Welcome to my Home, Watch the Closing Doors
(First published in The New York Times.)
I am writing this on the downtown No. 9 train. I find the subway - both cars and stations - conducive to writing. I also write in buses and coffee shops and on the StairMaster at the gym. People ask me whether the conditions bother me, and, honestly, they don't - that is, until they do. That occurs when I come across people doing the same thing as myself, namely, using public space for private activities.
Today, the conditions are good. No one is reading over my shoulder or coming too close (elbow-in-the-side close) or clipping their fingernails, a bathroom exploit that for some reason bothers me when done in public, whereas someone applying blusher between stops doesn't. Maybe it's the fear of being hit in the eye by an airborne cuticle. On a bus I would also have to contend with Walkmans and cellphones, but underground, the track noise and the tunnels keep them from intruding.
Much as I'd like to see nail clippers, Walkmans with poor sound management, and cellphones with loud owners banned on public transportation, it is feet on seats that has become the latest at-home activity the Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to outlaw on its buses and subways.
If several proposed additions to the agency's almost 4,000-word regulations are passed, feet on seats and Rollerblading could join such taboo activities as smoking, littering, lying on benches, drinking alcohol, panhandling, begging, radio-playing audible to others, lying down, commercial activity and using more than one seat "when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the comfort of other passengers." (Try figuring that one out without interviewing the rest of the train or bus.)
Not that any of these bans seem to be taken seriously. Right now, on the 9 train, I count exactly 10 seats obstructed by bags and books as well as by the splayed limbs of men sitting cross-legged or wide-legged, while there are more than 20 people who could presumably use them. Oh, yes, and here come, from opposite directions, a Vietnam vet asking for money and a woman selling batteries. All the doors, meanwhile, are being leaned on, so you can't see a single "Don't Lean on Door" sign.
Respect and consideration are probably asking a bit much. I personally stopped saying excuse me after getting mowed down by a mother wielding a double stroller one time too many. Now I treat NYC as MYC, as do millions of others. Witness the cyclist who thinks that speed and a whistle give him the rule of the road, the dog owner who uses an extendable leash to stop traffic, shoppers who believe that their bags and boxes have as many rights as pedestrians, or moviegoers who take the Mr. Inconsiderate Cellphone Man ad as their cue to socialize.
If it was just us out there, appropriating sidewalks, Cybex machines and Starbucks tables for ourselves, life would be hell, and all we'd get from being in public is colds, bruises and a ever-growing vocabulary of epithets. But some people make it a joy to leave home, not to mention an education.
If I never left home, I would never have heard Luciano Pavarotti singing on the Great Lawn of Central Park or Tim Robbins decrying the war in Iraq on the East Lawn. Nor would I have realized 1) how many wickedly talented 14-year-olds there are who don't have a television show; 2) that some men have the guts to knit in public; and 3) that people actually exist off-screen who can talk on a cellphone for 10 minutes using only words unprintable in this paper (and, more astonishingly, that someone on the other end didn't hang up after the first minute.)
In a city where it is all too easy to get wrapped up in your own world, a walk through the culturally diverse East Village, the athletically challenging Central Park (yes, I mean you, Mr. Skier on Wheels With the Flailing Poles) or the changes-by-the-block Bleecker Street, or even a simple ride from Penn Station to Port Authority can pluck you out of your reveries. Not so Battery Park City or the new Time Warner Center, which, according to a recent list compiled by the Project for Public Spaces, make you want to gawk at them rather than sing, shout, or hang out around them.
Similarly great, in the eyes of the Project for Public Spaces, are Grand Central, the New York Public Library, Smith Street in Brooklyn and the Metropolitan Museum. Better than average is - surprise, surprise - Penn Station. And worse than average, along with the abovementioned, is Times Square, because, unlike Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square or Paris in general, it favors cars over pedestrians.
Yet beneath the glittering, people-unfriendly towers of places like the Time Warner Center, something else very different is going on. When I get out of the 9 train at Columbus Circle to switch to the C, I see on the platform a gospel singer with a set of lungs big enough to lift the roof off the station. She's almost as hypnotic as the guy with Lou Reed's voice four stops back who more than a few times has actually caused me to miss my train. Conversely, the guy playing "Come Back, Sorrento" on a Chinese zither at Times Square makes me wish that the train would hurry up, while the guy on drums at 14th Street is a good case for earplugs.
BUT I've seen people gather round the drummer, so he has his fans, too. And the image of him and his fans, like many public tableaux, offers an invaluable lesson in tolerance: One man's drummer or Chinese zitherer is another's Lou Reed. Anyone failing to understand that should go stand at the other end of the platform.
When the C train pulls in, I head for the car that's emptiest, although as soon as I get in, it's obvious why there's no one there: A man with no socks, no shoes and dirty feet has passed out across eight seats. Everyone gives him a wide berth except for one well-dressed man, who sits right next to him and slips a dollar into his hand. When the sleeping man gets out at 50th Street, I overhear him speaking Russian. Lesson for the day: Don't think all Russians are like Vladimir Putin.
At 42nd Street, I'm distracted by someone else: another person writing. I immediately shift closer, making me guilty of the exact thing I hate other people doing to me, looking over my shoulder. I also crane my neck to see what books people are reading, give to musicians but not to beggars, and eavesdrop on cellphone conversations when they're juicy ("Donna, you won't believe what she told me!"). I also expect others to say excuse me and sorry when they bump into me, but I expect them to be prescient enough to know when they should get out of my way.
None of which actually makes sense, I admit, and only adds to the fuzzy boundaries of what's MYC, her city, his city, their city. But let's make one thing clear about all four of these places: Absolutely no nail clippers allowed.
(Photo from Twitter @xaltd)