Home View from Underground The people that you meet each day

The people that you meet each day

by Benjamin Kabak

Seat pigs (Photo by flickr user Scott Lynch)

For better or worse, I spend a lot of time observing people and their behavior in the subway. Much as Matt Flegenheimer did for his Times piece Thursday on above-ground access to cell service, I like to look for the quirks of the subway. How do we ride and behave in a public space while simply trying to get from Point A to Point B in our private lives?

By and large, New Yorkers try to keep to themselves in the subway. We have shared experiences and knowing glimpses that can pass between passengers during pregnant moments. But all it takes is one person to stick out like a sore thumb and lead to groans, eyerolls, thrown elbows or worse. On Wednesday, for instance, when I got back to Brooklyn and climbed a crowded staircase at Grand Army Plaza, I encountered a familiar and frustrating sight we all know too well.

As an off-kilter post for a Friday morning, I want to run down nine other subway regulars that seem to throw a wrench into anyone’s plans for a quiet ride. This is a non-exhaustive list, and I know that fans of the group that claims my top spot are vocal. We could call these my pet peeves; we could call these my own etiquette tips. Either way, here goes.

1. ‘What time is it? Showtime!’
I spent some time talking about Showtime kids last week when we ran a poll. Right now, the anti-Showtime! factions have a 72-28 lead. There is nothing quite as disruptive and annoying as a bunch of teenagers shooing people out of the way so they can attempt to avoid kicking you in the face at 6:15 each night. Nothing can stop by anti-Showtime! crusade.

2. Seat hogs
Don’t spread your legs; don’t plop your bags down on that empty seat next to you. Courtesy is contagious, and it starts with…never mind.

3. Leaky headphones
This is almost as bad as the people who stop at the staircases to whip out their phones. Headphones these days are just so cheaply made that sound leaks all over the place. I’m glad you’re enjoying Ke$ha at 8:30 in the morning, but does everyone in a five-foot radius around you have to also? I guess this is better than the 1980s boombox phenomenon, but these days, subway cars are filled with the faint sounds of music dripping out of headphones.

4. Cell phone games…with the sound
I don’t begrudge anyone a cell phone conversation on the phone. Those are generally either easy enough to tune out or intriguing enough to eavesdrop on. But why, oh why must a grown adult — or anyone old enough to own their own phone — play a cell phone game with the sound on while riding the subway? Why? Why! Why.

5. Backpacks
On Thursday, on the way to work, I had to scoot into the 2 train as the doors closed behind me, and at first, it wasn’t too crowded. But by the time we passed Atlantic Ave., the train was packed, and I kept feeling something rub up against me. When I turned to look at the offending passenger, lo and behold, I spotted a backpack. The proper place for a backpack on any train is either held below its owner’s waist or placed on the floor between its owner’s legs. This is a matter of both anatomy and courtesy.

6. Nail clippers

7. Food
This is another with proponents on both sides of the argument. Some people point out that New Yorkers don’t always have time to eat a proper meal. Maybe that person on the subway chowing down is in between two jobs and won’t have a break until 2 a.m. On the other hand, I read this Metropolitan Diary entry earlier this week and wondered how not one but two people thought Lo Mein was an appropriate subway food. Eat something that won’t make a mess and won’t smell if you absolutely have to eat on the train.

8. People who get up too early
Yes, you want to get out at the next stop. What a coincidence; so do I. Wait your turn. The train won’t leave with you still on it.

9. Door blockers
I have to admit that I’m guilty of this offense on a somewhat regular basis. Take, for instance, my Q train ride home. I board at 42nd St. and can stand in front of doors that won’t open again at De Kalb Ave. Not too many people get off there, and I can easily get out of the way of those getting off. Then I can move further into the car before the doors on the other side open at 7th Ave. I’m not a door-blocker per se; I like to think of that as strategic standing. But there are straphangers who stand in front of the doors, won’t move and then get upset when other passengers brush past them. Why? I have no idea.

Your turn.

