The cold metal doors slowly begin to slide toward each other inch by inch. Suddenly, I’m all alone on a New York City subway and slightly nervous. Growing up in the city, I’ve ridden the subway at every hour and never thought twice. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m unsure of where this subway is going to take me.
Agreeing to ride the subway in order to make notes about the changing demographics and interactions in different neighborhoods, I have taken the R train from Canal Street through Brooklyn, winding up at the end of the line in Bay Ridge. Enveloped in a hazy yellow, like most subway stops, the only thing that differentiates the end of the line from anything else is the harrowing lack of movement and sound. After the crackling voice on the intercom tells me to exit the train (which, like most train messages, I ignore), the doors lock me in and I realize that I only assume this train will turn around. It could be going in for service or replacing another train on a different line. I suddenly have an uneasy feeling that I might be jolted off to an abyss of the NYC MTA system that I’ve never seen.
My ride to Bay Ridge had been equally as intriguing. At Canal Street, I shouldered my way onto the train through a crowd of Chinatown residents and European tourists. The train hummed with collective conversation and I found myself a seat in the corner of the train. Within two stops, the complexion of my car had changed entirely. What was an energetic mass had become a quiet, segregated collection of individuals. Thirteen people remained and though I could only see 10 faces, I counted six books and two iPhones cradled in bent fingers. When I was a kid, I was told numerous times never to show money on the train. Yet, halfway down the corridor sat a man with an iPhone on one thigh, an iPad on another and Dr. Dre headphones, plugged into the audio jack. That’s approximately $900 worth of electronics on one person, yet nobody looked twice.
At Whitehall Street an African-American family got on: two kids, a mother and a grandmother. They sat in the corner adjacent to me, the kids’ legs swinging beneath the seats. The grandmother leaned against the wall and stretched her legs across the seats, massaging her knees in pain. I welcomed the energetic banter of the children as they bickered over a chocolate bar. It reminded me that the sun was out and people were actually excited about something going on in their day.
The family stayed on until Pacific Street when the car cleared out even more. Only two people got on in the next four stops and by Prospect Avenue, I was the only white person in my car. Only this wasn’t a scene from a movie where everybody turns to look at me, wondering why I’m so out of place. In fact, nobody turned their head in any direction, focusing instead on their application or place on the wall. The car was dark, cold and silent. Having only used the R train to go between Canal and Union Square or sporadically into Long Island City, the silence was a new sensation. As we went further into Brooklyn, the disconnect between passengers had only increased. The mood reminded me of an alleyway in the twilight hours: self-conscious and distant; only it was just after noon on a Saturday in the summer.
For the next five stops, there wasn’t a single person riding on my half of the train and discerning characteristics that detailed the time of day and temperature was near impossible. Then we hit 59th street and a collection of travelers in their mid-20s stepped through the open doors. An Asian girl and a black man — who through conversation I learned to be her gay friend — sat in a row of seats just in front of me. Their voices filled the air where silence had come to reside. Their laughter cut the isolation as they casually sipped their Starbucks iced coffees. In one instant, the dynamic in the car had changed. Their sandals flicked up and down, the only open toes in the entire car. Energy now bounced off the walls. With just two people, summer had finally found a way to invade my metallic home.
Three stops later everybody was gone, save an Indian man in his 40s who got on one stop before the end. His legs were crossed, Teva sandals adorning his feet and a well-worn polo shirt pressed against his chest. His eyes never left the floor and his breathing was stifled enough so as not to attract attention. Everybody had left us and despite our kinship, I couldn’t help but feel an intended disconnect between us. I realized that I’ve spent so much time studying how other people look that I’ve paid no attention to how I looked to others. Maybe I seemed threatening.
This is what I was thinking when the metals doors closed. People entered and exited the car for the last hour and I’d found myself a part of their life before they departed again. Just as I drew my conclusions about these passengers, they had no doubt been making similar conclusions about me. Perhaps they wondered where I was headed, a white male, alone, deep into Brooklyn. Making assumptions about fellow travelers is second nature when riding the subway, but how often do we consider what people are assuming about us? In an environment with almost no dialogue, minds are racing at impressive speeds, making judgments that we can never confirm or deny.
In minutes, passengers boarded the car, a new conductor’s voice careened through the walls and we were headed back in the other direction. The trip to Canal passed much the same as before. I rode along with an ever-changing group of passengers, travelling together in silence. We were all nothing but a small blip on each other’s radar —something to be forgotten as we passed between our day’s destinations.
As an experiment, Matt rode the same route at the same time of day. His observations are below: