By and large, most New Yorkers believe there are certain things that just shouldn’t be done on public transit. We can take or leave coffee in a train while most people wouldn’t choose to chow down while riding to work. We don’t engage in lewd behavior; we don’t relieve ourselves in the subway system; and we don’t tend to personal grooming in the subway. Or at least, we shouldn’t attend to personal grooming.
On Wednesday morning, however, I was greeted with one of those situations that just screams out as being grossly awkward. As I commute from Park Slope to Midtown East, I switch from the IRT local to the express at Nevins Street, and rarely am I lucky enough to get a seat right away. So I found myself standing above a lady who had her pocketbook half open on her lap. It was then I heard the familiar sound.
The noise a pair of nail clippers make is an unmistakable one. It’s a brief sound as the metal blades snip through the fingernail, but it’s also one with which we are familiar. Clipping nails is just a thing that we all have to do every few weeks, and we grow accustomed to huddling over a toilet, a garbage can, the sink in an effort to control those runaway nails that tend to go flying.
So there I stood on a 5 train early in the morning with that noise echoing in my ears. As I looked around for the source, I found the woman sitting on the seat near me, and it was a strange sight indeed. This straphanger was clearly someone who knew that what she was doing was not exactly hygienic. She was well-dressed and on her way to work, but she kept her hands in the bag as she furtively attempted to trim her nails. She saw me watching disapprovingly and glanced away. She did have the decency to bury her fingers fully in her handbag, but that must meant that her pocketbook would be filled with clippings. Better her bag than the floor of the subway car.
This culprit absconded from the scene of her moral crime at Union Square, and our fleeting six-stop encounter was over. I gave her the eye; she kept trimming her nails. As I rode onward to Grand Central, I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. What inspires someone to do something as personal and as unappealing as clipping her nails in a crowded subway car at rush hour? Did she forget to do it at home? Does she have no easy access to the privacy of a bathroom at her office? Does she simply not care what other people think and what the rest of us would consider acceptable social behavior for a subway ride?
A few years ago, I wondered about those who insist on performing bathroom rituals on the train. I’ve seen people floss their teeth, pluck their eyebrows and clip their nails all in some misguided sense of efficiency. It’s not appropriate train behavior, and it shouldn’t be something anyone has to say. Read a book; listen to music; stare off into space. But for the sake of everyone else, just leave the nail clippers at home.