You may also like


Keith Williams January 17, 2014 - 12:29 am

1. People who get on before everyone has gotten off
2. Anyone asking for money, really (except for Blue, because he’s the man)
3. Pole-huggers
4. Able-bodied men who sit in a crowded car (I know, I know, can’t judge a book)
5. Bikes/big packages during rush hour (although I’ll give some leeway to people traveling)
6. People who run down the stairs to catch a train but once they realize it isn’t their train they slow to a crawl, and perhaps it’s your train and you bowl them over

Larry Littlefield January 17, 2014 - 7:24 am

“Bikes/big packages during rush hour”

If I’m on the subway with my bike during rush hour, it is usually because I have a flat and am on the way to the bike shop. Unfortunately, there are no bike shops in Midtown. Perhaps someday if enough people are riding, there will be a fix-a-flat service there.

All the flats are in the summer. More broken glass in the street.

Keith Williams January 17, 2014 - 11:37 am

Fair point, Larry. Where do you put your bike for minimum impact? I’m still trying to figure this out.

Ferdinand Cesarano January 17, 2014 - 12:21 pm

I don’t know what Larry is going to say. But when I am forced onto the train with my bike due to a flat or due to the rain, I go the back of a car, and align my bike longways between the last pole and the back door. Ideally, I’d go the back of the last car, because some people ignore the rule against walking between the cars. (Ah — there’s another pet peeve!)

But I’m not sure about the assertion that there are no bike shops in Midtown. This year’s bike map shows 14 bike shops (not rental-only, but actual bike shops) between 59th St. and 23th St.

Larry Littlefield January 17, 2014 - 2:58 pm

My main concern is getting off. So I’ll usually be holding it against a pole, aligned longways with the seats, with the front wheel in the direction of the door aligned with the end of the seat row. I try to get to a center car, because those are less crowded.

Regardless, it’s a hassle, I’m getting a little old to carry the bike while squeezing through the turnstile.

One of these days, I have to get to a class to teach me how to change flats. I tried to sign up for one but it sold out. I’m afraid that if I take a wheel off (and it’s almost always the rear), I’ll never get it back on.

Ferdinand Cesarano January 17, 2014 - 4:11 pm

I am glad to see that I am not the only experienced bicyclist who still is useless at changing flats! I admit that I rely on the professionals.

anonm January 17, 2014 - 4:55 pm

It’s not that hard. If you’re willing to watch instructional videos youtube has plenty. Worst part for road bikes at least is getting enough air in the tires. Handheld pumps are a pain, never had luck with CO2 cannisters. You should try it at home. It can be a real pain though. I know how, have a spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, hand pump on me, but still often go to a bikeshop if one isn’t far.

On the off chance you have a road bike, one thing you might consider is getting better tires. Got me down from a flat at least every two hundred miles in the summer to less than one every thousand.


Ferdinand Cesarano January 17, 2014 - 7:34 pm

I have watched videos; and I have watched a friend do it right in front of me. But maybe I should give it another go.

With flats, I have a bizarre track record. My bike is a mountain bike, and I have tires with a kevlar strip that’s meant to protect against punctures. I went a full year, between July of 2012 and July of 2013, without a flat. That’s over 5500 miles. Then I got three flats in one week!

lop January 18, 2014 - 7:11 pm

I never take my bike to a strange bike shop if it’s just to change out a tube. Twice when I’ve brought the bike in during a long ride, I had an almost completely flat tire by the time I got home – they didn’t check the tire, just put in a new tube. So the little piece of metal that had gotten lodged in the tire was cutting into the new tube the whole ride home.

Anon January 20, 2014 - 7:25 am

If it’s Midtown West, Danny’s Cycles in Hells Kitchen is pretty great. Used to be on 9th Ave but moved over to 10th last year.

Oh yeah, death to subway pole-huggers.

Larry Littlefield January 21, 2014 - 5:48 pm

Thanks for the tip. The bike gets parked in a garage near 6th Avenue, but it might we worth walking it the four long blocks to avoid carrying up and down stairs and through turnstiles.

Mike Nitabach January 17, 2014 - 8:11 am

Yes to #1! The worst are those who barrel past everyone else who is patiently waiting to board.

