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Ask A Native New Yorker: Should I Wash My Hands After Taking The Subway?

Dashed Arrow Courtesy Megan Paolone

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 month 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 our filthy subways.

Dear Jake,

Do you wash your hands after going on the train? I was just walking out of the subway station by work and eating a muffin and I ran into one of my coworkers who rolled her eyes and said, "This is why you're always getting sick! You need to wash your hands before you eat anything." So I told her to stop being such an oppressive germaphobe, but then I started worrying that maybe she is right. What do you natives do?

Sincerely,

Muffin Man on the M Train

Dear MMOTMT,

We natives don't need to wash our hands after using the subway, because we never allow our hands to touch anything during our trip. Seriously— look around the car and notice all the people leaning against the doors or hooking an elbow around the pole. Those are the natives who will not be getting sick while you are suffering through your fourth cold of the winter.

We are also protected by immunity that you do not have. A kid growing up here has to get about thirty vaccinations before he can start public school, and, once there, crowded into ancient buildings with no air circulation, he is going to quickly be exposed to just about every germ. This makes our early years a hellish procession of stuffy noses and throwing up, but by the time we reach adulthood, our immune systems are much hardier than those of transplants such as yourself.

There is a range of resistance, of course, but weaker natives generally leave the city for warmer climates after high school, so the ones who remain tend to be of truly hearty stock. Take me, for instance; I've got two little kids in school now, and these walking germ bombs expose me to more viruses than an emergency room doctor sees, but I get sick maybe once a year.

Of course, there are situations when you can't avoid touching a subway pole, like say if the train comes to a screeching halt and you're thrown up against it; or a subway breakdancer pushes you into one; or you faint, accidentally face-mashing metal on the way down. In those cases, yes, before you touch anything else—food, the doorknob at your office, your face—you must douse those hands in Purell or give them a serious sixty second scrubdown with soap and water. This isn't germophobia; it's common sense.

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Ask A Native New Yorker, now available in book form.

That's because New York's germs are just like New York's residents: wonderfully diverse, gregarious, and anxious to prove their superiority over new arrivals. One trip on the subway is going to expose you to microscopic life from all over the world. And, just like that Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant you went to last night, the city is going to create germ combinations that have never been seen before, which will be both novel and terrible. You are smart enough not to lick a subway pole—touching a pole and then eating is exactly the same thing.

A few more common-sense native tips to keep you healthy this winter: Avoid rush-hour trains if you can. God could not have designed a more perfect space for germs to travel in, and one strong sneeze can spray half a car. If you must expose yourself to situations like that, compensate by getting plenty of rest; January is a wonderful time to lay off the booze and enjoy some nights inside.

Finally, remember: If you do get sick a lot, that's really a small price to pay for living in the world's greatest city. Even if you lose four weeks to illness, that's still eleven months of good health to enjoy our culture, nightlife, and restaurants. I'd rather be sick as a dog in New York on occasion than fit as a fiddle all year long in Philadelphia.

To healthy living,

Jake

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