Please Stop Cutting Your Nails On The Subway by flickr user Dan Dickinson
Picture a straphanger riding a half-empty subway when a clicking sound, familiar but out of place on a train, starts filling the train car. Furtively, the unsuspecting straphanger glances around at his fellow riders searching out the source of the sound when the wandering eyes alight on a man — and generally it is indeed a man — working on his nails. Clip. Pause. Examine. Clip. Pause. Examine. The excess part of the nail floats gently down to the subway floor.
Once the public groomer gets off the train, maybe our straphanger ambles past this makeshift home bathroom on the way out at his destination and stops to examine the floor of the subway. Strewn about, of course, are fingernail clippings, left for all time — or at least until the train reaches its terminal — to serve as a warning to those that might sit in that seat. A person with no manners or concept of public spaces sat here, they scream.
Nail clipping is but one form of grooming New Yorkers seem to save for the public subway. Some women use the trains as space for their makeup; others floss; some dress. More respecting subway riders, though, have had enough of it.
On Friday, Lion Calandra, identified as a freelance copy editor, added to City Room’s Complaint Box. Her piece was a rant against public grooming, and it ties in nicely with the series on underground ethics I’ve written over the last few months. She asks,” When did grooming become a spectator sport?”
These days, if someone seated near me on my morning ride is putting on makeup, someone else is clipping his fingernails (and, on one odd occasion this summer, a toenail). Or they’re plucking eyebrows, tying ties, squeezing pimples, even spraying perfume. There are those who just have to bathe themselves in lotion. Others are brushing their hair. It’s the full monty, commuter style…
We’re all strapped for time. If a person cannot manage to keep personal business personal, then it’s time for a major life overhaul. Yes, it’s hard to juggle life’s obligations. But, for the record, I don’t want to see others plucking their eyebrows or flossing their teeth. I hate to see myself doing it. I also don’t want to be in the cloud of cologne wafting through the air by the mad spritzer sitting 20 feet from me. It irks my allergies. It takes only a few extra minutes before bedtime or in the morning to tend to personal hygiene, which becomes much less hygienic when it’s done on the subway seat where some vagrant just spent the night.
Calandra makes her rant out to be about her, but it’s really about all of us. To understand that, we should set some ground rules. Some public appearance prepping is acceptable on the subway. I don’t mind if someone rushed for time has to apply some mascara or lipstick on the train. I don’t care — and in fact have done so myself — when someone has to take a second to knot a tie. These actions are fairly self-contained and don’t involve leaving anything on the ground or bothering other passengers.
But the lines should be drawn at anything that falls on the ground, makes a mess or is generally an activity suited for a bathroom sink. I don’t cut my nails while sitting over my living room couch; I wouldn’t even think about doing it on the subway. No one should, and the same can be said about removing nail polish, plucking eyebrows or flossing.
How then can straphangers go about enforcing social norms on the subway? Calandra was told to “mind your own business” when she politely asked a rider flossing to “do that at home.” The first step is to assess the person flossing. If he or she looks unhinged or, you know, bigger than you, probably don’t pick that fight. Second, being sweet-as-sugar polite is the way to go: “Excuse me please, but would you mind not cutting your nails here? It’s unsanitary and disrespectful to other riders.” Some will react badly; some may think twice about what they’re doing.
That decision to ask though is one up to all of us. If no one takes that first step, if no one notices the pigish behavior and makes a scene out of it, it will continue. Calandra blames YouTube for publicizing private moments; I blame people too oblivious to think about where they are and the straphangers who are unwilling to ask them to stop.