I recall, a couple of years ago, eagerly packing my bags, jumping around in my bedroom thinking ‘New York City, here I come!’ As I arrived, all starry eyed and blissfully naïve, it didn’t take long for me to be humbled to the core. New York has taught me a whole lot of stuff – about life, living life and navigating through each wonderful, terrifying and inspiring moment.
What a better place to be than the “Greatest City in the World” to learn these important life’s lessons? In this City every sensory experience is more heightened – the sounds are louder, the lights brighter, the filth filthier, and the action is nonstop. It is a place where the people are infinitely crazier, where you can meet individuals from every culture and sample cuisines from all over the world.
The first, and everlasting, lesson one must learn as a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant is how to master the public transportation system. In many urban cities, this is merely a rite of passage until you settle in, become accustomed to navigating the system, or even better, afford your own means of transportation.
In New York, this public transportation is known as the Subway. And like matatus, or Nairobi’s rush hour traffic, it is the unavoidable curse of one’s daily existence. While the subway is very efficient, and has come a long way from the crime-laden, graffiti-covered, very risky adventure it was in the 70s and 80s, it is often crowded, filthy, filled with shady characters, and not very pleasant.
Firstly, as a freshman NYC subway commuter, you very quickly realize the value behind those rules your mother screamed at you as a six-year-old. Unfortunately this often comes through hard and at times very embarrassing experiences:
1. ‘Do not run up or down the stairs!’ Especially on a rainy day, no matter how late you are. The result will be painful.
2. ‘Do not talk to strangers!’ He/she may seem perfectly normal, but in New York, the likelihood of them being far from sane is very high.
3. ‘It is very rude to stare at people!’ Indeed, it is, regardless of how out of the ordinary they may appear. And it could very easily get you into trouble.
4. ‘Sshh, keep your voice down! Can’t you ee we’re in public?’ Yet another one that could get you into trouble.
5. ‘Finish your ice cream/hot dog/samosa before you enter the car. Eh, heh, see what happens when we brake suddenly? I told you so!’ This one you will inevitably learn when you are on the way to a meeting, holding a hot cup of coffee and wearing a white shirt. When you finally graduate to the sophomore stage of subway commuting you realize that unlike matatus, and public modes of transportation in many other urban cities, the NYC subway is the means of transport for the majority of its residents. Hence, it is a juxtaposition of every type of individual New York City has to offer – wealthy/ homeless/Black/Hispanic/ young/old/Wall Street banker/hot dog street vendor/tourist and even, on occasion, the mayor himself.
Furthermore, here is also where you learn the strange, sometimes pleasantly surprising, yet often alarming truth of how individuals are prone to behave when confined into small spaces with utter strangers. As sociologists M.L. Fried and V.J. De Fazio once noted, “The subway is one of the few places in a large urban center where all races and religions and most social classes are confronted with one another and the same situation.”
It is not the extraordinary, only in New York subway situations I speak of, but the daily occurrences that everyone, in some shape or form, encounters and which could very well happen anywhere in the world. It is those often fleeting moments where you are offered the chance to question your own attitude and preconceptions of the world around you, and perhaps whether personal adjustments should be made.
Who will be the first to offer their seat to the old man carrying groceries? You’re completely exhausted from work, so shouldn’t it be the young man sitting next
When you spot an empty seat far away from the uncomfortably obese passenger currently seated next to you, do you get up and move, or remain seated to seem polite?
When a loud and visibly drunk middle-aged man slips and falls hard, do you rush to aide him?
I can say that I did offer my seat to the old man and the young man did not; my respect for elders is forever intact. And I did remain uncomfortably seated next to the obese passenger – I was willing to endure the discomfort, but not so much to be polite to the passenger. The cold realization was that I was petrified of being judged by other subway riders for being someone who runs away from obese people, when I myself was all too ready to move away from the innocent stranger next to me. Doesn’t that make me the ultimate hypocrite? What I did not do is rush to aide the fallen drunk man. While he ended up being aided by other passengers, I kept my distance and quietly walked out of the subway car at the next stop. My rationale was simple; I did not want to unnecessarily be anywhere near a non-emergency situation that could easily get worse. Smart and justifiable, or uncaring? So what does my behavior say about me? Well, I learnt that while being generally respectful, and astutely self-protective, I was also surprisingly self-conscious of the scrutiny of strangers. In addition, I also learnt that it’s the desire to remain inconspicuous, to get to where I’m going, with the least stress possible, that concerns me most while on the subway. And that is every commuter’s goal. And that is, I think, perfectly reasonable.
But how much does this rationalized self-motivation hold you back from observing the joyful instances that dooccur during your daily commute? Having graduated to my junior year of subway journeying, I started to notice fleeting moments that would float by me before. The old couple smiling at each other, the young father cooing at his newborn, the little boy offering his seat to a tired lady, the golden red sunset light hitting the Manhattan skyline, reminding me how lucky I am to be here.
Perhaps the most uplifting tale happened a couple of weeks ago. A young woman was clearly distraught, quietly sniffling and wiping her eyes, hidden behind her dark sunglasses, with tissue. A bearded man holding a guitar approached her. He asked if he could sing to her. She shrugged her shoulders. He proceeded warbling out the song, ‘All You Need Is Love’ by the Beatles.
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how
to play the game.
Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how
to be you in time.
NewYork City Subway
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.
Shortly into the first verse, people in the subway car started clapping along. By the chorus a couple of people were singing along. Soon various people added instrumentation by tapping their feet and whistling. Less than halfway into the song, everyone, myself included, was singing along, clapping and cheering! This was a subway car filled with businessmen in suits, young school children, a group of teenagers, a couple of middle-aged women and some tourists. All of us were happily chanting out aloud, with the hopes of relieving some of this young woman’s pain, at least until the next stop.
Now that is how we should aspire to behave when confined within the presence of utter strangers.