Beware the (r)ides of March: Sitting on strangers’

Old man winter may not be off to slumber just yet, but he is certainly dozing in his recliner. Yes, my monkeys, March-what with its rapid, climate destabilized cycles between break out the beach ball and freeze the balls…of your feet weather-is thrashing about like a lio-lamb with animal identity disorder-unsure whether to roar or make whatever ululation lambs tend to make.

With the roads clean-ish, and the sun setting later than 5:30, this confused March marks the beginning of the cycling season pour moi. This is not to say that I took much of a break from puttering about on my bicycle (acting superior to others is a year-round gig), but now the odd snowstorm will not compel me to take the subway.

So to bid a proper adieu to the huddled masses who everyday crush into the rock-a-bye trains to smell each other’s breath and bump uglies in an un-sexy mockery of those vampire dance club scenes from the three-part biography of Wesley Snipes (Blade I, II, and III), I leave you trainsters with this story:

While bicycling in New York City often affords you your daily dose of mortality, the subway, appreciatively, gives the daily test of common humanity. This is quite the part I enjoy: helping the elderly with their groceries, seeing others give up a hard earned seat to a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, the blood still dripping from the grooves scored in their cheeks by their now-vanquished seat-competitor. I used to quite enjoy helping mothers carry their strollers up the stairs, until one day when, while staring in the face of the enthroned toddler, I idly realized how easy it would be to just run off. Now I really enjoy it.

I am consistently amazed by how the sheer number of people in New York City makes this city so beyond the human-scale. The buildings we live in tower above us, the bridges dwarf us with such ease it is almost unbelievable that hands my size-however many thousands-were capable of putting in those bolts, driving those pylons, maneuvering vast limbs of metal hundreds of feet in the air. Most daunting is seeing a passing train full of people, and endeavoring to comprehend that each of those flashing faces has a memory and a life as intricately labyrinthine as my own.

In this light, it is easy to see why New Yorker’s are known to be rude. Rudeness serves as a protective barrier, a low-level dehumanization that anchors one with a distinct barrier between known and unknown. In the reverse, the little moments of politeness are-aside from just being nice-a sort of societal karma, a recognition that being in such intimate contact with people that can’t be conceptualized as individuals requires give and take-a seat here, help with bags there. It’s what keeps a crowded train a crowd and not a crush.

There are, however, limits. A few weeks past, in the height of subway winter, a youngish father and his daughter get on the train. Seated is a woman more or less the father’s age wearing a hat with tassels and monster-esque googley eyes. As in these:

Not these:

The daughter was adult enough to stand in my book (also in my book, Dr. A’s (son’s) book of parenting, due out in 2012: A child old enough to have opinions about its hair style is old enough to be passed off as a tourist trap elf or martian).

Already-as many cute and evil children do-using the power of her cuteness, the child immediately asked her father if she could sit. I could see people deciding against giving the demanding martian their seat (also in my book: only give the child things that are unasked for, never give in to the thing’s demands for food, sleep, etc…wait until the child does not want it, then give what it asked for). Googley eye lady, who had already attracted the train’s collective attention by talking loudly to everyone who came on, had a solution: and at first offered the child her seat, but then pulled the bait and switch: “You could just sit on my lap.”

This is a good point for the father to step in and explain that a stranger offering a seat is fine, a stranger offering a lap to a small child is not fine. I would never let a child sit on a stranger’s lap, especially when the stranger was wearing a googly-eyed hat–the chapeau equivalent to “free candy”. The father, however, was unfazed, and allowed the child to sit. The two explanations for this are: He was not really the father, and was attempting to trade the child, or, this was his seventh child, and after a full decade of child-raising and bearing (starting, presumably at 17) he figured he could cash in on one.

This was not, however, a woman who seemed to be wealthy in anything other than juvenile hats and oh yes! candy necklaces! Yay!

At this point, the train mind was having a collective “Oh, you must be kidding” moment. The woman, who despite her extra pair of eyes, was blind to the most-obvious stares, carried on a long conversation with the child, until she got off, soliciting a “biiiiiig hug” from the martian-child. When the idiot father-unwanted daughter pair got off a stop later, the train group, who by unspoken agreement never talks to each other or makes eye contact, engaged in an “Oh, no they didn’t” support group.

Moral lesson from “Dr. A’s (son’s) parentalist manifesto”? Politeness only goes so far. Stranger lap-sitting with parental supervision is what really brings people together. It takes a village to raise a child, and only one stranger with a funny hat to make the village want to smack the father upside the head.

Glad to be back on my bike.

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About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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2 Responses to Beware the (r)ides of March: Sitting on strangers’

  1. A wonderful story, delightfully related. One quibble. The hands that built the bridges and high rises were generally much larger than yours (and mine). The sooner we recognize that we are about half the size of most construction workers, the sooner we will stop picking fights with them. Tally ho!

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