It's been ten years since I have been riding the NYC subway. I am among the fortunate/unfortunate bunch that depends still on the subway system to take us places: school, work, home, and all that's in the middle and beyond. The other day while I stared at my reflection in one of the big windows of an insignificant subway car, the dark walls closing-in from both sides reminded me that for a long time that I have been synchronizing my steady movements with them…and it made me think, how the subway rider's life might have changed me.
When I first started taking the under and over ground trains I was a teenager, ready for the world, I had figured it all out, trying to become bored with life fast, but still unable to hide awed eyes. I learned the system inside and out, became an avid guesser of how long it takes a train to get from one station to the other, during rush and non-rush hours, how certain lines carry trendier crowds than others, how the suburb folks look so much more anxious to get home than the city dwellers. The club crowd, the students, the laborers, the doctors and the computer engineers. I learned to tell it all, and it wasn't a talent, because like me anyone who has been riding the subway long enough can tell who is who and where is what just from one tiny glimpse.
One of the unwritten rules of the subway crowd around the NYC area is, the rule of silence. Silent intimidation. We don't talk. We put our personalities, bubbly, talkative, average, whatever it might be, in our purses and wallets when we enter the subway zone. Everyone puts a face on that says don't look at me because I am not looking at you. There are days when I stand or sit in a subway car shoulder to shoulder with others, and there is pin drop silence, it's quite a scene actually, probably the only time when hundreds of people are cramped into constricted spaces without uttering any sound. NYC subway does not welcome friendship, it only allows you to practice your game face, and we are all comfortable that way.
But strange incidents do happen from time to time in subways, to remind us we are not just bodies but also souls with minds. Like the other day when a middle aged Asian man got up with his holy book and wished everyone a good morning and then started singing a Christian holy song, all of us with our game faces tried to hide our expressions, looking at him indirectly, avoiding eye contact with each other. He sat down after two minutes, "have a blessed day" he said. And I felt relieved. The world has made us cynical, religion is no longer okay to be practiced or preached in public spaces, especially in constricted public spaces like the subway. I thought how strange it would be if an Arab man sang a holy song about Islam, how many people would have panic attacks, waiting for some bomb to go off, including me.
Perhaps it's to avoid situations of that sort, to avoid eccentrics, to avoid negative and positive topics that we leave our human minds outside the subway and carry our bodies underground. It's a secret code among the subway riders, we don't welcome your personalities, so don't show your character, just shut up and ride. And most of us are happy with that, we don't want holy singers who make us think of suicide bombers, we don't want Girl Scouts cookie sellers, they make us think of middle class America, we don't want bright eyed tourists ,they annoy us with their enthusiasm. We just want to shut up and ride.
So yes, the subway system has changed me, it has given me the power to observe without looking, to be silent without demanding any rights, and to appreciate movement, the basic and essential in the world of fruitless luxuries and forceful impressions.