Home View from Underground In which nail clipping on the subway is judged

In which nail clipping on the subway is judged

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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rhywun November 11, 2009 - 7:38 am

I wouldn’t expect a respectable response from a person disrespectful enough to do their bathroom chores on the train. If they haven’t learned respect for others yet, they’re certainly not going to learn it from you. I say, best to avoid such people altogether.

Marsha November 11, 2009 - 9:06 am


Sara November 11, 2009 - 9:27 am

This is one of my worst fears – having to watch someone else groom themself, while trapped with them in a moving box. But I have to admit that subway nail clipping is actually the *third* grossest thing I can think of/have witnessed. #2 is nail clipping in a emergency room, and the #1 all time most vile selfish ridiculous outrageous public grooming is: flossing on a bus. Are we all really this dumb, or is it a complete lack of manners?

Evan November 11, 2009 - 9:37 am

This maybe slightly off topic but it reminds me of a situation that happened to me and a few other last night. I was in the stand-by line for Harold Night at Upright Citizen Brigade (Go if you want to see great improv) and right in front of us people lit up and started smoking…oblivious to the fact that the smoke was going down wind of them into my face and the people I was with. It was a complete lack of respect for the others around them. I really should have said something but I was out of it from working all day and then taking a yoga.

Mike HC November 11, 2009 - 5:17 pm

Cigarette smokers in general do that all the time. They consciously position their hand so the smoke does not get in their own face, because it is annoying, while the smoke is going directly into someone else’s face. I can never tell if they really don’t notice it, or are consciously “not noticing” it.

Kia April 25, 2012 - 7:47 am

You should have said something. Most smokers, don’t try to be rude they just crave nicotine wherever possible. If you point out 2nd hand smoking or that you have health problems the smokers will most likely adjust to your needs. No one is going to read your flipping mind. There are two options in which the smoker will do. 1, put the cigarette out, 2. Walk away.

John November 11, 2009 - 10:09 am

Eh, I guess I have bigger fish to fry than worrying about people clipping their nails or flossing on a train. It’s not considerate, but it doesn’t harm me, so whatever.

Chicken Underwear November 11, 2009 - 10:22 am

It is more than a personal hygiene matter that should be done in private. I think the person who cuts their nails in public truly does not about the rest of the world. They choose not to do it a home because they do not want to clean up their mess, nor do they want to live in it.

They consciencly bring their nail clipper with them so they can walk away from their mess.

I could see loosing my balance and falling on the nail clipper. (Not the personal hygiene tool, but the person clipping their nails.)

Mike HC November 11, 2009 - 5:14 pm

Definitely do not go up to them. Bad idea. They know what they are doing is selfish. Pointing it out to them will only get them mad and defensive.

SabinaHoule April 25, 2012 - 7:31 am

You don’t feel it is right to approach the subject in which is bothering you? You fear that the individual will only strike back out of defense? Maybe you should get your butt up and approach the subject and tell him/her how you feel, if it is really that big of an issue, that is if you wouldn’t mind. But, no! You fear being rejected, you feel that you will only get a negative reaction.Sometimes people don’t know what they are doing is wrong and that “they” need a reminder of what they are doing is unpleasant. But, you sit there and hope the person reads your mind or your disgusted facial features. If anything you are being the selfish one by not speaking how you feel, all it is, is a simple reminder that it bothers some people.

Think twice November 11, 2009 - 5:21 pm

This could be a cash cow for ticketing and fines.

E. Aron November 11, 2009 - 6:21 pm

While I agree with the premise, that we should take care of bathroom business in the bathroom, what’s so bad about nail clippings? So they’re on the floor – as is a lot of nasty stuff. As long as they don’t get on you, how does it really affect you? Don’t look at the person clipping their nails. Subway cars, to my experience, have been used for worse, as in used as an actual toilet.

Really I’m just stirring up the pot here, but I’ve seen this done a lot (esp. on the 7 train for some reason), and my initial reaction is always, ew that’s gross, but then after a second’s reflection I don’t care.

Ed November 11, 2009 - 7:51 pm

I really don’t mind fingernail clipping on the subway so much, but toenail clipping is completely inappropriate.

Seriously, I have clipped my fingernails in public! I’ve done it over a public trashcan, clippings go in the trashcan, very quickly, less than one minute, in an uncrowded area. The main problem is where the clippings are going to wind up. A secondary problem is that today people also seem to do these things deliberately to attack attention and to inconvenience as many people as possible, very slowly and very noisily.

I remember the city pre-Bloomberg and it wasn’t so much that people didn’t do funky things in public, it was that that they didn’t go out of their way to show their oblivious to the other people who might be sharing the public space with them. This is what goes on today and I don’t get what is causing it.

rhywun November 11, 2009 - 9:45 pm

I honestly don’t understand the pressing need to clip one’s nails, that it can’t wait until one returns home. But I have to agree that there are far more annoying things to me, such as: eating almost anything within inches of my face–especially something vile like corn nuts (which seem more popular on the subway than anywhere else), yakking on the phone, singing/rapping with your headphones on, and music coming out of headphones that might as well be coming out of speaker because it’s so loud. I could go on.

Chicken Underwear November 11, 2009 - 11:48 pm

That is exactly it. Can’t people wait till they get home!!!

Jerrold November 14, 2009 - 6:27 pm

This is slightly off-topic, but I just read THIS in an online article about comtemporary Venice:

“Venetians themselves would like to see more money put toward retaining natives, and are critical of such projects as the new Calatrava Bridge over the Grand Canal. Building the bridge, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, ran well over projected costs while doing little to ease the lives of average Venetians.”

Here in New York, this sure sounds familiar!
His “Calatrava Transit Hub” at the World Trade Center site must be by now very much over budget, behind schedule, and who knows for sure if it will EVER be actually finished?
That’s why many people have said, “Why don’t they just add some improvements to the ‘temporary’ PATH station, and let it become a permanent PATH station?”

Jerrold November 14, 2009 - 6:30 pm

I had intended to put this message on another thread.
I will put it there now.

Nail Clip December 7, 2009 - 12:20 pm

Nail trimming must be done at home, without any other person around you. Nobody like the feeling of sitting next to a person who is trimming his/her own nail.

The things we do that should not be done underground :: Second Ave. Sagas November 11, 2011 - 1:06 am

[…] few years ago, I wonder 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 […]

Alex7180 January 11, 2015 - 7:38 pm

I think that clipping your toe nails is absolutely disgusting. If you really want to clip your nails do it in the privacy of your own home. Things like these are meant to be kept private, and not publically displayed for the world or at least everyone on a subway to see. If you don’t have enough time to do that in your house than just put it off for awhile until you do have time. But that’s just my opinion.


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