Ferdinand Cesarano January 17, 2014 - 12:12 pm

“Able-bodied men who sit in a crowded car (I know, I know, can’t judge a book)”

I don’t agree with this at all. If someone gets on before the train gets crowded, there’s nothing wrong with that person’s taking a seat and keeping it for the duration of the ride — even when that person is a young healthy man. And there is nothing wrong with a young healthy man sitting down if a seat opens up in front of him during the trip.

Of course, any healthy person (man or woman) should give up a seat to any disabled or elderly person (man or woman). But that is a long way from the spurious claim that no healthy man should ever be sitting on a crowded train.

The article covered almost all of the train etiquette peeves that I have. The one I would add is the use of strollers in the train. Strollers should be folded. I suppose I can understand using a stroller when it’s one adult with three children. But when it’s only one child, then that’s the time for the existing rule against strollers to be enforced.

Something else which annoys me terribly occurs not on the train but elsewhere in the station: the casual use of emergency exits. Do the idiots who are using the emergency exit door not hear the alarm that goes off when they open it? Astounding.

In a sense, the authorities are to blame for this abuse. The opening of an emergency exit door should rightfully be treated as the equivalent of an emergency call to 911, just as is the pulling of a fire alarm. If the police had from the beginning treated the emergecy exit toor as such, and had responded to each opening as they would to a 911 call, then people would never have gotten into the habit of using this door as a regular exit. (I once dialled 911 by accident from home, realised my mistake, and then hung up. Minutes later, police were at my door. I’m much more careful now.)

But because the police have never treated the opening of the emergency door appropriately, passengers have become accustomed to walking right through — again, despite the loud alarm that should be telling any thinking creature that they shouldn’t be doing this. So we have lost a potential means of alerting the police in case of an actual emergency, and we have gained a constant source of noise pollution.

Keith Williams January 17, 2014 - 12:28 pm

Of course, any healthy person (man or woman) should give up a seat to any disabled or elderly person (man or woman). But that is a long way from the spurious claim that no healthy man should ever be sitting on a crowded train.

Fair point, Ferdinand. Personally, I always stand on a crowded train because I dislike the ambiguity of deciding whether someone is “disabled enough”, “old enough”, or “pregnant [enough]” to warrant me offering my seat. That’s just me, though.

BoerumBum January 17, 2014 - 1:04 pm

Agreed… in fact, I get a bit miffed on a crowded train when there are open seats that people just stand in front of instead of sitting down. Regardless of who you are, you’re in less people’s way when you’re sitting than when you’re standing.

If there’s an open seat, take it, bearing in mind that you should give it up to those who need it more than you (including the standard list {elderly, disabled, pregnant}, people who work on their feet {like nurses}, and anyone who asks).

SEAN January 17, 2014 - 5:12 pm

Something else which annoys me terribly occurs not on the train but elsewhere in the station: the casual use of emergency exits. Do the idiots who are using the emergency exit door not hear the alarm that goes off when they open it? Astounding.

As someone who is visually challenged & often has a backpack, the use of the emergency exit is prefertable than squeezing through a turnstyle. This is especially true when hords of riders try to push there way in as I try to exit.

Ferdinand Cesarano January 17, 2014 - 7:42 pm

I have no doubt that going through the emergency exit door is more convenient for you than going through the turnstyle. But the fact remains that that exit is there for emergencies, not for convenience.

Furthermore, you can always exit via the door that’s in front of the station agent, the one that functions as the special entry. That door is there for convenience. That’s the exit I use when I have my bike.

SEAN January 17, 2014 - 8:48 pm

Understood. But some stations despite having a booth, don’t have the special gate such as the shuttle entrance at GCT. At Sutphin/ Archer, the gate remains open to aid travelers with there luggage.

Michael January 17, 2014 - 8:19 pm

I am one of those who maintain that the standard fare control areas should have been re-designed from day one. Where it clear that the turnstyles are for entry only, where revolving gates are the standard exits, and that any emergency exits are truly for emergencies.

I am one of those that have never liked the idea or the policy of having folks EXIT the subways by using the SAME TURNSTYLES that entering folk use. I do not see a reason why folks that want to leave the station to have to use a “fare-entry” turnstyle to do so. I maintain that the folks who want to leave the subways should be allowed to do so without hassle. It can be a major hassle for the incoming and out-going streams of people to be mixed together, like Roman legions battling it out in the subway station.

