Thursday, February 23, 2012

Don't Sleep in the Subway, Darlin': A Guide to NYC Subway Etiquette


Like Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, I follow the rules of being a human being, and I expect every New York City dweller to do the same. But, alas, that is often not the case. And nowhere is it more evident that people are not human than on the subway.

Just as there is a set list of unspoken rules of etiquette for the sidewalk, there is a list of unspoken rules of etiquette for the subway. Tourists should be informed, and residents can always use a refresher. Since I often boil with rage when people don’t follow the rules, I’ve decided to list them here. I’m also considering printing them on flyers and hiring girls in black jackets, red tights, and character shoes to distribute them in Times Square while doing awkward dance moves and saying things like, “Whoopeeee!” and, “Hotcha!” Oh, wait—there are already people doing that for Chicago. I’m gonna need a different marketing plan.

  • Do not block subway entrances. I understand that you may be unsure of where you’re going, but your uncertainty shouldn’t become my problem. Nor the problem of the ten people bottlenecked behind me. Move to the side.
  • Purchasing a subway card can be confusing. I would much rather expedite the process by pressing the buttons for you than wait an extra eight minutes while you hem and haw. I promise not to steal your money and/or credit card in the process.
  • If you do not have your Metrocard out and ready, you are not prepared to enter the turnstile. Thus, do not stand in front of it while rifling through your purse/backpack/pocket/wallet. You’re gumming up the works.
  • There is a science to swiping your Metrocard. Not too fast, not too slow. I’ll give you five tries to make it happen. If it doesn’t work by the fifth time, let the disgruntled people waiting behind you (meaning, me) swipe through before trying again. No one likes a repeat swiper.
  • When heading down the stairs or escalator, stay to the RIGHT. That’s your RIGHT. I don’t care what side of the road they drive on in England. You’re in America now, baby! And I’m talking to you, confused-yet-adorable Mexican family that I didn’t have the heart to push my way through because you looked thrilled to be in NYC and made me late to my doctor’s appointment. You should stay to the right so that faster traffic (e.g.: people on their way to doctor’s appointments) can pass you on the left.
  • When your train arrives, do not stand right smack in front of the train entrance. You make a better door than a window. Or, more accurately, you make a better door than a direct path to the exit.
  • As Liz Lemon noted, let people OUT of the subway before getting ON. Come on, people. It’s Subway 101. Doesn’t it stand to reason that there won’t be room for you to get on the train until the current passengers exit? Or maybe that’s just me. And Logic.
  • Want to eat smelly food? Don’t get on the train. I’m sure there are better places to eat your homemade tuna fish sandwiches and old plastic soup containers full of milk at 8am than the subway. Those of us who haven’t had breakfast (other than a few post-midnight rum and Cokes) would rather not inhale a combination of fish and dairy in the morning.
  • There are reasons the manufacturers of mp3 players/cell phones/Kindles/iPads, etc. have created earphones. And I think about those reasons every time you are playing with or talking into something that is assaulting my eardrums with screaming/music/beeping/etc.
  • Billy, don’t be a hero. I like giving to the needy. But not on the subway. Sure, I feel sad for the poor woman who lost her job three months ago and has been relying on the kindness of strangers, and the man who has been living on the streets because the shelters are full, and the down-on-his-luck fella with the hacking cough that just needs a few more dollars for cold medicine (or something with alcohol in it, more likely). Call me a jaded New Yorker, but the third time I’ve heard the same speech by the same guy who is bellyaching about his bellyache but is wearing brand-new kicks, I get a tad skeptical.
  • There are several exceptions to my Don’t-Give-Money-in-the-Subway Rule. They all fall under the category of Things That Amuse Me, and they are as follows: mariachi bands in full costume, a capella doo wop groups, the old man who plays “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” on his trumpet accompanied by a portable speaker he wears around his neck, and the dude who somehow wheels an upright piano to the uptown A/C/E track of the West 4th stop. 
  • Be aware of your body at all times.
  • Do not take up two seats with your person or your bags.
  • Do not let your hand rest on mine while holding the same pole.
  • Do not sneeze into your hand and then hold the pole with the same hand.
  • Do not use a crowded car as an excuse to grope/goose/breathe on me.
  • Do not hold on to the overhead pole if you are pitting. No one wants to see that.
  • You are not Gumby. You have stomach muscles. Use them to keep yourself upright even if the ride is bumpy.
  • Do not read over my shoulder. Scratch that. I read over other people's shoulders all the time. Read over people's shoulders in a non-obtrusive manner.
  • Should you decide to nap on the ride, nap in your own seat. Do not lean, nod, or slump on me or in my area. Sleepy Asians, I hope you’re awake to read this! From “I'm not saying that no one else falls asleep on the subway...but if there is a person of Asian descent on the train, there is a 75% chance that they will be sleeping (this includes me). There is an unexplained phenomenon going on, keep an eye out and you will witness it.”
  • If you would like to check the subway map that happens to be on the wall above my seat, a polite, “Excuse me,” would be nice before you lean over my head and your camera smacks me in the face.
  • There are more oddities on the subway than there at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. If you see one, such as this Old Man Brushing Beard with Fork, don't stare. Calmly watch out of the corner of your eye while you mentally compose an amusing Facebook status about the event to share with your 813 closest friends as soon as you are above ground.
This may seem overwhelming to subway novices, but the basic rule of thumb is as follows: DON'T BE AN INCONSIDERATE RIDER! Please, I beg of you, follow the rules of being a human being. Though I suppose that being human means occasionally making mistakes and not following rules. So actually, I beg of you to forget the rules of being human and strive for an inhuman degree of perfection. I'm sure your fellow subway riders will appreciate it. And so will I.


  1. I love this post. The whole time I was watching the 30 Rock episode this week I was thinking of you and your rules! :)

  2. It was like Liz Lemon stepped into my brain!!!!

  3. I know I am a multiple-swiper and one of those people who over-studies the map. And I may have been an accidental 'gooser' in my overzealous youth. Thanks for the tips!

  4. I'd expect nothing less from you, Brett!