I walk through Times Square at 7:16 A.M., and a lady dressed in an MTA uniform stops me.
“We’re interviewing people about their experiences on the subway.”
“Uh… I’m in a hurry. I have to get to school.”
“This will only take a second. We need some information.”
“Just a survey.”
“How would you describe your experience on the subway?”
“Each day, I commute to school. The subway, in my case, is the fastest way to get around the city.”
“Interesting, I’m glad that’s working out for you. Continue.”
“Every weekday, I commute to Astoria to go to school. People think, ‘Woah! Astoria. It must take you hours to get there.’ And, if I feel like educating them, I usually say, ‘Well, it’s not as bad as it seems. It’s only 35-40 minutes from the Upper West Side.’ My trip begins at 100th and Broadway, where I walk down to the 96th Street station. From there, I take the 2 train down to Times Square so that I can transfer to the N, W, or R trains. These trains take me to only a short walk away from school. Frequently, I get questions such as, ‘Is it weird being on your own for so long?’ Inside my head, I roll my eyes and wish I could ask, ‘Isn’t your commute to work the same?’ What I say is, ‘Oh, it’s alright. You get used to it after a while.’ Anyway, I’m not really alone. After having done the same commute for more than half a year, you start to see some patterns. There are certain people I see every Tuesday going to the shuttle at Times Square, or that man who walks really slowly on the stairs at 36 Avenue on Wednesdays. Of course I don’t know any of these people’s names, but I can guess.”
“That’s great, sweetie. I just need to know more about YOUR exper-”
“Of course, but I’ll just say a little bit more about this. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find it amusing.”
The Lady In The Pea Green Coat
One of my favorite everyday people is the lady in the pea green coat. No matter how hot or cold, she wears a heavy, green coat with fluff around the head. I’m not too sure but I think she lives on 97th and Amsterdam. I always see her turning the corner onto Broadway at 97th. She wears shoes with big, loud heels that send the message, “move or I’ll stomp on you.” She always has her metrocard ready at the station and swipes it flawlessly so that she can run down the stairs. Her frown is always apparent, and she’s always grumpy. We both know exactly where to stand so that the train car opens right in front of us. If I’m standing where she wants to stand and I was there first, she rolls her eyes and shoves me over. When the train comes, the lady always mutters rude remarks under her breath toward anyone who enters before her. At this point, I always wonder what her job is. What kind of person would want to work with a grump like this one? I bet she works in an office all day, slouched by a computer, muttering comments about her coworkers, and complaining about her life.
Once, when we got onto the 2 train, there were two seats next to each other. One of the seats was half-occupied by a man, who was spreading out his legs so much more than he needed to. This day I got onto the train before the lady, and I got the whole seat. I didn’t think that she would decide to sit next to me, but she did. She sat right down on my leg and pushed down until I was forced to squeeze over. Then she stuck her elbows out into me. I had to sit like this until Times Square.
At Times Square, the lady in the pea green coat MAKES SURE she is out of the train car first. When the train driver starts to make the announcement, “This is Times Square, 42nd street. Transfer is available to the… ” the lady stands up and positions herself in front of the door. On her way to the door, people roll their eyes at her and say things like, “You’re not the only one getting off.” She ignores these comments and pretends she is. I wonder if she wears earplugs to block out all the people who are commenting about how rude she is. As the doors open, the lady stomps out, elbowing anyone in her way. Her heels make loud clacking sounds as she stomps up the stairs. I follow behind her with sneakers, not making that much noise. Once she reaches the main part of Times Square, she holds her purse tight and sprints through crowds of people and into the downtown N, Q, R, and W. As I walk by to the uptown N, Q, R, and W, I see her train leaving the station and wonder how it gets there right as she walks in every day.
The Lady Who Paints Her Nails
When I’m at the N, Q, R, and W station, there are multiple people I see every day. There’s one lady who wears so much makeup and has her hair dyed a different color each week. She gets on the train at Times Square and stands near me. I’m not too sure where she comes from, but I know it isn’t the 1, 2, or 3 trains. I think she comes from the opposite direction, meaning that she takes the A, C, or E trains to Times Square and comes to transfer. She could live in Far Rockaway or as close to my house on 96th and Central Park West. She stands, gossiping to her friend in Spanish, a language she thinks no one understands. She would be surprised how many people can understand her. Or, maybe, she doesn’t care and just wants to pass time by talking to her friend. You never know with these people.
When the trains come, she only gets onto the N or W. This means she needs to go to somewhere into Astoria. She gets off the train after me. Similar to mine, her time on the N or W is longer than most people. To me, this is a good time to study vocabulary from English class or listen to music. To her, it’s a good time to put on more makeup and paint her nails. Once, I made the mistake of sitting next to her. She smelled so strongly of makeup that I had to hold my nose and breathe through my mouth. Only two stops in, she took out a bottle of bright red nail polish. The smell was so strong that as she opened the bottle, people slowly began pinching their noses. Then she sat there, intensely concentrating on her nails and elbowing the person to her right every time she stroked her nail with the paint. After this day, I never made the mistake of getting into the same train car as her.
If I’m early, and I leave my house at exactly 7:00 A.M. like I’m supposed to (instead of the usual 7:05), I sometimes see Miss Bao. She knows exactly where to stand so that the N or W train leaves her right in front of the 36 Avenue train stop exit. I wouldn’t really mind Miss Bao, except for the fact that she’s my Mandarin teacher and advisor. She lives in the Bronx and takes the D or B trains, then transfers to the A train to get to Times Square. Miss Bao doesn’t speak English particularly well, but she does tell us that she grades our tests and does work on her long subway ride to school. Is that so? I see her reading Chinese newspapers and watching television programs on her phone.
She wears a large coat, and I suspect it might be helpful to cover up what she’s doing. I’m not sure how much warmer it was where she lived in China than here, but it doesn’t seem she’s quite adjusted to the cold weather. She wears this grayish coat and when she sees me walking down the platform, she discreetly pulls her hood up and zips the coat all the way. The first time I ever saw her, I was really happy to see someone I knew. I waved at her and said hi. This was a mistake because she just waved her hand back and when the train came, she walked away from me so that we wouldn’t be near each other for the subway ride. Now, when I see her, I just ignore her just like she ignores me. My mom says I should walk up to her and say something in Mandarin. If I walk up to her and say 你好吗?, she’ll probably just say 我很好,谢谢 and walk away quickly. I don’t think Miss Bao likes to mix her commuting life with her teaching life. Another suggestion from my mom is to start singing one of the catchy Mandarin songs from the internet. My argument against this is that then the other people on the subway will think I’m crazy. The Miss Bao, who I see on the subway, is completely different from the woman who teaches me Mandarin.
The Guy Who Wears A Suit
Although there are so many different people on the subway, the average man in the morning will have a briefcase and will be wearing a suit. I don’t think the specific man I’m going to write about is any different from any of the other Wall Street guys you see randomly on the street. He gets on the express 2 train at 96th Street and is super tall. This height has some advantages because he can push past people–even the lady in the pea green coat–to get onto the subway car. If he’s running late, he can skip two or three steps at a time to get on the train. I envy this greatly because I absolutely hate the feeling of missing the train. The one time the man almost missed a train, he stuck his arm into the train car and made the conductor open the door for him. Although it must be cool to be really tall, I can tell it also has its disadvantages. Once, the man tried to get onto the train and hit the top of his forehead on the door of the subway car. Now, I notice that he always seems to bend down while getting onto the train.
This man’s lifestyle is really easy to predict: he wakes up in the morning, drinks coffee, and gets ready. Then he packs his briefcase with some important papers and his computer. He gets on the express train and transfers at Times Square. From there, he takes the R or W down to Rectors street so that he can walk to his job on Wall Street. Once he gets to work, he probably sells bonds all day and has fancy work meetings with clients. His commute home is just like his commute to work. He gets home at promptly 10:00 P.M. and sleeps, just so he can wake up at 6:00 for another day full of work.
I’ve finished my story, and the MTA officer is just staring at me. Then she laughs and stands up.
“Thank you for your feedback. I enjoyed it.”
I laugh to myself, knowing I didn’t really answer her question. I see her walking away, turning her head back and forth. Honestly, I bet she’s searching for the people I told stories about. I start walking to N, R, W, and Q, but then, to my amusement, I see her stopping the four people I just told her about. I decide that I could be a little late to school.
The MTA officer sits them all down. She turns to the lady in the pea green coat first.
“Tell me about your experience on the subway. Why do you use the subway? Where do you work?”
I’m a teacher at a French school Downtown. Class begins at 8:20 A.M., but I like to get there early to help my students. I teach English and some of these students need all the help they can get. French is a beautiful language, but let’s face it–English is more helpful in New York City. Most of my students are already proficient in English, so I teach them one curriculum, while the children who are from the foreign exchange program get another.