Many of the subway and elevated stations were designed in such a way as to allow folks leaving the station an easy way to leave, while at the same time leading entering folks to the fare control areas. Now many of the current station designs too often act as frustration generators.


BrooklynBus January 19, 2014 - 1:32 pm

Years ago with the old turnstiles, at major stations, there were turnstiles that said “No exit”. They cleary avoided conflicts during rush hours. I don’t know why they stopped that practice. It was a pain finding a turnstile yesterday at Herald Square with a suitcase. Everytime I walked over to a turnstile to entire a stream of people woud use it to get out. When I moved to the next one to save time, people started using that one.

Michael January 17, 2014 - 7:56 pm

Of all of the annoying behaviors, mothers or dads with strollers get leeway from me on the trains and elevators. Hiking up and down the stairs with all of that stuff (including munchkin) and a folded stroller can often not be easy. And yes, there are the good sensible rules about keeping Munchkin safe on the platforms. And yes, on buses the large baby strollers can understandably be annoying. That is until you’re the one with the baby.

Holding to the cute bouncing munchkin, his diaper bag and supplies, your knapsack, and his stroller while on the subway is not easy. Trying to fit all of that into a single seat simply does not work. Sleeping kids in strollers should be left sleeping in stroller – becomes a very important rule.

I used to be one of those folks who simply did not realize the difficulty of traveling with that cute little bundle of joy, their bottles-diapers-toys and other stuff – your stuff – their stroller, and keeping your sanity.

My sister bought one of those models that opened with just a sharp flick of the wrist, because I used to struggle with the other models. I could never get some strollers closed properly, while standing at the bus stop, keeping the munchkin from walking away, keeping track of the bags, holding him, all the bags and stroller and walking on the bus. By the time his brother & sisters came into the picture – we were all going to the Transit Museum!

This is not to say that trains are not crowded, or that consideration should not be given to other riders, etc. Only that walking a mile in another person’s shoes can give perspective.


Ferdinand Cesarano January 17, 2014 - 10:09 pm

I am not insensitive to the needs of people travelling with children; I have said that I can understand the necessity for a stroller when there are multiple children with one adult. It’s the person who comes on board the train with one child in a stroller whose behaviour I object to (and, incidentally, who could benefit from the advice about walking in other people’s shoes).

As a practical matter, this act does no harm outside of rush hour. But during rush hour it’s a significant problem, as one side of a segment the car becomes impassable due to obstruction, and the other side becomes impassable due to crowd density. For people who need to get off anywhere other than major stops, it’s bad news.

Now, I will repeat yet again that I understand that someone travelling with multiple children does indeed have the need for a stroller. I get that this person and his/her children are entitled to space just as anyone else is, and that other people are not really justified in complaining about inconvenience in this instance.

But it is not unreasonable to expect an adult travelling on the subway with one small child to hold that child on his/her lap for the ride, especially during rush hour. In that case, the act of letting the child stay in the stroller (which is sometimes standing in front of the adult’s seat, but is sometimes standing in front of an adjacent seat, in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone to sit in that adjacent seat) is just as rude and antisocial as is sitting with one’s legs open or putting one’s feet up on a seat.

Michael January 18, 2014 - 9:59 pm

Maybe I was not clear, I said that MY EYES WERE OPENED when I became the one with the baby, and the stroller, and the bags, etc. And as munchkin was joined by his brother and sisters – MY PERSPECTIVE CHANGED. I had one set of opinions on the issue, and my various experiences with my kids gave me another perspective. That was the “walking in another’s shoes” statement. Just making that clear.


Shmo January 17, 2014 - 6:39 pm

Why does number 4 have to have a gender constraint?

Alex C January 20, 2014 - 9:11 am

Number 1 is of particular annoyance to me any time I take the N train. It’s astounding how stupid people can be. The train has just arrived, the doors have only begun to open and people already start jamming themselves into the car of a not-crowded train and pushing into people trying to get off.

Keith Williams January 17, 2014 - 12:32 am

Also, regarding #9: I love trying to catch people’s reactions as I make the dance back and forth between doorways (for example, between 14-34-42 on the 2/3)

Brandon January 17, 2014 - 4:40 am

Nail clippers are the worst.

