Learning About Humanity on Public Transportation

By Chris Gethard


Photo by Heath Brandan, via Flickr

I just saw the most talented subway performer I’ve ever seen. She wasn’t doing anything special—just singing along to karaoke tracks playing modern pop songs and Motown classics. But her voice was incredible. Jaded New Yorkers removed their earphones to listen. Upon completion of each song, the people inhabiting the platforms on both sides broke into applause. That doesn’t happen. The stereotype of New Yorkers is that we’re people who avoid warm human interaction, we’re always in too much of a rush to enjoy simple things, and that we’re just generally rude. Today, New York reminded me that beautiful things often happen, and that the most beautiful things are often simple.

This runs counter to almost all of my experience on NYC public transportation. Any notable moments spent on a subway usually do nothing more than expose human awfulness at its most pronounced.

My first realizations of this came as a New Jersey youth who took the PATH train into Manhattan. The PATH is a subway that carries the public of the Garden State into lower Manhattan. Since many people in New Jersey are convinced that New York is a crime riddled nightmare where cars get broken into constantly, a lot of people drive to towns with PATH stations and go from there.

I used to park my car in Harrison, a small town between Jersey City and Newark. To take it you must transfer at Journal Square to continue on the Newark line, and one thing I quickly learned was that anyone on the Newark line late at night was someone to be wary of. They were either a person down to cause trouble, or someone who would be unsurprised by trouble and was ready to step up and deal with it.

When it comes to public transportation exposing the shittiness of humanity, the PATH train stands out for being the place where I saw not one, but TWO separate incidents where people picked physical fights with mentally challenged people. The first instance involved a man wearing a silk short-sleeved button down shirt covered in dollar signs and pictures of dice repeatedly waking up a sleeping man who appeared to have Down’s Syndrome. The afflicted man would yell in terror, and the silk-clad gangster would then laugh and clap and try to get everyone else on the car to laugh and clap. We didn’t laugh and clap, probably because we were all wondering if there is a point to being alive.

On the second occasion, I was on a weekend train that had to stop in Hoboken. A clearly challenged man stood with a ten-speed bicycle. A Hoboken dickhead businessman sat in a seat facing his bicycle. If you don’t know Hoboken dickhead businessmen as an archetype, congratulations. They’re a lot like other dickhead businessmen, but they’re even more insecure about trying to be shitty alpha males, since they live in Hoboken. This guy wore a suit, had a real shitty moustache, and looked generally like the kind of guy who would have fingered a sleeping girl in high school just to see if she would wake up and protest.

The troubled guy’s bike was shaking, as bikes tend to do when held on train cars traveling at high speeds. It hit the businessmen’s knee, and in his coke-addled state he jumped out of his seat and grabbed the mentally challenged man by the shirt.

“Touch me again with that bike,” he snarled, “and I’m going to fuck you up.”

The challenged man looked at him, emotionless, and shouted, “SIR, I WILL VOMIT ON YOU. Sir, I promise, I WILL vomit on you.”

No one else on the packed train said or did anything.

New York subways are not the same as the PATH, which has an omnipresent feeling of despair about it. Subways in the city are used so heavily that they’re not always fucked up—but when they are fucked up, they’re really fucked up. I first realized this when I was in college, when I still hadn’t spent much time on the subways since I am a Jersey kid who would rather walk 150 blocks then admit he is nervous about taking subways and show weakness. A group of teenagers descended upon the car, making noise, jumping onto seats, and just generally behaving like groups of teenagers did in 80s movies.

One of the kids took out a matchbook and stuck it in between the laces of a passed out homeless guy’s shoe.  

“Whoa, stop,” I said.

“OR WHAT?” one of the drugged out teens shouted at me. The friend I was with put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head—these teenaged kids were fucked up on something and looking for trouble.

We got off at the next stop and as we exited the car we heard screaming and laughing at what I can only imagine was the heightened shittiness of a homeless man’s life via unnecessary foot burning.

Two of the scariest moments I ever had on a train came shortly after I moved to Astoria. The yellow line services the area and goes above ground after Queensboro plaza. I lived at the end of the line, on Ditmars Boulevard, and the commute was always a pain. The train was constantly delayed, and since there was only one line that ran through the neighborhood, everyone on the train tended to be stressed out and avoid anything that would cause a train to stop.

I once took a train home around seven at night, on a brutally hot summer day. The car was full of tired, dehydrated people making their way home from work. Each person looked more exhausted than the last, and they all looked extremely annoyed at the fighting family in the center of the car.

A mother, a teenaged daughter, and a toddler-aged girl all occupied the center of the car, and the mother and teenager were having the kind of screaming match only a mother and teenage daughter can have. Their fight started pretty loud—but that was merely a foundation. As we came above ground, they were lacing into each another. The daughter told her mom, “I can’t believe how stupid you are,” the mom made threats about grounding and vague references to a guy who was trouble and steering her daughter in the wrong direction.

They made their way towards an exit of the car and continued fighting as the train rumbled on. We got to the next stop and the toddler did the logical thing one does after walking to an exit, and stepped off the car.

