Strangers on a Train

I suddenly found myself overwhelmed with the urge to kiss him. We were standing close on the subway, his hand just above mine on the pole, his elbow nesting in mine. Soft, dirty blonde hair, average 20-something male face—I could feel his breath gently pass my cheek as we were jostled back and forth and the subway rumbled along.

This would have been adorable­—a true romantic New York moment—if we had been new lovers on our third or fourth date, excited and enamored by each other. Instead he was somebody I had never seen before, and would probably never see again. It was a Tuesday morning and we were on our way to work, bundled in our winter clothes and crammed into this closeness by the force of everyone else packed onto the subway car around us.

This sort of intimacy is par for the course in New York City. I was at party recently talking to another NYC transplant when he commented, “You’re usually standing about this close to somebody else,” standing about half a foot away from me, “and it’s usually a stranger.” We all laughed about it, commiserating about the absurd city we live in, but after that conversation I couldn’t stop thinking how true this is.

And nowhere is it more true than in a New York City subway car—441 square feet of humanity pummeling underground at 40-some miles per hour. The number of complete strangers that pass through my life on any given subway ride is unfathomable to me.

I asked her about her coat. That was it. I had been on the market for one similar and was wondering where she got hers, what she thought of it. “Uniqlo!” she exclaimed, “It’s great—not super expensive but it will keep you warm.” The conversation could have just as easily ended there, but because we were sitting next to each other and still had five stops to go, it just felt rude to cut it off.

“What do you do?” I asked. She told me about her design work for Martha Stewart, how she enjoyed it, how she was wondering if it was about time to move on. I suggested she check out my site. She told me about her daughter. I talked to her about my transition to New York City life. And then we got to Jay Street and she got off.

Opinions about New Yorkers’ relationships with their subway counterparts are varied, and can change from day to day, interaction to interaction. Certainly the most common reaction I hear is annoyance. Crammed cars that turn into saunas no matter the season, the smell of perfume and sweat, backpacks awkwardly jamming into your rib, people only inches from you coughing and sniffling during cold season, tinny music coming from the headphones of a person half a car down from you: None of us ask for these things in our every day lives. We do everything we can to separate ourselves from these people, using headphones and books as invisible walls and keeping our limbs glued to our sides so as not to touch anyone.

We’re forced to be close, hand over hand on the pole, all moving in the same direction but not really caring to be united. These other people are invading our space, getting in the way of our groove, making our days just a little more difficult.

I could feel it coming minutes before it happened—I was going to pass out. This had happened to me before and I knew the protocol. Lie down if you can to get the blood to your head, or at least sit, drink some juice or eat some fruit to give your blood sugar a spike, breathe deeply, and let it pass. Unfortunately I could do none of those things. I was crammed on the subway during the morning commute, all the seats taken, nowhere to move, no food in the bag awkwardly crammed between my legs, even if I could reach it. I was trapped. I felt it traveling up from my gut, coming stronger in waves, and then my vision started going white. Not knowing what else to do (or no longer having control of my body) I slumped straight down into a squat, my head resting on my knees.

This all happened right as we pulled up to the next stop, so people bustled around me, but finally as the train doors closed someone who sounded very far above me said, “Are you okay?” “Just give me a minute,” I mumbled, trying to stay conscious. After that a few people started to speak up, started to try and help me, and finally a woman made her son stand up and give me his seat. As I nestled into it and thanked them, he grumbled but she told me not to worry about it, that she sometimes got woozy on these crowded trains, too. Before she left me a few stops later, she instructed me in a motherly way to “drink some water, make sure to eat something, and feel better.”

On the other side of the spectrum are the people you want to connect with (or wish you had). I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself happily pitted next to a cute guy or a group of girls who look like they could be my friends and wondered, What if I just said hi? Judging by the number of missed connections that take place on trains, I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling.

In a city full of so many people, it’s surprisingly easy to feel isolated, so when you’re forced to stand next to someone for 20 minutes or more, especially someone you feel like you want to get to know, it’s easy to feel the urge to reach out, to connect.

As soon as I bustled onto the train, surely looking a little flustered after running for the connection across the platform, I saw him do a double-take. I wasn’t sure how much interaction I was up for that night, but the only open seat on the train was next to him, so I sat down and immediately proceeded to bury myself in my book. Sure enough, just after the train pulled off I heard his voice next to me: “What’re you reading?” “How to Be a Woman,” I replied, holidng up the cover of my book. “Surely you don’t need that,” he smiled. Oh boy, a charmer, I thought, and laughed politely then quickly turned back to my book, trying to be cold enough for him to leave me alone, without seeming rude.

But I barely read a sentence before I was giving myself a mental pep talk: He was just being friendly, this is why you’re single, it could be a good story, what’s the harm, really? So the next time a wandering musician passed us in the car and I found us making eye contact trying not to laugh, I picked the conversation back up. In the course of only two express stops, I learned that he built custom chandeliers for a living, saw a couple of the lights he had created that day, noticed the calluses and cuts on his hands from work, developed a small crush on the man in front of me, and was asked for my number because he has just moved from Miami and didn’t really know anyone. Of course, at that moment I realized I had reached my stop and shouted my number back at him as I ran off the train. I never heard from him again.

