When I was in high school, one of the first stories I wrote - the one that started the creative-writing ball for me in earnest, as a matter of fact - was one set in a not-too-distant future. Now-a-days the half-finished story would be an easy fit into the all-too popular "dystopian" niche, but at the time I wasn't thinking of it as such. I just imagined a world in which priorities had aligned a bit differently. It was about a reporter who goes to live amongst a secret leper colony, established on an island off the eastern seaboard, but the thing that sticks with me the most these years later was an idea I had about the culture of the city from which he came.
The idea was that everybody smoked.
smoked, indoors and out, and they did so because the popular opinion was that air pollution had gotten so bad that it was safer to inhale through a cigarette's filter. Something like: the smoke conditioned one's lungs to handle the much-worse stuff in the air, and inhaling through the filter helped keep the majority of that worser stuff out. I justified it by suggesting the "doctor recommended" smoking ads of the '50s had won out, but it worked for me as the storyteller by making everyone a little distant, a little coarse and plenty short-sighted.
[Update 12/19/13: I was right! Kind of!]
Now occasionally I wonder if I just got the wrong orifice. Ray Bradbury, may he rest in peace, in 1953 imagined these far-fetched tiny "seashells" the folks wore in their ears to hear entertainment anywhere. These were all a part of an imagined, self-isolating technology that we were irresistibly drawn to, which included wall-sized television screens and self-prescribed medication, and I'm ashamed to admit that I willingly use so-called "ear-buds" as such every single day. Nothing's so good an excuse to avoid survey-takers and the homeless - heck, even normal people! - as those handy, dandy ear-buds. And just look at how pocket computers help with eye contact!
I indulge in this side-effect willingly. I'm grateful for it. Thank God, say I, for my iDevice, and its music and pod-casts and games and even occasionally sometimes if I can be reminded of it connectivity to productive tasks. Furthermore, I'm not writing here to lament this turn in human interaction. True, there are plenty of trade-offs. Yes, I fantasize about a badminton racket reserved solely for knocking the device from the hand of anyone trying to walk and tweet simultaneously. Yes, I'm reading less and have a shorter attention span. And, yes, I want more people than just the local lunatics to hear me if I scream for help. But also: Music! Games! Blocking out the God-awful continuous hammering of street construction! I am fervently all-for the critical resource of my mobile device.
However. There is a finer point of urban etiquette for which I make exception to my electronic enthusiasm. It has to do with a naturally artificial social situation we call The Subway.
I am not going to tell you to turn down your salsa music. Blare it out of the vibrations of your skull! I am not going to tell you to stop hugging the pole to maintain balance while playing Draw Something. Get that palate enormous, and three coins for Gryffindor! I am not even going to tell you to start taking your seashells from out your ears. Leave your seashells in. You are a beautiful mer-maid/man, and you glisten with the rapture of this week's
I am going to tell you this: Open your eyes. And one more thing: Especially if you are fortunate enough to have a seat.
The Subway is a miserable solution to a miserable problem. No one - apart from the aberrant tourist - is pleased to be there when they're on The Subway. The best solution, the only and final solution, is to zone right the heck on out. ZONE, SON. You can get miles away, especially if you have those magic ear-shells. And maybe you are on there at five in the morning, and your hour-long commute is going to make the napping difference between a good day and an impossible one. And maybe you are coming off a fourteen-hour nursing shift, and the only thing that makes sense is bending your legs, just for a few minutes. And maybe it's just the stress (God, the stress) that makes you want to hold yourself and rock during the one period of your day when no one expects anything from you. I get it, and I'm with you, and I'm in the ZONE.
But open your eyes. This isn't the zombie apocalypse, despite what you've heard on the news lately, and the dog-eat-dog world isn't applicable to mass, underground transportation. Here is where the humanity is needed most. Here is where you can toss a token (so much more poetic than a MetroCard) and it will be quickly caught by someone looking longingly at something about the bounty of your position. Because we're all lucky to have what we have, and we're all here for one another. It shouldn't take a catastrophe to remind us of that - just a little gratitude, held in your heart for these moments when you have a chance to help.
So, please: Keep your eyes open. For the nurse, if you're a napper. For the napper, if you're a caffeine addict like me. For the guy on crutches, who'll argue with you for a little while about it. For the lady in heels (maybe she
to wear them for some reason). For the elderly. For the family. That makes you a hero, for the littlest while. But who knows? It may also help you reconnect a bit before you go back to conquering the world on your cell phone.
And just one final and specific point I'd like to make in closing. Some might argue that it is the entire purpose of my meandering exposition, and some of those same may accuse me of out-dated modes of thinking, but I will have my point made regardless. If you are male, between the ages of 13 and 60, and of reasonable fitness, and have the benefit of a seat when a pregnant woman enters the subway car, give up your seat. Right. The fuck. Now.