Kat Bridges January 17, 2014 - 11:41 am

TOEnail clippers are The Real Worst.

Chris C January 17, 2014 - 6:46 am

women applying make-up

door blockers who stand on the platform waiting to get on but who won’t move so people can get off

Chris C January 17, 2014 - 6:47 am

BTW apart from ‘showtime’ all the above are applicable to London !

Eric F January 17, 2014 - 8:39 am

“The early 21st century is plagued by an epidemic of people who stop walking at the top of subway staircases to check their phones.”

YESSSSS. Also, right outside revolving doors, when the walk sign lights up at a crosswalk…

There’s also the lateral slow drifting people do when looking at these things which makes it hard to pass them.


Bolwerk January 17, 2014 - 10:37 am

When it’s raining, umbrella users do that too. Even better are the people who can’t close the umbrellas until they get to the turnstile.

Von S. January 17, 2014 - 3:11 pm

I hate “drifters.”

Jonathan R January 17, 2014 - 8:55 am

What about parking the stroller at the end of the car? I do that; does it tick SAS readers off?

Tsuyoshi January 17, 2014 - 3:45 pm

I’m somewhat opposed to the idea of strollers in general. (I have a child, now 3 years old, and yes, I frequently carry her in my arms or on my back – in my experience a stroller makes getting around harder, not easier.) But at the end of the car is really OK. I think in the middle of the aisle is OK too. But most people put their stroller in the doorway, which is not OK. There are very few strollers around during the most crowded times of the day though, so it will never end up on anyone’s top 10 annoyances list.

SEAN January 17, 2014 - 5:17 pm

As long as the child behaves, I’m OK with the strollers.

JMB January 17, 2014 - 9:42 am

Nothing wrong with strategic standing Ben, I do it all the same (replace your Q with my N, but same basic route). Doing the dance between the sides of the car probably looks insane until we get to the stop and I’m positioned to be first at the proper staircase.

I’ve given up on being polite/patient with the oblivious offenders. My new strategy is just to nudge them (slight or hard depending on the circumstances) then pretend it was an accident. 9 out 10 times, they are just oblivious, but I have had an instance of tough guy who wanted to throttle me. I told him it wouldn’t have happened if he just turned sideways. His response was something about he was tired after seeing my mother (I’ll admit I gave him a lol….which pissed him off a bit more).

Eric Brasure January 17, 2014 - 10:21 am

People that get up too early don’t bother me, unless they get up expecting me to let go of the pole and get out of their way while the train is still moving. Nope, I’m not risking a fall so you can get to the door before everyone else.

Door blockers are my biggest pet peeve. I body check them quite frequently.

Corollary to door blockers: stoppers. The people that go just inside the car and then… stop.

People that block open seats.

Backpacks. Oh god yes. Take that thing off.

Herb Lehman January 17, 2014 - 10:33 am

I’ll add one: Door-holders who don’t realize that holding train doors delays the current train and every train behind it, and if it’s a local train, will probably cause it to run express further down the line to make up time (e.g. the 6 train’s habit of skipping 68th Street at the most inopportune time).

Three words: Electrify the doors. Not Taser-like electricity by any means, not enough to cause injury, but enough to make someone say “Ouch” and serve as a deterrent from holding onto the doors.

And “Showtime” has got to go. I don’t begrudge these kids trying to make money, but I am terrified of being kicked in the face.

Jessica January 17, 2014 - 11:22 am

Love your list and the contributions below, but what’s wrong with the occasional makeup touch-up on the train? It’s not smelly or messy like food nor is it loud!

Chris C January 17, 2014 - 11:32 am

A ‘touch up’ is fine but not doing your full routine.

All it takes is for someone to nudge you or the train to judder and that mascara isn’t in your lashes it’s in your eye !

Eric F January 17, 2014 - 11:41 am

One thing is better: Since the MTA’s rule change about moving between cars went into effect, there is much less of the swaggering-jostling move as people would walk through crowded cars to advance within the train.

Kat Bridges January 17, 2014 - 11:42 am

Recently spotted/sniffed: a dude eating sardines out of the can with his fingers on the 3 train.

