In the summer of 2013, Gothamist published the first of many advice columns from native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, kicking things off with the timeless question, "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?" Nearly six years later, the popular series has been turned into a book, Ask a Native New Yorker, with ALL NEW essays from Jake. This week we are running excerpts the book, which is on sale now! Today's question comes from Chapter 4: "How to Get Around Like a Native New Yorker," and concerns the classic dilemma of when you should give up your subway seat.
The other day I was coming home from a long, exhausting day at work (I'm a teacher) and I managed to grab a seat on the train, which is pretty rare because my job is on the West Side and all the Midtown office workers usually crowd on before my stop. As the train got to Jay Street, still seven stops from my apartment, a big crowd pushed on. A mother and her kid ended up right in front of me, and the mother looked at me and said, "Could he have your seat?" The kid was at least ten years old.
Now, I work with kids all day and love them, but inwardly I'm screaming, "Are you kidding me? He's not a toddler! I need this seat a lot more than he does!" Instead, I just meekly smiled and got up and fumed about it all the way back home. Was I obligated to give up my seat?
Tired of Standing
I'm constantly amazed by the letters I get about the New York City subway; it's like they crystallize the entire city in microcosm, and any conflict you could face aboveground is duplicated beneath in miniature: brutal competition for precious real estate, merciless clashes between young and old, men and women, rich and poor. To understand the subway—its rules and unspoken etiquette—is to understand New York. No person, however long they have lived here, can be considered a real New Yorker if they only get around by car.
Take your situation: a classic "who deserves this seat more" question. I've received dozens of these inquiries over my years as a columnist. Some are easy: Obviously, you get up for a very old person, or a visibly pregnant woman, or someone who is disabled. But what about other groups: children, the sturdy-looking middle aged, or a woman who might be pregnant, but also might just be wearing a puffy coat? How do you decide whether to get up or not?
First, you need to ask yourself how much you really need the seat. Are you so exhausted that getting up is physically painful? Or are you just the regular kind of tired that all New Yorkers feel after a long day of work? Safety first, obviously. We don't want you getting up to give your seat to a kid and then fainting right on top of him. However, it sounds like you were physically able to stand—annoyed, but upright—through the rest of your ride.
Keep in mind that it is very difficult to ask someone to give up their seat. Psychologists have actually studied this and found that asking strangers for a favor is incredibly unpleasant. This is particularly true on a New York subway, where we've been taught to avoid eye contact with other riders and mind our own business. When that mom asked you for your seat, she was doing something difficult, and maybe for a good reason. Some disabilities aren't visible—it's possible that the kid really did need the seat and you were doing a really nice and helpful thing by giving it up.
In fact, I want you to really meditate on that. There are so few times each year when we really get a chance to help a stranger, and thereby make ourselves feel good and earn karmic credits from the city. I've found the subway can be a real opportunity for these kinds of interactions—pointing tourists toward the right train, holding the door for someone sprinting desperately to get on board, or contorting yourself a little so another rider can grab the pole in a crowded car. Helping in these moments makes me feel better about myself, and I look forward to them. For that reason, even when I'm feeling worn out, I try to keep my eyes open for people who need a seat and be the first one up when I spot them.
Photograph by Scott Lynch
Now, I'm a man in reasonably good health, and I'm pretty much the least deserving of a seat if there's anyone else on the train who needs to sit down. Even so, I'll take a load off and zone out with my music if there's a seat available—I'm not trying to be a hero at all times. I figure there are enough people who share my general philosophy on subway seat ethics that periodically looking up to confirm I'm still seat-worthy is sufficient. You don't have to be obsessive about it, and most of the time, I get through a whole ride without having to stand. On many occasions, I've even offered my seat to someone—an older woman who looked tired, a teenager carrying a big instrument case, or even a pregnant woman— only to be politely declined. Maybe they were only going one more stop or sitting was uncomfortable for them; you never know.
