The new subway etiquette signs don’t go far enough for veteran riders from the ’70s and ’80s, even though the standard of acceptable behavior back then was set at a very doable, “Please don’t rob or stab the passengers.”
This may be confusing to newer arrivals who think the big omission in the list is, “No Mariachi Bands.” And it’s true that we have less to complain about from the days when taking the subway was like traveling by sewer, only with bigger rats. The subways have been evolving and are close to going beyond their original scope:
1960s — a cheap, fast way to travel
1970s — a cheap, fast way to travel, if you’re OK standing because every surface has graffiti and one end of your car is a homeless camp
1980s — a fast way get mugged while you travel unless you hide your jewelry, don’t ride after 10 p.m. and avoid eye contact
1990s — a fast way to travel and stay on top of panhandling trends, like recitations of all the crimes that aren’t being committed because they chose to ask you for money instead of just taking it
2000s to present day — a blank canvas for individual self-expression and creativity that also happens to have people who are trying to get to their appointments and jobs in peace
We have to draw the line somewhere; I draw it at performance art that violates The Subway Compact: “I’ve got someplace to go, I’m already late, here’s my fare, leave me alone.”
This doesn’t apply to subway performers on platforms and in stations. Those singers and dancers in subway stations and on platforms are awesome because they’re betting on their talent with the rent money. If they stink, they either improve, go back home, or go to grad school. Even more awesome, they respect the Subway Compact and rely only on their talent and ingenuity to capture and hold an audience.
What I object to are the performers in the subway cars — the amateurs, not the professionals. The pros can change the whole mood of the car. I saw a sleight of hand magician who rocked the D train, some breakdancers who got served by a female rider who showed off what she learned in her pole dance workout class, and an irresistible bongo player who just lifted everyone’s spirits. They kept the Subway Compact to the largest extent possible. All their performances were short. It had real entertainment value. And most important, they all managed to keep their pants on.
Which brings us to the No Pants Subway Ride. Initially it was a quirky prank that the City and the subway system were big enough to absorb. However, we’re at the tipping point, where there are just too many people riding the subway in their underwear. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.
I would cheerfully pay the fare increase to $2.75 in March if it paid for a platoon of maintenance workers using high pressure hoses and industrial strength disinfectant to nuke every remnant of some random stranger’s half covered behind from every single seat. It’s unreal that the subway’s PA system tells people to cover their coughs, but not their asses.
It’s not just the hygiene that’s a hot button; it’s the element of an épater la bourgeoisie — the thrill that drafts everyone else in the car to be extras, participating either by taking pictures or by looking shocked, amused, disparaging, or even by demonstrating the farthest limits of NYC aplomb. In a subway car, we’re being held hostage to someone else’s Attention Deficit Disorder, when all we want to do is, perhaps, mentally prepare for a meeting, or listen to music, or just be alone with our thoughts.
If you want authentic performance art on public transportation, get on the subway after the Series and watch the dynamic between the Yankees and Mets fans. Ride the M86 crosstown around the time school lets out and get on the “Party Bus” with Javier, the bus driver who gets passengers to sing “Happy Birthday” to fellow riders and asks trivia questions over the loudspeaker. Be surprised by the preacher on the A train, saving up for his storefront, asking people to step up to be saved, and a wino chiming in, ‘Yeah! Repent, you motherfuckers!!”
It’s those genuine, random moments, not the manufactured ones, that make New York City magical. And don’t get me started about that.