Monday, August 13, 2007

Simple Civility on the Subway Can Be a Matter of Inches


By CLYDE HABERMAN
NYC
The New York Times
August 14, 2007

At the height of last week’s deluge, subway riders were understandably angry over not knowing what was going on. No shock there. Communicating clearly during a crisis is not the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s long suit.

O.K., the authority doesn’t always treat its customers well. Everyone knows that.

But it is perhaps not a crime against democracy to point out that those same customers often don’t treat one another terribly well, either. And no crisis is required. Not everything is about crises. Even when all runs smoothly, a lot of people in the subway can’t be bothered with the inconvenient fact that they can be bothers.

That point was reinforced by another event last week, one not nearly as earth-rattling as a flood. The newspaper that is in your hands at this moment got slimmer, by an inch and a half. The change had consequences for many subway riders.

In a sense, life got slightly better for them. They may now be somewhat less bothered by the fellow sitting next to them who inconsiderately spreads the paper wide as he reads it. With an inch and a half lopped off at either end of that spread, they have gained three inches of breathing room.

But that may be meager consolation. A subway reality remains that virtually all readers of newspapers, be they broadsheets or tabloids, insist on opening the pages to maximum width. If this habit of theirs invades the space of people in adjoining seats — well, that’s just too bad.

Long gone is a basic subway courtesy of the past. It used to be, to paraphrase an old Kenny Rogers song, that you had to know how to hold ’em and know how to fold ’em.

Even in the rush-hour sardine can, social graces required that you stayed out of the other guy’s personal space. It became instinct to fold the newspaper lengthwise in half, and then in quarters and even, if you wanted to be really finicky, in eighths.

This was a fundamental urban skill, one that helped promote social harmony. Somewhere along the line, it was lost. Why? Who knows? Whatever the reason, you now rarely see anyone on a train who knows how to fold a newspaper and, literally, keep out of other people’s hair.

Then again, that sort of social grace sounds almost quaint, given the way that many riders cannot trouble themselves to follow hard-and-fast subway regulations, many of them designed with harmony in mind.

The rules posted in stations and on the authority’s Web site clearly state that it is forbidden to put one’s foot on a subway seat or to take up more than one seat if it interferes “with transit operations or the comfort of other customers.” Try pointing that out some day to riders with legs spread so wide that they take up three seats.

Nor is panhandling allowed. Nor may one lie down in a train, or “block free movement,” or “engage in unauthorized commercial activity,” or “carry bulky items likely to cause inconvenience or hazard to yourself and others,” or “litter or create unsanitary conditions,” or “use amplified devices on platforms.”

Raise your hand if you saw none of these rules violated yesterday.

Uh, we don’t see many hands in the air.

BUT how silly of us. It’s only crises that we should worry about, right? That is what some politicians would have us believe, anyway. Post-flood, a few of them who are not known for camera shyness went before the lenses (après le déluge, moi) to demand that the transportation authority move faster to install a cellphone network underground.

Try imagining the weary end-of-day ride home while several dozen people scream into their phones.

As for crises, need it be said that cellphones can be used to detonate bombs? Besides, in any disaster so many people are likely to pull out cellphones at the same time that they will render the system useless. Remember 9/11?

But at least you will be able to read all about it on the train the next day — in a newspaper that you will of course have thoughtfully folded in half.

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com

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