Friday, March 19, 2010

"Umm, Sir..."

I'm guessing just about every transplant New Yorker can remember the first time they entered a New York City Subway station.

It's a distinct memory, not for the nostalgia or because it looks very different down there from what's expected. It's memorable because that first entrance- the literal action of swiping the subway card and pushing through the turnstile - can provoke a surprising amount of anxiety.

You may be calm as a cucumber walking to the station and climbing down the steps, but when it's time to perform -swipe and go- the stress comes suddenly. For a newbie this process is never as easy as it seems. You must swipe that flimsy, sensitive card with Goldilocks precision: not too fast, not too slow. All this while what seems like the contents of Time Square waits and watches anxiously. They are already annoyed and impatient (because they're commuting New Yorkers) so swipe wrong and they'll instantly turn on you, curse, scream and run you over if it gets to that point.

Perhaps this is a mild exaggeration, but in the moment, when your heart is pounding, hand shaking and that bloody machine keeps beeping and prompting you to "Swipe Again" it can feel that scary. At least, it has for me. Even two years and at least a thousand subway rides later I still perk up and focus before each swipe.

It's at this hectic little New York crossroads where I've interacted with some of the city's most colorful characters. In fact, it was a scuffle at a subway entrance Wednesday that inspired this post.

It was just after 5:00pm, a gorgeous day and the earliest I had been out of the office in a while so there was admittedly a little pep in my step. I approached the entrance to the subway station at exactly the same time as another man though I didn't notice him until he shoved his shoulder against mine and yelled (in a Eastern European accent I couldn't place) "This little Miss thinks she can cut the line!"

A little startled by the bump, I instantly stopped to let him pass, partly because I worried that I had actually cut him off but mostly because the combination shove and yell threw me off my game. I couldn't swipe and go like that.

It's important to note that this entrance was of the especially high-stress variety. There was just one rickety revolving metal door that typically requires a second or two of focus to operate correctly. And, during rush hour you can count on a line of at least 10 hurried suits and heels behind you.

The angry man wearing a leather jacket and thick moustache paused to pull his own card out after pushing me aside, giving me just enough time to review the last several seconds and realize that I was angry.

"Umm, go ahead sir," I said. I use "sir" when trying to show respect and apparently when I'm about to tell a man off.
"But, you should know that we got here at the exact same time and you really didn't need to shove a girl!," deep breath "Relax, alright!"

My voice (already similar to a 7-year-old's) was shaky, and in the moment I couldn't commit to quite the level of sass necessary. But I said it and he didn't like it. He released some foreign expletives and pushed right past me, still yelling things and turning around as he walked into the station. I let the line pass for a minute giving him time to get lost in the crowd ahead. I was happy to get at least one understanding nod from a female bystander.

Two years ago I would have let that moustached jerk shove his way to the front without a second thought. Two years ago I couldn't even hang up on a telemarketer. I'm still not a real feather ruffler and I don't want to be. But, as the city seeps deeper into my skin with each passing month here, I often surprise myself by speaking up.

Be afraid, New Yorkers. Be very afraid.

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