How to Ride the Subway


Londoners have reacted with horror to an attempt to get them to speak to one another on the subway.  Three weeks ago “Tube Chat?” buttons began encouraging riders to engage in conversations with fellow travelers.  The response on social media has been universal distress:

“I feel like civilization is ending.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot lead a Londoner into social interaction on the Tube.”

“It’s bad enough on above ground trains, where random strangers want to talk while I’m on Twitter, chatting to random strangers.”

New buttons have appeared: “Don’t even think about speaking to me,” “Wake me up if a dog gets on,” and “Nope.”

One Londoner argued:  “Only drunks, lunatics and Americans talk on the Tube.  Resentful silence is the proper way.”

The man behind this attempt to get commuters talking is indeed an American.  Jonathan Dunne admits that he has not received the friendly experience for which he hoped.  He explains his motivation by saying he comes from a small town in Colorado where “We actually talk to people.”

When I moved to Brooklyn, I got lots of advice on how to ride the subway:

Do not be discouraged if your metro card does not work on the first five swipes

If there is an empty car, avoid it.  There is a reason it is empty.

You should offer your seat to a woman with a small child or a pregnant woman—though she should be at least eight months pregnant.

Hang on to the pole.  This is no place to pretend you are surfing.

Face the right direction—the direction everyone else is facing.

If you look at the “NEXT STOP IS . . .” sign, you look like a tourist.

Do not stare at anything that is hard not to stare at.  This includes tattoos, piercings, uncovered body parts, and hair colors Disney has never tried.

Do not pay attention to the crazy guy giving a speech—even if he is making sense.

If someone tries to hand you something, do not take it.

Move to the side to let people get off the train and avoid getting moved off the train.

I enjoy riding the subway.  I am amazed by the number of nationalities you see.  I love the singers and musicians—both the ones who have permission to be there and the ones who clearly do not.  $2.75 is a bargain.

An early morning subway car can be amazingly quiet.  When this many people live this close together, we need to give each other space so, for the most part, we leave each other alone.

Commuters hold on to their coffee as if it is their last hope.  College students study.  People in suits read The Wall Street Journal.  People in Philadelphia jerseys read The New York Post.  Teenagers play the kind of games I am too smart to put on my phone, but which I wish I had on my phone.  Lots of folks wear earbuds which may or may not be connected to anything.  Commuters have a surprising level of weariness.

While I love riding the subway, I am afraid it might make me less caring.  I do not want my silence to become apathy.  I do not want to learn to ignore those around me, so here is what I am doing.  I look at the people on the train.  I look at each face and say to myself, “God loves you.”  That crying little boy.  That elderly woman.  That angry man.  That bored teenage girl.  I need to think “God loves you” so that I will remember that it is true.

And if there is ever a moment when it does not seem horrifying, I will start a conversation.



One thought on “How to Ride the Subway

  1. Some years ago, David Fisher said in a sermon, “Be careful how you treat people that Jesus died for.” (He later told me he was paraphrasing Paul, but I haven’t fact checked him on that.) This is a phrase – or variations thereof – that I have often carried with me onto the subway. There is nothing like looking around at the diverse sea of humanity in a subway car to remind you of the absence of boundaries in God’s love.

    I am proud to say I recently had a conversation on the subway.

    Me (after the doors had closed behind me, crushing me into the gentleman in front of me): “Did you know your backpack is unzipped?” (I should know. My face was in it.)
    Him: “Oh. No. Thanks.”
    Me: “Would you like me to zip it?”
    Him: “Thanks, but I can get it.” Struggles with the backpack ensued. Then after a pause, “Do you have a place to hold on?”
    Me: “Yeah, I’m good here. Thanks, though.”

    I think that counts as a subway conversation.

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