, which are not cheap to live in, it's a perk that, for just a few dollars, a train will take you almost wherever you want within the city limits. It's pretty easy to forget how incredible that is. That said, the subway can still be mind-numbingly infuriating, if only because it's often a city-dweller's only way of getting around. The subway is a necessity, so here's what we can do to survive it.
Avoid All Eye Contact
For all seasoned subway riders, this is a known law. You can never tell for sure what type of person you'll encounter any given day on the train, and there is no greater green light for a subway heckler (or someone who is just having a bad day) to take it out on you than simple eye contact. Eye contact is subjective, it turns out, and a somber-faced glance or an accidental, day-dream-induced stare could have unpleasant results. I've made the mistake of looking someone in the eye and half-smiling while walking down a subway platform, only to have the person start yelling in my face. Don't signal that you're willing to engage in conversation unless you mean it.
This applies to flirting, too. The subway is not the place to give flirty looks to that hot lady or dude on the train. They will probably think you're a creep. (Probably because it's fairly creepy to stare at people you haven't met before in any public space.) Tinder probably does a better job of breaking the ice than a subway's turnstile. Dirty, poorly lit subway stations are not the place for furtive glances. To be safe, just operate under the assumption that everyone is ready to pull a can of pepper spray on you.
Respect Personal Space
By choosing the subway, you're openly agreeing to be crammed against complete strangers in tight spaces. One of the easiest ways to make it bearable for everyone involved is to take your backpack off. On London's Tube, it's common knowledge that if you wear a backpack during rush hour, you'll probably get a public beatdown. I don't understand why we don't share this sense of street justice in the U.S. Take the damn thing off, and hold it by your feet or in front of you. The same goes for large tote bags filled with groceries, bulky shopping bags, and whatever else; put them on the ground where they belong.
In high-traffic situations, be ready to be uncomfortable. Be prepared for the touching, incidental or otherwise. You'll pull back from the person on your left, only to realize you're now in the "hot-breath zone" of that guy on your right. If you're clumsy like me, you might accidentally graze places with your hand where you shouldn't be grazing. You'll apologize a lot. But just when you think you're about to have an anxiety attack, the subway door opens, and you're free.
Hold Onto the Pole (But Don't Lean on It)
There are two types of people who refuse to hold onto the pole. The first is the person who thinks that their Crossfit/SoulCycle classes have led them to acquire a physical core that can withstand the G-forces of a fast-moving train. So they stand there, hands in their pockets or slightly out to the side, trying to balance ever-so-coolly. It usually ends badly, with them nearly eating shit and/or grabbing a pole/stranger at the last possible second to save themselves from complete embarrassment.
The second kind of person who just won't hold onto the pole is the pseudo-germaphobe. I use "pseudo" because no sane germaphobe would ever enter a city's subway system in the first place: If you stand at the top of the stairs leading into a station, you get that blast of warm-fart air coming from below, and there's a 90 percent chance it contains at least three strains of Ebola and the flu, forming a new super-virus as I write this.
I've seen the classic subway germaphobe hold onto the pole using the crook of their wrist. You don't look smart while doing this—you look like a tool. Either join the Crossfit bro who's trying to surf the train, or just grab the damn pole and vigorously apply hand sanitizer when you get to work like the rest of us.
Don't lean on the pole either, because then no one can grab it.
Don't Talk on the Phone
Everyone else on the train is simultaneously plotting how to murder you and hide your dismembered limbs. Besides, it's rude.
Don't Eat on the Subway. Please.
Here is a small sample of things I've seen people eat on the subway: towering cups of hot soup, pad thai, fajitas, and aromatic tuna sandwiches. The latter two require you to put a hand—likely one that just touched the pole—on something that you then put in your mouth. Not to mention that certain cooked-food smells are pungent no matter where you are, especially in a confined, poorly ventilated space like this one. Coffee and other beverages can make sense, so long as you don't spill them on other people because you've refused to hold on to the pole.
Try to leave your morning-hygiene routines for the privacy of your home, too. Standing on the train once, I heard a mysterious snipping noise every few seconds. Eventually, I looked over my shoulder to discover that an elderly woman was clipping her fingernails into the seat next to her. Each dirty nail fragment was aimed at the adjacent seat like it was a trash can. That seat is not a trash can; it's where other people sit. While we're at it, don't floss, dig for gold in your nose, or apply deodorant in public, either.
Be Ready to Stand
Having to stand is something you have to accept when it comes to using a city subway system. If you're lucky, you have healthy, working legs—plan on using them. I've seen able-bodied people in their twenties push older folk out of the way just so they can rush for an open seat: These people are the scum of the earth. Remember that no matter how tired you are, somebody probably needs that open seat more than you do. If you do sit, you don't need me to mansplain to you that you shouldn't spread your legs wide enough to take over more than one seat.
Develop a Routine
This is the best way to maintain your sanity when it comes to public transportation. Use the same mentality you apply to the glorious 15 minutes you have to yourself at the office every morning before other people arrive. Find a favorite spot to stand while waiting on the platform, a favorite door to get on at, or an ideal corner to hide in once you get on that train. It'll make the whole ride a whole lot smoother.
Photo by Getty.
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