URBAN ANTHROPOLOGY: Full-contact commuting

It started out an ordinary Tuesday — 7:45 a.m. awakening, a hastily grabbed to-go coffee cup, out the door, headed to the Lexington Avenue subway station. Surprise. The downtown 4, 5 and 6 trains weren’t running. The Upper East Side was at a standstill at rush hour. How would New Yorkers cope?

They emerged from underground in droves, spilling off the sidewalks and filling the streets. Each bus stop teemed with lines of people — old and young, in casual clothes and corporate-wear, students, businessmen, nurses and secretaries. The buses couldn’t accommodate all the disgruntled and disoriented commuters.

The relative calm with which New Yorkers confronted this unexpected development astounded me. Packed into our bus like sardines, they stood patiently, coffee cups in hand, absorbed in their iPhones and smartphones, reading the newspaper or calling work.

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There was as much cooperation as competition. At each bus stop, people vied for coveted spaces on the overcrowded buses. “I’m afraid there’s gonna be a mob,” someone murmurs. But as they pushed and shoved, New Yorkers looked out for one another, too. “There’s a baby coming,” someone yelled. Like the waters of the Red Sea, a path in the aisle miraculously appeared to protect the chosen people, and a woman guiding a small toddler filtered her way through the bus and successfully got off.

A few individuals seem to be looking on this scene with as much amusement and wonder as I did. A petite Asian woman dressed in scrubs kept smiling even after she failed to get on one bus and had to walk to the next in order to gain a spot. A packing crew around 65th stopped unloading their packages and instead watched the steady stream of people heading downtown on foot.

Things mellowed out once in the safe confines of a Queens-bound R train. If I didn’t know better, I’d say nothing remarkably unordinary could possibly have been taking place elsewhere in the city.

An advertisement: “You left the keys to your New York apartment in L.A.” Underneath this claim was a word bubble with an arrow pointing to a bottle of Tropicana orange juice beside it: “The good part of New York mornings,” it says.

I guess all the commuters on the Upper East Side had forgotten to drink their orange juice this morning.

It’s about 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday. I’m on the subway hungry and exhausted. With brain fog kicking in, I’m making my way through Manhattan as though in a dream, swept up by the tide, the swarming and teeming waters of evening commuters. I follow the current, drifting this way and that in the human tide, letting the crowd take me where it wishes. The subway car lurches to a stop. The brakes screech. the sliding doors open. Floodwaters of commuters pour in around me, quickly filling the car to the brink. I feel submerged.

Getting out, I’m in a surrealistic daze. Without meaning to, I walk into a man headed in the other direction I blurt out an apology but the man is gone. A young guy on my right sympathetically turns to me. “Here it’s full-contact commuting,” he says. The phrase brings a smile to my lips. His articulation of New York City commuting is spot on. As we part our ways he says with a twinkle in his eye, “If I was to judge, I’d say you definitely won.”

Commuting is one of those taken-for-granted facts of life in New York City. All the people I know here have the passes which gives them unlimited bus and subway access for 30 days at a time. You can’t get very far without taking the subway. It’s a melting pot within a melting pot.

It’s a struggle to come to terms with the subway. It’s grimy, overcrowded, noisy, and at the mercy of outside temperatures. Yet it’s also one of the best ways to get to know the inhabitants of this rich and complex city. You stumble across all sorts of people you would not meet otherwise. “Full-contact commuting” refers to everyday social interactions among otherwise disparate social groups found on the bus, the subway, and the streets.

This common denominator attracts its jazz musicians, expert panhandlers and street performers. A group of high-school-age kids is horseplaying dangerously close to the subway tracks; a middle-aged woman goes car to car telling her story — a widow who just lost one of her two children, she makes her rounds with a plastic cup, asking strangers to “have a heart” with a “God bless each and every one of you.”

One late night, on our way back from Brooklyn, a couple of my girlfriends and I meet a man whose conversation with us starts with an everyday hello, but quickly devolves into him repeatedly asking whether we like clowns, and assuring us he can be a clown. Following us onto a subway car, he won’t stop talking to us in disjointed bursts. When he begins to unhook his overalls, a stranger with his girlfriend in tow looks on alertly, seemingly ready to intercede on our behalf should we need help.

I feel grateful for the sense of community created by commuting, even if its nature is of a peculiar form. In a city where everyone seems to busy doing their own thing, trying to “make it” — careers, monetary goals, or what have you — at times they step out of their personal bubbles, turn away from their smartphones and look out for one another.

Usually I hear that certain train not running from helpful strangers. A guy shouts, “You might as well turn around now, the 7 isn’t running!”

The subways are also sites of knowledge and knowledge transference. While commuting I find out random tidbits about what’s happening in the city through the free AM New York newspaper handed out on the stairs at 103rd and Lex. There’s always second-hand verbal hearsay floating in the advertisement-laden subway cars.

My co-workers seem to revel in the moment when they arrive late. Heaving a sigh, they bark out, “I was waiting for the train for 20 minutes at Queensboro Plaza!” Can you imagine that! Though the prolonged conversation about subway unreasonableness can be absurd, it seems to strengthen their solidarity and serve as a conversation piece. Whatever floats your boat.

Not everything is smooth sailing in commuting land. You witness a lot of unresolved tensions, disparities, and inequalities in social relations. It’s not just the numerous homeless people and beggars that are evidence of disturbing social trends.

A large African American man gives two younger much smaller boys wearing long brown tunics and the short, white, rounded cap of a taqiyah (worn by some observant Muslim males) a hard time. “Is it a holiday or something,” he asks. The boys stand in silence. A few minutes later, “Oh, wait, I get it, you guys worship Allah…Hey, tell your friends to stop blowing up stuff.” With that, the two boys try to wander away. The man doesn’t quite let it go, though. “Hey! The train’s coming!”

In a single full-contact commute, you travel through space and place both literally and figuratively. You witness social, economic and political differences, as well as instances of solidarity across traditional social boundaries. One observes the full spectrum and complexities of social relations. Notions of public and private space, of place and time, are all locally and contextually defined, and continually re-defined and negotiated.

The subways provide an intimate setting. How many other places do you find yourself pressed up against so many strangers? These brief contacts and brushups occur in anonymity. It is unusual that one gets to interact with people of all different walks of life with so little knowledge of each others’ background in an oddly neutral but complex context, with time marked or signified by the coming and going of subway trains.

While people are to some extent forced to interact with one another in this public place, they also manage to stick to themselves and their own social groups a great deal. They stand near their friends, wear headphones and use a music player, or play games on their smartphones. For the urban anthropologist, this situation creates overlapping fields, spheres and domains of public and private. Full-contact commuting refers both to the intimacy and the lack of depth of these opportunities.

Alex Sveikauskas of Mount Tremper, is writing about her first year in New York City.

 

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