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Window to the Soul: the Subway to New York

Apart from being just about the best place to advertise, New York’s subway could be a goldmine both for sociologists and for market research professionals. Of course, I’m not suggesting that the subway is representative of all of New York but it does provide an almost compulsory window shopping experience that can be very revealing, particularly for those with commercial or academic purposes.

Apart from being just about the best place to advertise, New York’s subway could be a goldmine both for sociologists and for market research professionals. Of course, I’m not suggesting that the subway is representative of all of New York but it does provide an almost compulsory window shopping experience that can be very revealing, particularly for those with commercial or academic purposes.

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Living in Queens and making the commute to downtown Manhattan everyday, I’ve often felt that I spend half my non-working life underground. I’ve got all the exits figured out, I’ve begun to recognize people on my commute (I recently got asked to dinner by a fellow commuter,) and I even know that at 11p.m. on Thursday nights, I am likely to hear an Indian accent telling me that my next stop is Queensboro Plaza. My iPod and a Poland Spring are now my constant companions — The Economist makes an appearance on special occasions.

And yet even without these distractions, it’s rare that I find myself bored on New York’s subway.

My slightly more upscale, or perhaps just more lethargic, Manhattan dwelling friends emphatically announce that they could “just never do it.” They’ll take living in a closet sized apartment any day over spending all that time in a tubular shaped capsule that is constantly delayed, crowded, and basically a royal pain in the ass.

For me though, it’s different. Apart from the fact that the commute clears my mind and allows me, or perhaps forces me, to just sit, think, and have internal conversations with myself, riding the subway every morning is like getting an extended snapshot of New York’s culture at its most diverse.

Scowling Goths, aloof Armani suits, clean shaven college students, overtly lascivious construction workers, naively enthusiastic tourists, and the occasional bewildered geriatric — I watch them all with an equally voyeuristic interest, dispelling my boredom, expanding my knowledge, and picking up on cultural nuances along the way.

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Sure I’m missing the leaves, snow, and sun outside, but I’ve watched fall turn into winter, and winter turn into spring underground, as knit dresses and knee-high boots turned into white cashmere coats and thick comfy scarves, which in turn gave way to linens, chiffons, long belted shirts, and tights.

My commute has confirmed certain stereotypes (for fear of being extremely un-PC I won’t spell these out) and disconfirmed others. The public perception is that the common New Yorker is just plain rude. Not from where I’m sitting. The number of times that men on the subway have given up their seats for me, or at least let me cut in front of them so that I’ll get to sit down, has restored my faith in men (well partially anyway.)

There’s also an unexpected sense of solidarity with fellow commuters that develops when a matter of fact announcer calmly informs us that our train is delayed due to train traffic ahead, or when a drunken man reels into our compartment yelling about Bush being the spawn of Satan (rhetoric like that occasionally spurs me on to feel some solidarity with him too.) In that one moment, when everyone is tired, everyone wants to get home, and everyone is in that one carriage — together — there’s a strange flicker of community, one that is of course immediately dispelled when we exit the train and go our separate ways.

For me, there really is no better way to learn about what gets New York going. For the most part, unless extremely rich or excessively poor, everybody takes the subway. As an objective observer, on a most basic level I’ve found that the coffee from Dunkin Donuts seems as popular as that from Starbucks, obscuring one eye with a thick fringe of hair is the way to go, breakfast sandwiches seem to be widely loved, sunglasses are getting bigger by the second, yoga is no longer confined to the village, and tights and ballet shoes have really caught on.

Sure these observations may seem like the most obvious thing in the world for many, but as someone who is relatively new to the US, catching on that it’s okay to pair a denim skirt that looks like it survived World War II with tights that look like they’re meant for someone several inches shorter than me, was far from intuitive. By wandering the streets I would have come to the same conclusions eventually, but sitting across from dozens of New Yorkers for large amounts of time leads me to make better observations and inevitably soak in more information,

If I came back here years from now, and I wanted to see what had changed — what trends had been dropped, which ones had developed, and which were in the process of emerging — I would buy a metro card, take a ride and watch an ever bustling New York enter and exit the doors.

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In the last few months, I’ve learned a lot about what makes New Yorkers tick by riding the subway: what they wear, where they go, what they use, and occasionally even what they think. And, if they aren’t already doing so, I think people with more commercial interests in these topics might do well to draw some ‘deeper’ knowledge from below the soil themselves.

What’s your take on the subway as a cultural and sociological phenomenon? Have you had any experiences on your everyday commute that are worth sharing?