Making Contact on the Metro and the Politics of Train Etiquette

The other day, as I rode the metro to school, I found myself in the unfortunate position of third wheel.

No, I was not accompanying a friend on an awkward date, nor playing wingwoman on Single’s Night.  I was merely slumped on the train, alone, contemplating my imminent cup of coffee. Yet I did not feel alone, because right in front of me, a couple was embroiled in a very vocal domestic dispute. And they knew that I was seated next to them.

I should be precise – the couple spoke just loud enough so that I could hear them; they were at least partially aware that they inhabited a public space. Still, it was the sort of argument that one imagines having in the privacy of one’s living room, where there are pillows and books to hurl and a couch for make-up coitus. And throughout this dispute, one member of the couple was seated so that he regularly made eye contact with me. In fact, avoiding mutual recognition was impossible unless I conspicuously a.) changed seats b.) shrouded my head with my cardigan or c.) hid under my seat (which, considering the detritus left there, seemed like a pretty lousy idea).

Here is the thing about eye contact: even if you are in no way involved in someone’s conversation, when that person looks you in the eye–even unintentionally–you cannot help but feel implicated, interpolated. Perhaps this comes of being a self-centered creature, but when so many of our intimate connections rely upon mutual gaze, it is difficult for me to not feel a fleeting moment of connection in these sorts of situations. And certain connections, even if they last no more than a few moments, can be really uncomfortable.

And so, the male partner, eyes ablaze, continued to air his grievances, intermittently noticing that, yep, I was still there. At this point, I was even more slumped in my seat, with earbuds securely lodged in place and my face pressed against the window. The other day I had a brief exchange with a friend about times when we wished wearing headphones also made one invisible. This certainly was an instance where a degree from Hogwarts would have really come in handy.

For, irritated I was – and indignant to boot. Who the hell were these people, having it out on the train? Had they no respect for their fellow commuters? Did they not value their privacy as a couple? (says the girl who blogs and tweets about her relationships on the regular).

I was feeling pretty hoity-toity about the matter until today. Paul and I were airing a few grievances of our own – not with each other (another time, dear readers), but with some of the pain-in-the-ass behaviors we encounter on the metro. We both acknowledged that our desire to be both open-minded and generous exists in tension with our respective tendencies to become aggravated when other train-riders behave in irritating ways. And yes, in case you had any doubts, both Paul and myself are paragons of commuter virtue. Over the course of the conversation, it occurred to us that the lines we draw between public and private spaces have everything to do with our socioeconomic privilege. I know nothing about the couple to whom I have referred, but I do know that not everyone has a living space conducive to private conversation, whether because of its size, additional occupants, or a mélange of factors. And not every couple has the time and money to schedule a Starbucks-and-stroll in order to talk through a misunderstanding.

Similarly, I cannot deny my rage every time someone decides that everybody in the whole wide world of Metro needs to hear the kickass tune playing on their phone or mp3 player – and that, in fact, we deserve an accompanying serenade as well. “My ears shouldn’t have to be assaulted with this shit, ” I think self-righteously. And to make a point that absolutely no one notices, I emphatically wedge and adjust my headphones so that they rest precariously near the abyss of my ear canal. Fuming, I carry on an inward monologue about how navigating public space means respecting boundaries.

I do believe that this is true. I also believe that not everyone grooving to their jams on the metro necessarily has that many opportunities to do so at home.  For some, the metro might offer a sort of privacy that I cannot possibly fathom – precisely because I do have access to a number of so-called private spaces. It doesn’t make it any less aggravating to have my own music drowned out by another person’s musical tribute to Miley, but it does remind me to be more tolerant. It may be that nothing but sheer rudeness prompts a person to transgress both official and unspoken metrorail rules. But there is no way that I can know that. Time and again, I have to remind myself that everybody is living out their own narrative, shaped by all manner of forces. I want to do my best to not assume the worst of others, even if those others are really, REALLY irritating me. I want to–as much as is possible–stop seeing people as “others” in the first place.

There were other seats available to me that day when I became an implicit third party to domestic strife. In retrospect, I should have been gracious enough to move, rather than to stubbornly assert my rights as fellow metro passenger. Next time I hope that I will, remembering that I can’t know what has brought this couple to this point. And maybe I’ll sing along to Miley. It’s really no skin off my nose, and it’s certainly the most surefire way to end the musical number.

All that said, to the dudes who take up two seats because your masculine aura needs that much breathing room? Scoot on over, because I’ll be joining you momentarily.