How to Ride the NYC Subway

Because we live in a society where competition and self-absorbtion are promoted through our social structures, I offer here a public service to the residents of and visitors to the city of New York.

Since the powers that be exhibit and stoke the degradation of all human interaction, I consider basic human kindness an important form of resistance. Read and adhere to the 5 guidelines below, and you will be partaking in a limited yet socially desirable struggle to make our world a little less soul-sucking.

  1. If you detest being touched by strangers while standing or sitting, hearing the most intimate details of others’ social lives and smelling a variety of human scents, might I suggest Montana as an alternative? I hear it’s quite spacious. Eight million people live here and with the exception of many severely handicapped folks, all but the wealthiest who prefer traffic jams to expedited travel, ride the subway and it is simply impossible to avoid human contact in all its inglorious forms. Deal with it or leave.
  2. One simple physics law dictates subway etiquette—two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. This is an erudite way of explaining that when entering a subway car, walk the fuck in and get out of the way of the doors!
  3. If you are incapable of sitting with your legs together so as to make room for others, you are either inexplicably rude or your genitals require medical attention. If it is the latter, please tend to this serious condition; if it is the former, you have lost all claims to a seat on the New York City subway at times when it is packed.
  4. If you have a seat during rush hour, you are a temporary member of the subway aristocracy, which does not absolve you of paying some attention to the others in the car. For example: refusing to give up your seat to an injured person, a pregnant woman, an elderly person or anyone else requiring a seat more than you is a sign that you are an anti-social low life, unfit to live in a major cosmopolitan center. Period.
  5. The subway floor is not an appropriate place to spit. The ubiquitous Duane Reades, CVS’s, Rite Aides, etc. all sell convenient little carrying packs of tissues for less than a dollar. Buy one, keep it on you, and deal with your needs in a socially acceptable manner.
Solipsism—a metaphysical theory that the self is the only existent thing—is part of the ideological detritus of capitalism. If you consider yourself progressive, then fighting tendencies toward selfish behavior is part of the struggle for a better world. 
Walk to the center of the car, you’ve nothing to lose but your chains!

P.S. I received a note of disagreement from a good friend, Brian Jones, regarding this post. In it he makes a number of valid remarks about the crowded subway cars and infrequent trains being a structural problem and takes issue with my code of behavior. While I totally agree that we should of course agitate for a better, more efficient, cheaper and less crowded subway system, I stand by my blog post. Here’s how I responded to his Facebook note:

While of course there is a structural problem with the fact there are too few subway cars and they come too infrequently, etc. I disagree with my good friend Brian. Having a class analysis, IMO, does not preclude advocating social behavior that allows for people to live together in crowded cities in a way that eases social interactions. Yes, while bourgeois moralists reduce all human behavior to individual choices, Marxists don’t deny human agency. One can both have a class analysis of the roots of selfish behavior AND advocate for politeness. We have freedom within a cell, as Marx once put it—we can’t control our incomes, but we can say excuse me.

The Web site for Socialism 2011: Revolution in the Air (July 1–4) in Chicago is up and running and now includes a full list of talks. I will be there speaking on The Myths of Zionism. Don’t sit fuming at the status quo. And don’t deny yourself the best opportunity this year for a weekend of thoughtful analysis, accessible debate and fun with others who feel like you do about the world.

Check it out and register now—


5 responses to “How to Ride the NYC Subway

  1. I’ve always admired your writing and politics Sherry. However, in this instance, your targeting is surprisingly and dangerously off-kilter. Perhaps you’ve spent too much time riding the subway lately.

    Anybody living in a large urban area has seen the grey, sickly faces of those condemned to yet another day of soul-destroying, mindnumbing drudgery, trying to grab a final moment, any kind of moment, of personal solitude, rest or just a bit more space on the journey to work. Transported en masse toward one more pointless day of being hounded by those above them to work faster, longer, harder; where the only thing to look forward to is the journey back home on the same dilapidated, over-crowded system that took them there in the first place is hardly likely to encourage the brotherhood of humanity.

    To tell people who can’t hack it to move to Montana, barely a week after multi-billionnaire Bloomberg told new immigrants to NYC to go to Detroit instead is, to put it mildly, the wrong argument to make.