I live on 97th and Columbus and dislike germs. Some people call me a germaphobe, but I disagree. I take the train to school every day, and any germaphobe wouldn’t stand for that. They would probably spend a fortune on taxis or buy a car, which is a pain in the city. My commute to school is a 35 minute subway ride, but I can do it in 30. I’m an exceptionally fast walker, and I know my way around the subway better than almost everyone. After having been teaching at my school for four years, I’ve mapped out the perfect places to stand so the subway doors open right in front of me. I don’t think anyone–even those who have done the commute with me– has realized what I’ve been doing in previous years. Usually, I’m the only one standing in the perfect place. The 2 and 3 trains are extremely crowded at seven in the morning, and I take pride in myself for getting a seat. When taking the subway, there are two very important things I do to keep as many germs off of me as possible. The first one is to always get a seat. By doing this, I don’t have to handle the polls, which are one of the dirtiest parts of the train. Second, I usually wear my big and heavy green coat. It’s not particularly stylish, but it makes due. No one can touch my skin directly, even on a crowded subway car.
This year, someone’s giving me a run for my money. There’s a girl, who can’t be more than 13, who always wears a straight face. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t notice her, but recently, she’s been standing where I stand. Sometimes she even beats me into the subway car. I wouldn’t consider her rude, because she apologizes to the people she bumps into, but she isn’t easily pushed. Most kids her age will move out of the way if a grown up shoves them. This girl stands her ground and sometimes uses that push to angle herself closer to the subway door. She apologizes like she means it, but I doubt she does because she doesn’t let the person she hurt beat her into the car.
At Times Square, I need to be the first one out of that train car. If I don’t run across Times Square, I’ll miss the W train and then have to wait who knows how long. When I get off the train, usually people shoot me dirty looks–unhappy that I beat them off. The girl contributes to those looks, although I bet she also understands my dilemma. I wonder what train she transfers to at Times Square. I wouldn’t know because I’m always the first one up those stairs at Times Square.
“Thank you, Margaret. You may go.”
She turns to the lady with the nail polish and asks the same questions.
I’m Lucia, owner of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Astoria. It’s on 34th and Broadway. We cook mainly Mexican food, and we cook it all fresh. If we have the ingredients for something a customer wants and if it doesn’t take too long, we’ll make it. The restaurant opens at 8:30 because we serve breakfast, so I leave my house at about 7:10. I live on 50th and 8th in Manhattan. When people ask me why I chose a location it Queens, my answer is usually because I don’t love all the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. At my restaurant, I have my usual daily customers who I look forward to seeing each day, but I also have new people who I can always greet happily with a smile. In the city, my restaurant might be too busy or my customers might be in a larger hurry. I wouldn’t be able to greet them personally.
My commute to the restaurant consists of only one stop on the C train, and then I walk through Times Square to the N and W. I get off on Broadway and walk two blocks. It isn’t too difficult, although I like to make the best time I can because I’m NOT a morning person. The later I leave my house, the better. I know I have to get ready for my job and show people that I care about this work, but I can’t get up any earlier than 6:30 in the morning. This means that I’m not completely ready when I rush out my door at 7:10. I have found a way to fix this problem by just doing my nails and hair in the subway car–it isn’t really crowded. The problem is, I feel a pang of guilt each time I do it in one of the subway cars that has the poster that says “The subway car is not a dressing room.” But I have to do what I can to look and feel my best for my customers.
Once, the girl who usually stands a little farther down the train station didn’t make it to where she usually stands. Maybe it’s because she’s younger, but I would have assumed someone would have taught her that it’s common etiquette not to show someone you don’t like the smell of their nail polish. She had her nose pinched the whole trip, but now that I think about it, so did everyone else in the train car. Usually this doesn’t happen, so I assumed it must have been the nail polish. After this experience, I always make sure to buy more natural nail polish so that the whole train car doesn’t smell like chemicals.
After she’s done, the MTA officer shoos Lucia away. Lucia hurries to the train–she doesn’t want to be late to work.
The MTA officer turns on Miss Bao, who looks a little impatient. “And you?”