Of course, riding the subway presents many more conflicts than simply deciding when to give up your seat. I'd like to run through some of the situations people have asked me about; the following is essentially a mini guide to avoiding conflict, producing positivity, and generally being a mensch when taking the train. Here are the basics:
1. When you have the good fortune to score a seat, make sure you take up only one unless this is physically impossible for you— overweight riders have the same right to sit as anyone else, and subway designers seem to have designed the seats for fairly narrow asses. If yours doesn't quite fit, that's not your fault, and nobody has a right to complain about it. For everybody else, don't "manspread" beyond a reasonable allotment of space. What's reasonable? If your legs are touching theirs, it means you need to tighten up that spread. Obviously, any baggage must be placed between your legs, on your lap, or under the seat—taking up a seat for your gym bag is a surefire way to get scolded by justly annoyed commuters.
2. When you can't find a seat and must grab the pole, do not "pole hog" by leaning against it with your body. I'm often sent pictures of people doing this in the most loathsome way, like wrapping themselves around it with both arms and legs, or leaning back against the pole so aggressively that the pole actually creeps into their butt crack. (I actually shuddered when I wrote that last line, but it's real!) The correct way to hold a pole is at chest height, at a distance of twelve inches, to give others room to grab it.
3. Whether standing or sitting, be mindful of those around you, and don't do stuff you would not want done around you. That includes playing games or listening to music loud enough for others to hear, trimming your nails (a surprisingly frequent occurrence!), conversing loudly to friends, or littering. Eating is another touchy subject. Yes, sometimes life in New York is so fast-paced that the only goddamn time you have to eat your lousy bagel is during your commute, and no one is going to fault you for it. But the rule is "If you can't eat it with one hand, don't eat it at all." I have borne witness to people eating tikka masala on the F train, and it's grotesque—not just due to the risk of spillage, but also the pungent fumes that fill the entire car. Don't be that guy.
4. Do not block the doors. This is as close to a religious commandment as we have in New York, and it's one that's not always easy to follow. Sure, on an empty train you can always find a spot away from the door, but at rush hour you may be the last person to crowd on, and then what do you do? Simple: You must "step off to let the people out," as the conductors say. This means actually stepping onto the platform and waiting slightly to the side to let people move off the train. You are entitled to stand right next to the door, even if it means nudging riders who are about to get on, to keep your spot. What if the train is kind of crowded, you are going only one more stop, and you want to stay by the door to avoid making it difficult to get off? Tough call—if you can flatten yourself in the tiny space between the seats and doors, and thereby avoid blocking people squeezing on (and are willing to accept their unhappy glares), go for it. (This is easier on the new subway cars with more space next to the doors.) But if not, you must move farther inside the car, and simply resign yourself to fighting your way out a few minutes later. Life's tough.
5. Do not use the subway as a moving van. I'm not talking about backpacks and bags; you must take them off, but if they can fit comfortably between your legs or on your lap, you aren't taking up any extra space. I'm not even talking about the tourists coming from JFK— New York is a welcoming place that depends on its tourist industry and we shouldn't begrudge them one rolling suitcase as they head to their hotel. No, here I'm speaking of people transporting furniture, motorbikes, hundreds of balloons, their Aunt Hazel's coffin, etc. Maybe this kind of stuff is allowable after midnight, when there's plenty of room on the train, but doing it during the day will get you in trouble—if the cops don't hassle you, one of your annoyed fellow passengers will, and the picture they take on their phone will make you an unwilling viral star on the New York City blogs the next day.
6. Finally, once you are off the train, show the same thoughtfulness when standing on the platform, walking up stairs, and riding the escalator that you did while you were inside the train itself. Don't crowd the edge of the platform—it's dangerous and makes it hard for people to get off incoming trains. Always walk to the right on the stairs and stand to the right on the escalators to allow faster-moving people to hasten along to your left. And always, if you are physically able, offer to help parents struggling to carry a stroller. That's a real mitzvah.
The basic idea, through all of these points, is that we've got to crowd more than five million people every weekday on the subway, and if we're going to do that without major bloodshed, we've all got to make an effort to be the most kind, considerate subway riders we can be. While we're doing this, we can think about how blessed we are to have this amazing subway system—one that history has bequeathed to us, which, despite its flaws, is still a fast and efficient way to get around the city and which is one of the great places to see the incredible diversity of New Yorkers up close.
N.B.: Many of the things people hate about the subway—the overcrowding at rush hour, the dirty stations, the maddening delays—are due to a state government that underfunds the system by directing an unfair amount of resources to road and infrastructure building upstate. All New Yorkers should vote for politicians, especially on the state level, who make mass transit funding a priority.