Only, that wasn’t their stop. The mother and teenager didn’t budge. And because they were screaming in one another’s faces, neither noticed that the younger sibling was off the train car.

Every single person on the car realized what was happening a split second too late. The toddler turned from the platform and looked to her older sister and mom, slightly confused. She was just about to open her mouth and say something when the doors started to close.

The people nearest the mom and teenager jumped from their seats. One said “Hey, wait – “

But it was too late. The door closed completely and the mother and teenager stopped fighting and threw themselves against the windows of the subway door.

“Mom!” the toddler shouted and reached her hand out towards the glass as the train began moving.

“Stay right there,” the mom shouted, “don’t move!”

The toddler chased the train car.

“Mom!”

“Don’t move, don’t talk to anyone, just stay right there!” the mom reiterated. Then, the train was past the edge of the platform.

An eerie silence fell over the car. We’d gone from grimacing as this family screamed, ruining our collective commute, and now each person was wide eyed, shocked, and unsure of how to react.

The teenager turned to her mom. “What do we –“

“We run back,” the mom interrupted her. “We run back and we get her and we pray no one takes her before we can.”

Everyone on the car heard that grim statement of intent. No one knew what to do. We just waited until the train pulled into the next station, when the mom and teenager sprinted off the car. The doors shut again and there was a large chorus of people exhaling for the first time in minutes.

I checked the paper the next day and there were no reports of a train platform kidnapping in Astoria.


Photo by Global Jet, via Flickr.

That wasn’t even the worst thing I saw on the N line. On another trip home, I was on a completely packed car—the type where you’re involuntarily making physical contact with multiple human beings. This is one of the grossest facts of life about New York City. We pack ourselves into steel rectangles and rub thighs, butts, and armpits every once in a while when the trains are running slow.

At each stop, a few people got off, and the effect was like loosening the notch on one’s belt after Thanksgiving dinner. Every time five or so people stumbled off the train to head home, everyone else had a little bit of breathing room. And the looks on the faces of the people who got to exit was one of total satisfaction—there are few things as uncomfortable as an overly packed car, and few moments as gratifying as getting off of one.

But to the horror of myself and many others in my area, as people exited and we were able to loosen up, and as peoples’ bodies were no longer obstructing our view, we saw something no one ever wants to see:

A dead body.

He was a black kid, no older than 19 years old. He was stretched out on his back over three seats, his head hanging at an awkward angle over a steel bar that marked the edge of the seats. His left arm hung limp towards the ground, above a skateboard that was flipped over where it had dropped from his grip. His hoodie was pulled up, obscuring his face, which seemed weird on such a hot day.

As he came into view, I went rigid and my face was overtaken by fear. But as I looked into the eyes of the people closest to the body, I saw a similar look on all of them. And via the unspoken code of New York, I was able to tell what all of them were thinking.

Look, this kid is going to be dead if we call the cops now, or if we wait until Ditmars and call then. Doesn’t matter. Nobody do something stupid and hold this train up for an hour. We’ll call at Ditmars so we can all get the fuck off the crowded ass train. Dead is dead, now or later.

It was New York at its coldest.

I didn’t call the cops. No one did. With each stop, the car became less crowded and more people realized what was going on. The hardest-souled among us were glowering at everyone else, pragmatists to an inhuman degree. Examining the faces of others on the car revealed a spectrum of emotions, with myself and a few people on the far other end from those leading the unspoken charge.

I started to cry; it was one of those rare and awful moments in life when you know you are failing yourself but still remain too frozen and confused to take action that will correct the situation.

You should be calling the cops, I thought to myself. Why aren’t you the one doing something?

The car pulled out of Astoria Boulevard, one stop from the end of the line and home. I looked down and continued quietly crying. I looked up at the boy.

Heroin? I thought to myself. Probably heroin.

Then the train swayed in the wind a bit, and the body tumbled off the seat to the floor.

And woke up.

The reactions of those on the car were varied and profound. Some people burst out crying. Others burst into grins. A few laughed. Those who had been dictating the “don’t call” vibe looked down in shame.

The kid was clearly completely drugged out of his mind. He sadly pawed the ground looking for his skateboard, grunting in pain and holding his hand up to shield his eyes from the light. He slid onto his back due to the momentum of the train, then propped himself up and sat on the floor, staring at the ground.

He was fucked up. He had looked as dead as dead gets. For all I know, he had been OD’ing and came out of it and maybe for a few minutes actually was dead. I’m glad he wasn’t, though myself and everyone else on the car that day still got to see sides of ourselves as if he had been.

Public transportation is like a magnifying glass that shows you civilization up close. I’ve seen good things on the train too. Strangers comfort each other. Old friends reunite unexpectedly. People who clearly just fell in love make out in corners.

But there are also creepy masturbators, violent maniacs, and troubled souls. The bad you see in NYC is troubling to know when it rears its ugly head.

But today, I had none of that. Yes, sometimes this metropolis involves watching kids wind up in danger, or assholes trying to light a man’s feet on fire, or a train car collectively ignoring death for the sake of personal convenience. But today was about a girl no one would normally notice singing beautiful songs, and everyone stopping to actually listen. 

@ChrisGethard

Previously - Success Sucks

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