Derailed at First: What I’ve Learned About Subway Etiquette & Safety

Living in NYC is a tectonic shift for someone who spent most of her life in St. Louis, MO. Moving here takes courage, a sense of adventure, instinct, a bit of knowledge and a certain cunning—walking fast, not making eye contact with strangers, learning where things are, where to shop and where not to go, where to walk alone especially at night and where it might not be safe, and which busses or subways to take.

I no longer have a car—a relief—and rely on my two legs or public transportation. Mostly, if going a fair distance, I opt to take a subway or two or three. I fight ever having to take a taxi, an Uber or other ride sharing service which is overpriced and often in my experience unreliable.  

So, I board a subway where I sit or stand next to dozens of strangers. I like to talk to everyone, a trait some find endearing and others annoying. So, in typical fashion, I try to strike up a conversation with those next to me. People dismiss me, ignore me. Wearing ear buds enables them to pretend they don’t hear as they continue to stare at their phones.

On the first day I took the subway, I was lost and asked a nice woman who was waiting for the same subway for directions. She was chatty and I found out that she’s an attorney who does business transactions. She even gave me her card. But once we boarded the train, she sat there not talking and looking down at her phone. In fact, no one was talking. “Don’t take it personally,” I said to myself. “She’s busy.” I was, however, a bit thrown off track only to learn later that subway silence and anonymity are the rule. The subway is a silent world, unlike any other in NYC, which is a noisy place.

There is little to no eye contact. So where to look? I pick a spot on the floor, almost like choosing a focal point, a tactic I learned when practicing Lamaze before delivering each of my three children by natural childbirth. It’s not a pleasant place--to look at a dirty trash-strewn floor. So, I often raise my eyes to read the signs near the curved ceiling studying them as if I were examining an x-ray.  

Sometimes the silence in the car is pierced by an argument when the subway car lurches, and someone bumps into another person or when people beg or perform for money. Some hold out their hand with money, yet still stare straight ahead like Buckingham Palace guards. Others just ignore the intrusion absorbed in their Smartphones. The ride is typically uneventful, but it gets me where I need to go.

Then one day last week, I was smushed in the middle of a subway car that stopped at Grand Central Station. As the crowd outside pushed its way in, a woman fell. I saw her go down. As she went down, she gave a shout. Everyone turned. Everyone saw her going down. She was grabbed by the people closest to her. There were cries of “Are you okay? May we call 911? Can you walk? Find her a seat.” Suddenly, this car of solitary people with no connection to one another, became one. The woman, who looked to be in her 60s, sat down next to me. 

“I almost really hurt myself,” she said. “I know,” I responded, “but you seem okay. I know that you must be a bit frazzled,” I said trying to sound sympathetic.

 “I don’t think I hurt myself, did I? she asked. I saw her knee was bleeding and offered her a Band-Aid. "No thanks,” she said. I looked into her eyes, something you don’t do on the subway. “I think you’re all right. Just a bit shaken up.”

Her fear was still palpable as if she were a small frightened child. Here I was trying to sooth her and trying at the same time to pay attention to the stops. I didn’t want to fail to get off at the right place. The experience was surreal. One moment I sat there going through the dark tunnels with dozens of strangers all of whom were ignoring each other. Then the accident struck the crowd, and in a moment of humanity, we all connected.  

Fortunately, the woman was fine. We were all fine. And our lives and the subway both went their separate ways.  

What I’ve learned about riding the subway:

  1. Bring an iPad, book, magazine or newspaper to read, though sometimes when it’s crowded it’s hard to do so.
  2. If reading and afraid you’re going to miss a stop, listen for stops or learn how to read the maps and be alert.
  3. Be polite and offer your seat to someone who is disabled, hurt, pregnant, very old or very, very young.
  4. Avoid sitting next to someone who is eating. The smells can make one nauseated.
  5. Avoid sitting next to anyone who makes you nervous for whatever reason.
  6. Is it better to sit or stand? Depends on how long the ride is and how much walking you must do to get to your destination. Just hope if you stand there’s something to grab on to. The other day, I was leaning on the door for stability. Fortunately, when it opened, I had grabbed a pole. You must pay attention—always.
  7. Don’t litter. Look for a trash can when you get off the train.
  8. Make sure you don’t leave any of your stuff behind. One day a woman on the bus was calling the MTA to say she had left her purse on the subway. She was frantic and went through so many hoops to get someone on the phone to get it back. Hope she did.
  9. Don’t push or shove. You will get out your door when it’s time. I learned this the hard way when afraid I wouldn’t get out of the car in time and pushed into a middle-aged man in a nice suit who turned to me and said rather rudely, “Wait your turn.”
  10. If you bump into others, say “sorry.” If someone next to you sneezes, say “bless you.” If you need to sneeze, use a Kleenex. Germs are all about especially now with the coronovirus, so wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you get off.
  11. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. New Yorkers love to give directions and show you they know the ropes.
  12. When you have time to get to a destination, consider a bus so you’re above ground and can see all the city’s wonderful sights. When you have even more time, consider a boat ride, which I did and offers another vantage point of the city’s many wonderful buildings.


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