Train Envy

Consider this image a Beth Am’er sent me from the Huffington Post.

Are you surprised by it?  What surprises you?  The differing races?  That these men are likely of different faith traditions? The personal contact between strangers?

Or perhaps it’s that all of this is occurring on the New York subway.

I’ve spent the better part of a week studying human behavior on the subway, as I’ve been riding it three hours each day for five days between my friends’ house in Queens and the Jewish Theological Seminary for a seminar.  Glancing around the train at any given moment, one finds a veritable smorgasbord of human appearance and behavior: commuters in dress shoes, tourists in jeans with pamphlets or tickets in hand, native New Yorkers reading books, kids with backpacks on their way to school, teenagers quietly rocking out to their iPods.  There is skin of every possible shade, clothing styles of every type, men, women, transgendered, young and old, rich and poor and in-between.  The subway is New York City’s great equalizer.

There is one undeniable unifying behavior, though.  Unless one knows the person standing/sitting nearby, nobody but nobody is making eye contact with anyone else.  New York subway-riding is the finely honed art of staring anywhere but into the face of the other.  Observing this behavior is amusing actually.   People glance up from a book or iPad, eyes meeting fleetingly, then the connection is broken.  Stare too long and you may get a threatening stare back.  A few seconds longer, you’re likely to get accosted.  At rush hour, hundreds of people are crammed together, hands touching on poles, bodies compressed and hundreds of eyes are looking everywhere but at each other.

My cousin Phil, zichrono livracha, used to tell a story.  He was from Chicago but attended the University of Wisconsin.  One day, he and his wife Rose, who is a native New Yorker and lives in Manhattan, were walking the streets of Madison, hand in hand.  People would pass and, as is the custom in the Midwest, they would often say “hello.”  As Phil told the story every time this happened, Rose would dig her nails into his hand and ask, “Phil, why are they looking at us?  Why are they talking to us?”  I should be clear, my cousin Rose is just about the sweetest, most nurturing  person you’ll meet.  The problem is not her.  It’s just that, when it comes to strangers, New Yorkers mostly go out of their way NOT to connect!

When I lived in Chicago, I would ride the “L” frequently, and the kids loved the trains.  For Shamir’s second birthday, all he wanted to do was ride the train.  The kids’ doctor’s office overlooked the tracks, a nearly constant source of wonder.  Here in Baltimore, at this time last year, we go to a fire station where they have artfully constructed and festive model train sets.  To children trains are fun, even romantic.  But romance can fade as encounters with trains (or people) become routine.  Different circumstances, but remember what Jake says to Elwood Blues as the “L” comes rumbling by the apartment window?  Aykroyd’s character asks, “How often does the train go by?”  Belushi responds, “So often you won’t even notice it.”  


The photograph above is provocative because it raises questions about difference. but it’s surprising because instead of demanding what little personal space he could, Isaac Theil did a simple kindness.  When another passenger offered to wake the sleeping man, Theil responded, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”  When the photo and story went viral, Theil was surprised.  He didn’t think he did anything all that special.  

The best treatment of the photo, I think, comes from Tablet Magazine whose writer tracked down the Jewish man and interviewed him.  Here’s what he had to say:

“Maybe the photo wouldn’t have become so popular if people weren’t seeing a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a black man in a hood, and because they might not necessarily correlate the two,” theorized Theil. “But there is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”

I spent this week jealous of New Yorkers who have such a great subway system — the envy of cities like Baltimore who struggle with our general lack of good public transportation options.  I had train envy — for the convenience and for the opportunity to connect.  I love New York, but many New Yorkers, it seems, have human contact fatigue.  Trapped in the throng, they overlook the potential for meaningful human connection.  But Isaac Theil remembered that there are things more important than personal space, than keeping up one’s guard.  He remembered two things people across the country so often forget:  empathy and compassion.

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