AMM January 17, 2014 - 11:54 am

The train won’t leave with you still on it.

Dream on!

I’ve seen conductors close the doors while people were still filing off the train. It was a regular thing back when I changed at Union Square. I learned to put my foot in the door when waiting for everyone to get off (so I could board.) But I did occasionally see the train leave while people trying to deboard were still on the train.

My peeve: people who insist on pushing their way onto the train while people are still trying to get out. Happens all the time at GCT. (GCT could really use platforms on both sides of the tracks, so people could deboard on one side while others are boarding on the other.)

Bolwerk January 17, 2014 - 12:07 pm

No one expects the Spanish solution.

JMB January 17, 2014 - 5:11 pm

Strange that Grand Central never had side platforms even though City Hall, Union Square and 96th street did. This could be a solution, I agree, but I think any stations with the shuttered local platforms have already been repurposed as storage of some sort.

ryan 6 train January 17, 2014 - 12:56 pm

Just this morning on my way to work I experienced:

1) An A-Hole who smacked me with his backpack. Another passenger acknowledged this malfeasance.

2) The cell phone check halfway up the stairs

3) A leg spreader who was also a leans-way-too-far-forwarder

4) And finally… The most insidious of them all, the empty car on an otherwise packed downtown 6 at rush hour

JMB January 17, 2014 - 5:12 pm

4) And finally… The most insidious of them all, the empty car on an otherwise packed downtown 6 at rush hour

Homeless man?

Ryan 6 train January 19, 2014 - 9:49 am

Actually he ws long gone though He had left us a present. As it was In The middle of the train it was easy to spot by any station personnel. It’d be nice if more if a conscious effort was made to remove the offending material from cars prior to the end of the run. They could easily call ahead to a station down the line and have someone on the ready to jump in and remove the pile of fun. However most Mta station workers simply seem to be grinding away clock with little actual effort and concern for the customer experience. Ha. Customer experience and mta were in the same utterance.

That’s why this list exists.

norax January 17, 2014 - 1:17 pm

The games with sound are the worst I think. And a relatively recent development too. I wonder who decided it was ok.

SEAN January 17, 2014 - 5:23 pm

My god! What a bunch of Angry Birds on this thread today.

D in Bushwick January 17, 2014 - 6:29 pm

Yeah. Bitching is the best free entertainment people ever invented.
Yes, lots of annoying people everywhere in this best nation on earth.
But seat pigs really do make me angry so I never hesitate to politely say “excuse me” before I then deliberately sit down and they ALWAYS move their legs. But not by much.
My satisfaction is clearly worth getting a seat while they sit there clearly pissed off. But bullies are cowards after all.

SEAN January 17, 2014 - 9:00 pm

I know where you’re comeing from, hense the remark above. Also lets be honest – everyone here has been guilty at least once in their lives of some unwritten rule of riding the subway.

Kevin Walsh January 17, 2014 - 5:55 pm

9 times out of 10 the loud headphones, the audible video games, are at least partially deliberate. It’s aggressive young guys defining their territory and daring you to tell them to turn it down.

Same philosophy behind boom cars and loud horn honking (inevitably, combined with windows tinted black) and motorcycle gunning.

Brooklyn Cowbell Guy January 18, 2014 - 10:49 pm

I had to suffer thru the show time assholes yesterday.

The city should have a massive crackdown down by having under covers arrest them & levy $1000 fines against them. That will end it in days.

Chris R January 19, 2014 - 11:09 am

Door blockers are the worst. Equally bad are people who step onto a half-empty train and grab the first pole by the door, making everyone behind them walk around them, through everyone else who choose to stand in the door area, rather than move to the center of the train. This is worse on narrow IRT trains. They should really remove those vertical poles and add more away from the doors.

BrooklynBus January 19, 2014 - 1:37 pm

I was on the train many years ago when an attractive woman began painting her nails with polish with an extremely offensive smell. She refused to stop even after I told her how the smell bothered me so I pretended to cough into my newspaper and made a lot of noise turning the pages in her face to annoy her. She didn’t get the hint or didn’t care. So just to freak her out I asked her for a date as I got off.


Leave a Comment