Don't Talk to Strangers on the Subway
After a long day, you scramble to catch the train before it leaves the platform. You squeeze into the small gap on the bench — the idiot to your right is sprawled all over the seat — and pull out the book you never have time to read.
“I couldn’t believe the ending, when so-and-so did this or that to the other character!” pipes up the seat-hogger.
You nod and try to read, but the seat hogger keeps going.
“...It’s so great to meet someone else who likes this! Here’s my number,” he or she continues, not realizing you’re ignoring them.
And so begins your daily subway experience if it were up to urban planner Alex Marshall, who has been riding the subway “for decades.” On January 14, Marshall proposed the concept of a “Conversation Car” — a subway car where “one would be assured, upon entering, that fellow passengers are ready and willing to chat — in the Daily News in response to New Jersey Transit’s recent expansion of the Quiet Commute program.
The Quiet Commute makes sense, but the concept of a Conversation Car is pointless. Introduced in September 2010, the first and last cars on all weekday peak-hour NJ Transit trains are designated “quiet” cars. Riders must refrain from cellphone use, disable the sound on all devices and keep headphone volume low.
New Yorkers are not very good at communicating in public. Marshall likened subways to libraries and monasteries. We walk down the street plugged in to our personal soundtracks. Coffee shop conversation rarely jumps from table to table. The taxi-sharing program that allows strangers to split fares has little to no ridership. We are absorbed in our technology, but there’s nothing wrong with that — with packed schedules, we need time to unwind, even if it’s only a few minutes on the train.
For me, riding a train is a short welcome break in the day. Outside it’s hectic, noisy and busy. On the train, all I have to do is sit on an uncomfortable seat. It’s the perfect time to catch up on reading, listen to my favorite music or watch a TV show I downloaded to my phone. A quiet car on each subway provides the perfect environment for this (I can still hear you screeching over my headphones), but it’s New York — there’s too much occurring at once for it to work.
The Conversation Car would be like a dating website come to life, “a bar car without the cocktails,” Allison Arieff from “Good Transportation” said. “I’ll admit to a bias of trying to converse with pretty women,” Marshall conceded. What if the conversation falls flat before either of our stops? We would be confined to a subway car, forced to sit in awkward silence, surrounded by chatty people.
The car would also be a breeding ground for creeps. Marshall’s rules include, “no insults, no overly aggressive come ons, no street preacher crazy talk,” but the MTA won’t monitor the cars. On my first subway ride, at age 15, I experienced all of those common practices. A short, overweight man came into our car, an upside-down take-out menu in front of his face, and loudly told us to be quiet. He then urged all women under 30 to join his cult, where they would be appreciated. My friends and I began talking quietly, but he shushed us because “it applies to you three the most.”
The Conversation Car is the perfect place for people like him to waltz in and start bugging everyone. Who would want that? I don’t need a date, or your conversation; I only want to read my book, like everyone else in the car. Let’s just leave the subway alone.