But in between are the tender moments. The fleeting vignettes that you feel you weren’t supposed to be a part of, but are so glad you were. The lovers cozying in the corner seats and smiling as they whisper things into each other’s ears. The friends excitedly catching up after not seeing each other for months and then randomly ending up on the same car at the same time. The moment when you get to read The New York Times over your neighbors shoulder, keeping pace almost as if you’re reading it together.

These are the moments when you stop trying to resist the subway intimacy and stop trying to make something more of it and just take in the moment you have. Be there. Let it settle in.

It was getting late on the A train. Surely past this boy’s bedtime. Still, this little black boy with the big brown eyes who couldn’t have been more than five was sitting in the hard plastic seat, looking brightly up at his mom as she leaned against the pole tossing her head and singing with the music coming from her earbuds and looking smug. This sweet little boy was doing everything he could to pull her out of her own little musical world and get her to pay attention to him.

He squirmed in his seat and she told him to sit. He dug in her purse for his gloves and she told him to stay out of her stuff. He asked about his daddy and she said, “If your daddy isn’t home when I get there, then he’s not coming home tonight.” Finally, he said “Mommy, why won’t you smile for me?”  She looked at him. “Because I don’t feel like smiling,” and went back to her singing. “Please smile for me, mommy,” he went on, “I love it when you smile.” “You want me to smile? Would it make you happy if I smiled?” He nodded excitedly, a grin spreading across his face. His mom gave him a moment’s grimace and went back to her music, but you could see that smile spreading across the car, the other passengers making eye contact with each other, understanding how happy we were to see this little boy love his mama so much.

These connections aren’t missed—they’re the best one’s we have. They are the life’s blood of NYC, running through the underground veins, keeping the city moving with a constant stream of human connection.

And while, yes, sometimes these strangers annoy me, sometimes I just want to be alone and not feel the warmth or the presence of someone I don’t know, my New York would not be the same without them. Whether they know it or not, they have become part of my story.

And for that, I thank them.


Photo of NYC subway courtesy of Dan Phiffer.

Dirty Little Secret

The first steps on your run. The 6-minute walk on your morning commute. Working out. Ordering in. Your jams are always playing in the background. They penetrate your eardrums—you shove speakers into your ear canal to seek the pleasure of music most intimately. It’s a relationship.

You are so caught up with your cassettes CDs Mp3s iTunes Spotify libraries that you craft playlists to enhance every moment of your life. They are your companions, perfectly designed to compliment your mood, activity, time of day.

Music is my favorite significant other. It’s the dance partner who accommodates my signature dance move. It’s a shoulder to lean on after a long day. It’s my personal trainer when I really don’t want to go another mile (actually, that might be Beyonce).  And if it gets too angry, I can always turn it down.

As I type this now, I’m on a plane. I am in the center seat, and the Captain has just turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. It’s getting shaky, and I need a friend to distract me, other than the mouth-breathing sleepers nearby. I queue up my Spotify playlist, and boom! Phantogram caresses my eardrums.

I’m lucky Phantogram just came on. I feel much cooler than if a song from the You’ve got Mail soundtrack played first. We are very self-conscious about our musical selections. Anyone with Spotify can tell you they are very deliberate about their public Spotify profile. To keep up appearances, they’ll include a few unknown bands, classics, Beyonce, and a few tasteful 90s rock classics. To the masses, their public playlist is fine; their Spotify relationship is going super amazing, so much fun, but there’s like totes a deep connection, too. On the outside, our playlists take us bike riding, shopping, fro-yoing.

But deep down, we crave the nasty stuff. We all love a few songs that no one else likes. The bands most people stopped listening to in 8th grade. The albums we’ve played to death. If one of those unpopular jams comes on among friends, we immediately take the defensive:

“I don’t know how that got on there.”

“Oh, yeah, some of that is from some mix someone gave me.”

“Well I share with my dad…he, uh…loves Dashboard Confessional.”

We get embarrassed by some songs, even though we commit to them, including them in our commutes and workouts. Those songs are the secret partner who won’t rage with your friends or buy everyone a round, but will always show up after a long night of dancing. You don’t want them to meet your friends—they wouldn’t get it. You’re not proud of your choice to let them in at 4AM, but you can’t shake it. The music is too good.

This shameful relationship is the reason for Spotify Private sessions. Private mode is an underworld. These playlists are the nerdy girls jocks meet under the bleachers, even though they’re dating cheerleaders. Spotify transforms into an alphabetized library of all the dirty little tracks you indulge during your monotonous morning routine.

The secrecy is enticing. Every now and then, you crave those jams. You’re plugged in—your roommates can’t hear a note. You close your door, just in case. It’d be so easy to get away with it now. You thumb over the privacy setting on Spotify and get those horrid tracks thumping.  You could be driving on the highway, writing a paper, pumping iron and no one knows about your unpopular music selection.

This is the part where I should empower you to listen to whatever you want– life’s too short to listen to music you don’t LOVE!  Who cares what other people think–be you!

But we’re all still judging. I saw Taylor Swift come up on my newsfeed, and I judged. I might have a few hidden Macklemore tracks in my library, but I’d roll my eyes if you’re still listening to “Thrift Shop.”

So keep it private. Keep your thumb triggered on the next button when DJing for friends. And if you get caught, make up those shallow lies—we’ll all pretend to believe them. Cause sneaking around is just more fun.