Every New Yorker has been there: You’re trying to edge yourself into a crowded subway car or squeeze into a middle seat or generally just move from one point to another with a minimum of bad vibes and confusion when somebody throws out a nasty comment. These, just in my personal experience, ranged from a dude hissing “say excuse me” when I brushed his hand on the subway pole to a woman actively threatening to cut me if I didn’t immediately evacuate her side of the subway car.
And when those happen, there’s this weird point, the one where you can either decide to slink away, keep quiet, and move cars at the next available opportunity, or stand your ground. The first approach has the advantage of not further infuriating a possibly crazy person and avoiding, you know, getting stabbed. It’s the wiser option, even if it means that you have to just seethe to yourself. But the second one, I understand it. Because sometimes you just get so goddamn sick of it, the idea of other people telling you how to conduct yourself in public space. You want to lash out, to yell back. But public brawls are a bad idea for many reasons, not the least that you’re now in danger of starring in a viral YouTube clip.
The banner bad subway rider behavior that we talked about from last weekend, the viral video of a woman taunting a dude until the guy slapped her, sparking an all-out knockdown all-car occupying war? It turns out that it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a trove of viral videos of fights on the subway. The Daily News unearthed a clip of another melee started by someone who grabbed a subway pole too close to another man’s girlfriend’s face. Chaos erupted; the video got something like 350,000 views in 24 hours.
It turns out that these videos are not standalone events. In fact, they’re just two representatives of an entire genre. A cursory YouTube search turned up videos from as far back as 2011 of fights between commuters, a scrabble over a seat on the 4 train and a homeless woman screaming at a car full of people. The frequency of these events caught on camera no doubt has to do with the rise of smartphones, and the spread of a “pics or it didn’t happen” culture. If there’s something going down nearby, most people reach for their phone to document the event. We are the paparazzi; we are the local news. Susan Sontag would have had a lot to say about it.
But as anyone who regularly rides the subway in New York well knows, these events aren’t just Jerry Springer Show-type television entertainment. They are pretty awful to be around. The fragile civility that allows us all to live packed cheek-to-jowl in this city pretty much depends that you don’t slap someone over putting their hand on a subway pole, however annoying it might be. That’s why you walk away from the rude man or the crazy lady, because there are enough challenges to being a citizen of New York. Let’s all take a deep breath, count to ten, and avoid making any more of these videos.