Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Packed Like Sardine-Cattle

Since a significant portion of my day is spent in transit and in public*, I have decided to devote a new section of this blog for my legion of followers (last time I checked, there were 8.  But hey, I’ve always said that’s my lucky number since my birthday is 8/8**.  So that works.) Originally, I was going to call the short vignettes that have been piling up in my mind “Subway Stories,” but I’ve also recently begun to appreciate the wonders of the bus, so that was a bit too limiting.  Therefore, I’ve settled on “Transit Tales” because alliteration is catchy (read: easy and lazy).  I also considered “Conveyance Considerations” and “Pedestrian Passages,” and I might get more inventive and get rid of the alliteration altogether…

Not that any of this titling discussion matters***.  But feel free to weigh in on titles.

The point is that walking and riding around the city by cab, bus, or (especially) subway, provokes much hilarity, concern, and general thought. The experience is at times mundane, at times profound, and often ridiculous. 

So I’ll start with this brief yet painfully obvious observation upon which anyone who has ever ridden an express train into Manhattan at rush hour could remark:

Nowhere has the expression about being “packed like a herd of cattle” (or some variation) resonated so clearly with me or been so apparent as on the A train heading into Manhattan in the 9 AM hour.  I know how Bessie feels.  If anyone has ever wondered what it feels like to have your nose thrust into a stranger’s armpit, praying the desperate prayer that he or she has used deodorant that day, all one needs to do is ride the subway. 

Even when it’s that crowded, people doggedly adhere to that New York priority of isolation (or, perhaps, independence is a kinder, more positive word to use).  As much as possible (and it’s often not), they struggle to avoid contact with the people on the train – that is, trying to avoid contact with their fellow sardines.  Or cattle.  Choose your metaphor.  This results in interesting displays of balance; often, it’s too crowded to reach the pole, and as the train lurches forward, back, or to the side (somehow, inexplicably, I think it manages all three directions simultaneously), commuters fall into the people around them, their weight transferring to a stranger’s arm, back, bag.  Granted, with the crowd, they don’t fall far, but in an effort to avoid contact, New Yorkers on express trains have developed the most amazing reflexes.  They jump back to their standing position, once again vainly attempting to avoid contact with others until the next lurch…or, gratefully, the doors open and travelers disembark.  But then…a bigger mass of people is waiting to push in. Indeed, “crushing mass of humanity” takes on new meaning.

The “Isolation M.O.” + crowd scenario also develops impressing feats of contortionism.  As more people pile onto the train and miraculously create standing space ex nihilo, people fight to keep reading their books, and I include myself as a soldier in this battle****. I’ve held my book up above my head, giving my arm a little workout as I try holding it steady; I’ve held it down against my stomach, trying to read in the shadow of my own head; I’ve held it out to my side, under the arm of somebody else, twisting my neck to see over their arm as they hold on to the pole; I’ve held it directly in front of my eyes as only the nearly-blind have been known to do.  That’s dedication.
*I think there’s a profound difference in labeling this traveling portion of my day as “in transit and in public” rather than “public transportation.”  The latter implies only a mode of travel, akin to “pedestrian traffic” or “commercial jet” or “makeshift raft à la Huck and Jim.” Separating the terms emphasizes that you are, indeed, traveling with the public eye on you…and your eye on the incredible variety and surprising characters of the public.
**Notice how I casually threw in the birthday so that you will all get out your smartphones or old school calendars and mark that glorious occasion. 
***I mean, seriously, the title of this blog is…well, a bit uninspired.  I will also take suggestions for changing that.
****Given the circumstances, the ability to maintain not only focus but absorption in a book is quite impressive, and I’m rather pleased with this developing talent.

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