I’m a Mandarin teacher. I moved to New York from China when I was 27. Throughout my childhood, I studied English and thought I was pretty good. I was so wrong–people actually speak very differently from what the textbook says. When I first moved, I practiced English even more and then started teaching in Astoria. I enjoy teaching, but I suspect my teaching style is extremely different from the other teachers. The other teachers joke with the students, but I get straight to the point and don’t push to make them comfortable with me. I guess this distances me from my students, but shouldn’t it always be this way? In China, my teachers taught this way, and my friends had fun with me. Here, you can also have fun with your teachers. Weird.
Another thing that is very different from where I lived in China is the subway. I lived in a smaller town, and we drove or walked everywhere. I’ve adjusted to the NYC subways because it’s been part of my commute to work/school for a while now. People always seem to be in a hurry. I try to blend into the crowd, and I think I’m getting pretty good at it. Recently, a friend told me that the reason people don’t talk to anyone on the subway is because if you show weakness, someone will try to mug you. Also, a couple years back, one of my students had his iPhone out, and someone just grabbed it and ran out of the train car. He never got it back. These events have made me wary of people on the subway. My commute to school is not an easy, short one, but it isn’t as terrible as it seems. I take the A train down to Times Square and then the N or W from there. Certain days, the A trains are delayed and I get to Times Square slower than expected. When this happens, I have to wait for two trains to pass before the one I need to take comes.
On these days, I see one of my students. This makes me relatively uncomfortable because I have my “commuting life” and my “teaching life.” I prefer to keep them separate. I act similarly in both modes because at school, I talk to those I’m teaching and meeting with, but not anyone else. During my commute, it’s the same as at school except there’s no one that I’m teaching or meeting with, so I can just act like a person who doesn’t care about the rest of the world. No one will know what type of life I have–except for my student.
After she finishes speaking, she gets up from her seat and hurries down to the platform, where she just barely makes her train. I consider getting up, but I have one more story to hear.
The MTA officer looks at the guy in the suit. He’s sitting in a chair much too small for him.
“You know the drill,” says the MTA officer.
The man begins to speak.
My life is work. But that’s not a bad thing–I don’t say it negatively. I don’t know where I would be without work. I went to college at the Wharton School of Business, and stocks have just interested me all my life. The only thing I’m mildly interested in is basketball. I’m always up for a good game of basketball. Once a month, our office holds a tournament, and I’m the 8-time champion. My officemates say it’s only because I’m so tall, but I think it’s because of the lack of competition. When I was younger, I lived in Pennsylvania, where we had a basketball hoop in our garage. I have practice shooting. The people I work with now sit in front of a screen or make business calls all day. Most of my officemates grew up in New York City, where you would have to walk to the park to play. I bet most of them thought this was too much work and just stayed inside learning about business or doing schoolwork.
Among others in the city, specifically males, I fit in perfectly with the crowd. In the mornings, the only people up that early work at schools or on Wall Street. Why would anyone else need to be on the subway that early? I think I’ve almost mastered using my height to my advantage. I can walk faster, and I’m stronger than others on the subway. People perceive me as some guy who’s important and shouldn’t be messed with. This detracts some of the usual paranoia that someone may feel about the subway. To work, I wear my striped shirt which is always neatly tucked into my dress pants. I wear a tie of varying colors and my usual black shoes. I leave my house at 7 A.M., but always make sure to wake up at 6:00 so that I can look suitable for the day. My commute consists of two simple transfers, but all the trains I take are crowded. I walk from my house to 96th Street, where I take the 2 or 3 trains to Times Square. From there, I take the shuttle to Grand Central and the 4 or 5 trains down to Wall Street. While taking the train, I can tell that I behave very differently than when I am at the office. Although there isn’t a large chance I get robbed, I still walk surely and keep me head held high. My arms swing by my side, and I make sure they look completely natural. I barely notice anyone on the subway and pretend to be a stuck up businessman. After all, am I ever going to see any of these people again?
The MTA officer stands up. She’s amazed for a couple seconds, and then her face returns to its normal expression. She proceeds to interview other people.
I start down to the platform. I check my phone. Only 7:28. I can still make it to school on time.
I rush into the train and get a seat.
People are so different on the subway. Some of us realize it, and some of us don’t. We can choose to completely ignore others, like James, or we can think about others, but put our best interests first. Most people think that no one remembers anyone they see on the subway. This is true, unless you see them more than once. I didn’t realize that some of the people I noticed have noticed me too and know as little about me as I know about them. People are so different when they think no one notices them. They can turn into their worst selves. Because of this, the relationships between people who take the subway together is not good–but it does make for an interesting story.