Flickr/Thomas Hawk

It's where rich and poor, wise and weird, picker and non-picker unite.

Nothing about the man's appearance suggested what he would do next. He wore a charcoal pinstripe suit and glossy burgundy shoes and might have been a salesman or a lawyer, but was probably a salesman. What stopped him from being a lawyer was the haircut. Not too many lawyers in New York enter the salon and ask for the Lloyd Christmas.

We sat across from each other on the uptown 1 train from Times Square. I take this train regularly after a day at the New York Public Library but rarely before 7:30 or 8 to avoid the evening rush. To further slip the crowds I enter from the south side of 40th Street, which provides the secondary benefit of being deposited toward the back end of the platform, where fewer people board. Sanity on the New York City subway, over the long term, requires strict adherence to a personal system of insane transit customs.

He took out something to read and I pretended to do the same while, in fact, trying to deduce whether he was a salesman or a lawyer. I decided on salesman — the haircut simply didn't inspire enough confidence to attract a profitable clientele; at best he was a public defender — when suddenly this consideration lost every ounce of importance, as the man raised up his hand, and without so much as a glance around to see who might be seeing, plunged a finger into his nose.

The verb pick is typically associated with nostril penetration but in this particular case it fails to describe the sheer depth of the infraction. This was less a pick than a lobotomy. I would not have been entirely out of line to ask if he did his neurological training under Walter Freeman. Forget about seeing nail; I could hardly see metacarpal. Then, before the full shock of the event had set in, he removed the digit and — with the M.T.A. in-car advertising panels as my witness — redirected it posthaste into his mouth.

•       •       •       •       •

In his essay "Here Is New York," E.B. White famously wrote that the city bestows on its inhabitants the gifts of loneliness and privacy. New York feels at times like a breeding ground for solitude, but what I think this contention misses is the charm of being alone together. New York City residents do all the things all other Americans do by themselves — ride to work, listen to music, pick their noses — but do them while sharing intensely close quarters with perfect strangers.

This sort of independent coexistence, as it might be called, seems like a defining quality of any functional democracy. The pressure of one's own convictions and quirks, pushing outward against those of the rest, looping back into an honest reassessment of the self. Nowhere in America is this delicate balance more apparent than on the New York City subway, where mayor and citizen, rich and poor, wise and weird, late and lazy, picker and proper alike all share, for a short time each day, the earnest desire for a seat or at the very least a sliver of standing room. The car and the highway have come to represent American freedom, but it's the subway train that truly reflects its egalitarian spirit.

White hints at this recognition later in his essay when he writes that New York "compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island." That makes the city like a poem, he contends, which also compresses a great flood of humanity into a teacup of space. If you accept White's metaphor of the poem then I submit the subway system must be its refrain: the familiar lines that help otherwise stranded words feel like part of the same group.

•       •       •       •       •

My own subway verse tracks Broadway on the 1 line, often connecting to the PATH into Jersey and occasionally stretching toward Gramercy on the N-R-Q. I've been joined in my solitude, of late, by an evangelical beggar whose only wish, evidently, was not for money but to express, stop after stop, his love for his Maker. And the middle-aged woman who didn't leave the PATH train when it reached 33rd Street, the end of the line, because maybe she got on going the wrong way, or was supremely bored, or was a huge fan of the "yo-yo" riding concept in Thomas Pynchon's V.

And then there was, a bit farther back, the sheepish young man who finally worked up the courage to ask out his travel companion right before an unexpected mid-tunnel stoppage made for the most awkward silence since the Big Bang. And, much more recently, the young couple who had not quite conquered the kissing phase, and were determined to do so in a less than G-rated fashion, despite the G-rated age of the girl beside them.

And the adorable young boy, no more than eight, who spent the whole ride reciting the digits of pi as far out as he could, enduring with each pause the wrath of his uptight mother, who will no doubt be a joy come SAT time. And the adolescent who cuddled cheek-to-metal with the pole right in front of her own mother, whose general look of exhaustion implied that on the list of battles to fight, this one was inconsequentially low.

And some reoccurring characters, of course. The trio of Mexican guitar players whose cowboy hats double as a change bin. The a cappella soul singers with their surprisingly harmonious rendition of "Stand By Me." The possibly homeless man who is always sorry to bother me.

And the most disruptive rider I've seen in recent times, who insisted in loud four-letter words that the tall person beside him better not brush his shoulder again. It was an unusually crowded PATH train, and the general jostling of the trip was bound to violate this request (demand, really) through no fault of the tall rider's own. When a second encroachment did inevitably occur, the new round of anger abated only when the tall rider stepped off the train, at what I suspect may not have been his stop.

Those are just a few I can remember off hand. Each day, if not each leg, brings a new debut.

•       •       •       •       •

I have a hunch the PATH rider's head wasn't on right — I'm not a doctor, but I've taken the subway with plenty of them — still in general I try to attribute cantankerous ridership to the bad day or the bad luck that New York can impose on even the most capable of subway specimen. This sympathy dates back to my very first week in New York, when I for a moment was the object of observation and judgment.

I was returning from an overzealous trip to the Strand, one of the few New York institutions known to me at the time, when I equivocated a bit too long on an uptown platform between the local and express trains, which both had arrived. At the last moment I hopped into the local, just in time for my body to make it inside, but not the hand clutching my oversized bag of books. The train couldn't move with the door ajar, but the only alternative to wedging my hand between the doors was to abandon a full shopping outing.

After about fifteen seconds, the other passengers, who could only see my hand but not the bag, began to berate me for holding them up, then the conductor came onto the intercom and did the same on behalf of the entire train. Finally he realized the situation and opened the doors just enough for me to pull the bag inside. The palpable rush of disappointment that coursed through the car was not directed inward at their doubts of me, but outward at my inability to handle the city.

Sometimes you're alone together with everyone in New York, and sometimes New York is alone together with you.

•       •       •       •       •

I saw the salesman once more, just a few weeks after I was introduced to his world. Obviously I wasn't over what I'd seen — Exhibit A: I'm still not — but there is a comfort in old faces that made me sort of happy to see him. I wasn't about to shake his hand or anything; he could scrub that spot with a Brillo Pad like he's Lady MacBeth and it wouldn't be enough. Still my number of unknowns in New York had been reduced by one, and I can't say it surprised me in the least, when, after a couple of stops, I saw his hand reach up toward his face. It was just so like the salesman to think he was alone.

Starting Monday, Eric Jaffe is on hiatus for a research fellowship until mid-May.

Top image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk, via Creative Commons.

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