Heading to the gym after work on Tuesday, I managed to snag a seat the moment I got on the train, practically a miracle in mid-week rush hour. I plugged in my headphones, reopened my magazine and settled in for what I thought would be an easy ride back uptown, blocking out everyone around me for the next 40 minutes with my pump-up playlist and a back-issue of Vanity Fair. So I was admittedly not a happy camper when two women got on the train on the next stop and planted themselves right next to me, loudly complaining to each other about work and making subtle references to how exhausted they were from standing all day. When I noticed one of them looking at me through my peripheral vision, I tensed, immediately becoming super-possessive of my seat (mid-week rush hour, people!) and tried to pretend I couldn’t hear anything until she tapped on my shoulder and asked if she could talk to me about something.
As a properly jaded New Yorker, I didn’t want to be rude, but experience tells me that one of three things is about to happen: she’s going to give me a sob story about her life and ask for money, she’s going to give me a sob story about her life and ask for money PLUS my seat, or she wanted to talk to me about the Bible. I couldn’t very well say “no, please don’t talk to me,” because there was a chance we’d be situated next to each other for another 30 minutes and I’m not good with awkward subway proximity, so I sighed deeply, paused my headphones, and politely smiled up at her, mentally running the normal list of “Sorry I have no cash” and “Jesus and I are cool with a polite acquaintanceship” responses, and replied “Sure, how can I help?”
Subway strangers are the most interesting and annoying part of any commuter’s day. On the one hand, the people watching is priceless: parents placating children with a smartphone game or snack, professional-types trying to one-up each other with hard copies of the Journal and news apps on the new iPad, groups of school-aged kids excitedly giggling at the chance to ride the subway sans parents and the annoying couple that won’t stop groping each other. On the other, the second we hear “ATTENTION LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,” or we can hear someone loudly sharing their opinion before they’re even on the train, NYC-ers tense up and go solo, determined to stay focused on themselves and not get caught up in the storm of the subway stranger. People who drive to work know the small enjoyment of a few minutes of solitude, singing to the radio and sitting with your thoughts, a luxury denied to most New Yorkers as we deal with someone else’s loud music, someone else’s screaming child, someone else’s money woes.
As it turns out, my tense stereotyping of a subway situation was wrong on all counts. The woman and her friend had recently been discussing whether she should get her nose pierced or not, and wanted to ask me a few questions about my piercing. As I regaled stories of how I had to have it pierced twice, why it’s a bad idea to take a shot of vodka before a needle is jabbed through your skin and how yes, it did hurt (it hurt a lot), we ended up getting a conversation moving between a few people around us. All of a sudden, this group of strangers was animatedly talking to each other: we compared funny tales of piercing parlors, I showed off my tattoos, and eventually we all laughed together for the rest of the ride, until one by one we all disembarked. I sat back smiling as we pulled into my stop, satisfied with a good reminder that it pays to lay aside stereotypes on occasion and let yourself open up to strangers. The magic faded the next morning when someone almost barreled me over trying to enter the train before I was able to exit, but I let her, encouraged by my small reminder that at least on occasion, New Yorkers are concerned with much more than a seat on the subway for a long commute home.