    Putting people into a degraded subterranean cesspit of leaking ceilings, filth and screeching noise at ungodly hours of the morning just to get somewhere who’s sole purpose is to allow them to make enough money to go and do it all again, while packing them closer than a set of uranium rods in a spent-fuel pool, is, I would suggest, the perfect recipe for social meltdown.

    Turning around and blaming those same people for conforming to such degraded conditions by degrading themselves is one of the favourite lines of the right-wing and the liberal intelligentsia who either howl with outrage or converse in low-tones of condescending disdain at the feckless, uncouth and ill-mannered great, unwashed masses.

    Hasn’t this been the argument of our rulers and their apologists since the dawn of class society? These people are so uncouth they are not fit for better because they’d just trash the place.

    Contrast the attitudes and behavior on a subway car that is half-full on a weekend or holiday where occupants will give up seats for each other, chat, make jokes etc., with the Atlas Shrugged behavior of a packed car at rush hour(s) on the way home from another day of capitalist alienation and torment.

    Isn’t the artificial creation of scarcity under capitalism precisely designed to bring out this dog-eat-dog, selfish and brutish behavior? Where grabbing a seat in front of an elderly person or looking without guilt into the standing face of a pregnant woman as you splay your legs is a reward for the strong over the weak.

    Ask any lab rat, degraded conditions generate degraded behavior. Moral arguments against this behavior, however amusingly they may be put, are the realm of the Right and socialists should have nothing to do with them. That doesn’t mean replicating or condoning that behavior, but it does mean trying to understand what creates it in order to change the conditions it produced.

    Self-evidently, the only way to do that is to argue and fight for more trains, more maintenance and against the cuts that have created an even more over-crowded, less safe and filthier environment, human-sized seats and all the other upgrades to public transit that could make the morning commute enjoyable enough for people to give up their seat, say hello to each other and act in ways that are closer to thoughtfully human.

    • Chris-
      You and Brian Jones have similar takes on my piece. I repost below my response to Brian on FB, where he wrote me, because I have similar ideas about your thoughtful note, with this additional comment: I agree with almost every word you wrote, however, I have a hard time taking the sarcastic comment about Montana as literally as you both clearly do. Consider the source.

      Right-wing moralists are everything you say they are, but don’t we Marxists have a morality, an ethic that drives us as well? Just because the right rants and blames poor people for their actions, and reduces all human behaviors to acts of individual choice, does it mean Marxists have nothing to say in the here and now? Of course, we can’t prefigure the world we are fighting for, but does that mean we have nothing to say about the small, quotidian acts of kindness and consideration?

      And yes, I do ride the subway too much.

      Here’s what I wrote to Brian:
      If your critique of my blog post, not column, is that it is not a comprehensive analysis of the problems of the subway system, you are absolutely correct, and I agree with your points. But if your argument is that to advocate for certain behaviors lets the system off the hook, I don’t agree. People cannot leap over their socially-constructed realities, true. Capitalism creates the conditions for incivility and to not acknowledge that, which I did, would be incorrect. But we can also try and be human to each other during the time when we are living and struggling under these conditions. I don’t think socialists must choose between arguing that we have to Fight the Man and asking that we try and treat each other better. Both, it seems to me, are necessary.

  2. Right on, Sherry.

    What’s that line attributed to Emma Goldman? “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”?

    Well, if I can’t ask fellow subway riders to be a little more thoughtful of other human beings—indeed, if doing so, as Brian and Chris argue, somehow turns me into Ayn Rand or Rand Paul—then I most certainly don’t want to be part of Brian’s or Chris’s revolution.

  3. Back in the early ’60s, on a packed subway car, a seated young woman became aware that the man seated next to her had insinuated his hand under her buttocks. Grabbing his wrist, she raised the offender’s hand high & in a loud voice inquired, “Does this hand belong to anybody?” Sir Gropesalot exited at the next stop.

  4. Right on, Sherry! I’ve written a few blogs about subway etiquette as well and I’m all for making a rule book and passing it out amongst commuters. I’ve lived here for 14 years and the only thing that makes riding the subways a pain in the ass are the inconsiderate people that, just because they had a bad day or what have you, feel it affords them the right to be selfish and take out their bad day on someone else.

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