This past Sunday night, I found myself on a reasonably crowded 2 train heading from the Upper West Side to Park Slope. As the train went local and slowly snaked its way down the West Side, I had ample opportunity to surreptitiously survey the scene. What struck my fancy was something quite disgusting.
Sitting across the car from me where a family traveling together. The young parents had their daughter — maybe five or six years old — in tow, and she was trying to chow down on some fast food chicken fingers and fries. At one point, the girl spilled half of the box of food on the floor, and as her dad leaned over to inspect the damage, I was sure he would sweep it up into the plastic bag he had with him. Instead, he pushed the fries and chicken under the seat, and as the train continued onward, every few minutes, he would kick more of the food under the seat, grinding it into mush in the process. I was disgusted.
Eventually, the three exited the train, and I turned to my girlfriend, who also witnessed this display with similar disgust. “Do you think,” I asked, “they do that at home when they drop something on their kitchen floor?” I often find it easier just to kick food under the table than it is to own up and clean it up. Don’t you?
This behavior isn’t rare in the subways. People think they can just abdicate responsibility for their actions because, hey, someone else will have to clean it up. Rampant rudeness on trains is a known problem, and websites such as Train Pigs document those who eat and litter underground. Yet, it shouldn’t be like that.
New York City Transit’s trains are a shared space in the city. No matter our upbringing, our class, our socioeconomic position in the city, we ride the trains to get from Point A to Point B in a cheap, fast and environmentally friendly way. The trains, then, are only as clean as we make them. We can blame the MTA for its lack of garbage cans — a problem at stations with one entrance — and we can question the decision to skimp on station cleaners amidst an economic crisis.
Still, the fact remains that we the riders should be the ones who clean up after ourselves. We shouldn’t ignore food that spills, and maybe we shouldn’t let others off the hook either. I didn’t say anything to the family that spilled dinner on the floor and then tried to kick away. I let them off the train with just a glare, and others did the same. No one wanted to pick a fight, and we all faced the typical collective action problem. It was, we though, someone else’s problem.
Maybe, though, had one person said something, we could have shamed that family into doing the right thing. We could have let them know that we saw what they did and how they tried to cover it up. We could have told them that we knew they were taking a shared city resource, something upon which we all depend and something we all want to see clean, and sullying it through rude behavior. But we didn’t.
The MTA urges people to take their trash with them, and yet, many do not. Perhaps, we should urge people to treat train floors as they would their kitchen. When I spill something in the kitchen, I don’t kick it under the counter and hope no one notices. I clean it up because it’s what we are supposed to do at home and what we should also do on the trains.