When a Subway Encounter Transforms You Into a Lactating Alien

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How often are our first impressions of people correct? Or, how closely does a person’s behaviour when we meet them match the way they truly – or normally – are? I had a baffling interaction yesterday that’s left me wondering these things.

I was on the subway, in between a catch-up with a professor and some thrift store shopping, sipping on a delicious golden latte. (Did you get into the golden milk craze? Turmeric was the ‘it’ spice of 2016.) The latte was so good, and I almost didn’t buy it, so I was feeling really pleased and ready to get to shopping. I was standing near the door of the car, and opposite me was a man reading the Bible. He was short, and brown, with shiny black hair that wasn’t quite brushed but not messy either. He looked like he could’ve been from the southern Caribbean. Was he a Christian too? Why was he reading? A little excited, I tried to decipher the chapter title upside down. He felt my eyes on the book, looked up, and thrust his face into my own, eyes flashing. It was a “CanIhelpyou/Getthef*outtamyface” kind of moment, and I was startled. I looked away, took a sip of my near-empty latte to help me recover, and spilled it on my blouse. Ugh.

Do you know how deeply turmeric stains? I was dismayed – this was my first time wearing this blouse! – and I wasn’t really able to treat the stain. Turmeric isn’t water soluble, but I tipped my water bottle onto a napkin anyway and blotted at my chest. Another reason to be frustrated. The latte spilled onto my right boob, so now it looked like I was lactating, except instead of milk it was some radioactive yellow alien-type fluid.

I was confused too, because ok, yes, it’s annoying for people to read over your shoulder, but come on, people check out what others are reading all the time on the subway. Moreover, this guy’s reaction was way over the top; certainly not what I would describe as Christian, so I guess that answered my first question.

About 15 seconds after the face-thrust the guy caught my attention and told me he was sorry. “Ok”, I responded, not sure if it really was, and went back to figuring out what, if anything, could be done for my shirt. Then, feeling a little sorry myself, I tried to explain my motivations to the guy. We had a brief conversation – he told me he read the Bible before for a class in college and was going over it again – and I learned his name was Alex. A little train harmony was restored, and I looked around for my phone to tell my friends what had happened and whine about my shirt.

Then! A few minutes later, Alex called my name and looking at me earnestly asked, “Do you want to be friends?” I laughed. Now it was his turn to be startled, and I realised that I might have seemed harsh. In reality I was shocked. This same man who two stops before shot daggers into my face wanted to be my friend? So he had apologised and now we knew a little about one another, but friends? That seemed like a leap. At least from his perspective. But I agreed anyway – why not? Worst case scenario I ignore him because he turns out to be annoying.

From my laugh onward I felt the dynamic of our relationship change dramatically. I didn’t see Alex as a hostile, territorial man anymore. He just seemed like a small, socially awkward guy – which could explain his initial aggression and subsequent offer of friendship. He fumbled nervously on his phone as he tried to take my number and suggested we could also connect on Facebook. I asked him if he used WhatsApp since I didn’t have a US number, and he said no, but he could download it. That seemed unnecessary, but at he was already saving my number. He said he’d message me once he was off the train and had service, and I repeated that texting me would be futile, so he made a note of my name to look me up on Facebook. Then he wished me a good day and sat down, returning to his reading. My stop was next, so I got off and made my way to the thrift store.

I haven’t heard from Alex, and at this point I don’t think I will, but that was definitely a memorable encounter. I experienced a gamut of emotions and had an accelerated relationship with a stranger on the subway. I wonder what further conversations with Alex might reveal. In any event, my shirt is on its second soak in a bowl of vinegar. If for no other reason, that turmeric stain ensures he won’t long be forgotten.

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On Riding the Subway

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Riding the subway is like playing a game of chance, I never know what I’m going to get. Some trips are totally calm, uninterrupted; others are so bad I have to switch cars. People watching is often entertaining, and I have been hugely surprised, in the short time that I’ve lived here, to recognise three different people  on their commutes. What are the odds? I’m not someone that has a particular spot on the platform, nor do I get on the trains at the same time each day. Somehow though, the fates have lined up and faces that were  foreign on a previous day become familiar on the next.

One thing that is a huge peeve of mine is when people don’t adjust their legs to accommodate newcomers to their bench. It’s happened to me with both men and women, but is a more regular occurrence with men. People have discussed this elsewhere on the internet, but I have also found it to be true: they sit with their legs spread, and cannot for the life of them close them when they have a seat mate. It is so disgustingly rude and entitled, and obviously not necessary. If some men can sit with their legs closed then it must be possible for other men to do the same.

Another thing I’ve noticed with male subway riders is their tendency to make noise. The subway is supposed to be a place where you keep your personal activity just that – personal. If you’re having a conversation, watching a movie, listening to music, that’s all fine, just don’t oblige your neighbours to be involved. Well, I have been the audience for many a rap freestyle, opera singing practice and general sing-along for my fellow male riders. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to a number of free (!) mini-concerts, as men have shared their music with all of us by playing it through the speakers of their phone or stereo. There are signs all over the cars informing passengers to wear headphones and speak quietly, but these are flagrantly ignored.

Why is it that these men think it’s ok to infringe on other passengers’ personal space and activity, to disregard the rules and pretend as though their actions are not in fact disrespectful? Power. Here comes that word again. The subway presents an opportunity for them to dominate a space and make their strength and presence known. Particularly for men who are part of minority groups, who have limited abilities to demonstrate their masculinity in the expected ways of the world: wealth, career, social prestige. The subway car or platform is a place where they can assert themselves and people are forced to pay attention because of the ways they are made to feel uncomfortable. This brings me to something else I’ve noticed – no one ever confronts them.

Perhaps with seating one individual might ask the man next to them to close his legs. For myself, I do the passive aggressive thing and wiggle around until I have room, take advantage of the shifting that happens during stops and starts. However, when it comes to men performing or enjoying a performance, they’re left alone. In weighing the possible outcomes of confronting them against the benefit of keeping the peace, it seems like the odds are ever in the men’s favour. I mean, as much as they invade our spaces and intrude in our lives, they clearly feel they have a right to what they’re doing, and/or they don’t think that it’s a big deal. How then, in the space of a subway ride, could you convince them otherwise? Could you peacefully convince them otherwise? I don’t know, but it certainly makes me angry – and feel impotent – about the fact that the best answer seems to be to try and ignore them, which is what everyone does. The status quo is maintained, but we all more or less peacefully ride the subway one more day.