New York City’s subway system provides a rich ethnographic field site. New Yorkers are so used to being alone together that they often let their guard down in unusual ways, conducting private affairs without much concern for the present company, who are all busy with the business of seeming occupied themselves. I’ve documented these sorts of observations in a field note style previously on AiP (two of the more popular posts include Subway Flirtations and Public Tears, but see also here and here).

The presentation is largely descriptive, with little analysis offered, though commentary is certainly welcome. To organize them here on SciAm, I'm titling this series "Observations:" This is the latest installment in this series:


As observed on an Uptown 2 train:

He boards the train at Fulton Street. He’s in his late twenties, fit, dressed in a well-cut gray suit. There are still seats available at this stop and he flops down into one with a heavy sigh, causing a ripple to filter up the bench as people shift to give him room.

The train has barely left the station when he starts to get the heavy-lidded look of one who’s been at the grind hard. He’s tired, but fighting to stay awake. He runs his fingers through his hair, rolls his shoulders, and blinks rapidly. But he’s losing the battle: His attaché slips from his fingers as his head drops forward. I’ll call him Sleepy.

We pull into Park Place and the train is flooded with evening commuters. He straightens and pulls his legs in to allow people to fill the standing space in front of him.

The doors shut and there is a slight commotion as people shuffle around to let someone pass. It’s an older man. He moves slowly, trying to inject certainty into each step, knowing that a sudden stop could lurch him forward into parts unknown—well, not unknown, but certainly into hard and embarrassing territory.

Sleepy reaches out and puts his hand on the older man’s arm. “Sit here,” he says, and hoists himself up, holding onto the overhead bar. He sways almost as unsteadily as the older man did, but manages to stay up. He rests his head in the crook of his arm and shuts his eyes.

At Chambers Street, a few people disembark and a young mother boards. People make way for her and she’s soon standing next to Sleepy. Her exuberant toddler shrieks and while some in the car smile indulgently, Sleepy’s eyes pop open. He turns his head to the right and regards mom as she tries to restrain her energetic daughter, who seems bent on making friends with everyone in the crowded car. Daughter reaches out and taps Sleepy on the shoulder. Sleepy manages a weary “Hi” but the child’s attention is already elsewhere.

Older man begins to struggle to his feet. “Sit,” he tells the mom. “She’s a handful.” Mom tries to say no, obviously not wanting to take the seat from the elderly gentleman. “No,” he insists. “This seat’s for you.” Standing now, he wobbles a bit as the trio arrange themselves so mom can slide into the seat. Sleepy—looking less so by the second—offers him an elbow. And the trip continues: Sleepy holding onto the overhead bar, older man, holding on to Sleepy, and mom trying to hold onto child.