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Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Rules of the Subway

‘It was disgusting,’ Mark said. ‘The guy was clipping his nails on the train.’

I’ve seen it more than once. The women with their entire moisturizing and make up routines don’t faze me, but I can’t stomach the nail clipping. It is a bit too intimate. Once, I saw a guy pull out a battery-powered clipper and shave his whole face, on the subway platform. I didn’t know whether to laugh aloud or scream and run away.

Space is an issue, and New Yorkers treat the subway and streets as a part of their homes. And so it goes that there are so many laws that regulate our shared living room.

It’s not just that you can’t smoke in subways or subway stations, but you can’t eat or play your music. Aboveground, you have to pick up your dog poop. You can’t smoke in restaurants or bars. You can’t get out of a cab on the street side. And so on.

On the one hand, we have all these little rules so we can coexist. On the other hand, so many things go on that can't possibly be policed. I witnessed a guy steal a bike on the Upper West Side one Saturday afternoon, hacking through a thick metal chain, while a dozen people watched in disbelief.

I kept thinking, what should I do? Someone out there will come back to find his bike missing, and that's just wrong. But I didn't do anything, and neither did anyone else. (He was working so quickly that calling the cops seemed futile).

For a while, I went on a personal crusade against littering. Rules can be enforced, but littering is tough. It happens in a flash. There’s no proof, no tobacco-tinged fingers, aerosol can or leashed dog nearby.

If I saw someone drop the cellophane from a cigarette box, I’d walk up to them casually and say, ‘oh, you dropped something.’ They would turn around and often pick up whatever it was. But I stopped after confronting a guy on a train.

‘No, YOU dropped something!’ he cried, with hands on his hips.

‘But I just saw you drop that.’

‘No, YOU dropped that!’

We both looked at the crumpled napkin by his wife’s toe. It was a standoff.

I walked away from that one; the stakes were too high. Too many crazies out there, too many litterbugs, and too little space.


Andrea said...

The weirdest thing I ever saw on a tube platform in London was a vald man with one of those electric shavers that you described shaving his bald head all over and his face. He didn't stop even when we all got on the hugely overcrowded train. He was also very tall and even though he was completely bald tiny little hair bits were falling all around in the carriage.
Noone said a thing to him..
That's London for ya.