Theme VI, Underground: Compact Diversity

By Shawn Paik

As much as I love New York, I absolutely hate New York traffic, especially in the subway. A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way home to Affinia from Union Square. I normally come back home very late when subway traffic is low, but today I happened to be riding right at five o’clock – rush hour.

Five o’clock is to a subway commuter as a couple of minutes after happy hour is to an alcoholic. I’m still going to take the subway, but I’m not happy about it. I was, however, lucky enough to come into the station right as an R train arrived. Union Square doesn’t have the luxury of Japanese subway pushers, so I had to wiggle my way into a spot between a heavyset Latino man in a suit, a heavier set sweaty white man in a suit, a blonde lady with too much (very itchy) hair, and a mom-looking woman. The Latino man stood right on the corner of the door and the barrier; the mom was next to him and behind me; the sweaty man was next to the barrier near the front of the first seat; and the lady was about four or five inches in front of the seat.

I could barely see over itchy-hair lady as the doors to the car closed, and I noticed that there was a lot more room at the end of the car. I figured that I’d rather be a dignified man with his elbow space than get absorbed into the blonde abyss of hair. I pointed behind the lady and everyone wiggled more room for me to inch deeper in the end of the car.

It was an old R. Orange seats. One of the slow rocky ones. Walking into the last door of the last car, the two last seats sat to the right next to a barrier along the door. There was a small triangle of space between the first seat, the second seat and the emergency escape door that I wanted in on behind the crowd. As I made my way to the triangle, I noticed that the second seat was actually still empty.

I looked at itchy-hair lady, then at the sweaty man and figured that the seat was up for grabs. My lucky day. The seat was perfect. Since nobody was standing in the triangle, I stretched out my legs.

Then I understood why there was so much space. The lady, the sweaty man and the Latino were all sneaking glances at me and the man next to me. I noticed that he shifted a little bit as well. I guess I didn’t really realize my “big mistake.”

I was sitting next to a black man.

He wore red sneakers, tight jeans, a flannel shirt and a snapback cap. He couldn’t have been older than 23. He was relatively slim and was listening to music. And apparently threatening.

I’m 19, Asian. I was wearing boots, tight jeans, and a flannel shirt. Not so threatening.

Luckily, the scary black man never touched me. The seats were next to each other, but they are designed so that there is plenty of room. I could stretch out my legs, fold my arms and sit comfortably. So could he.

The sweaty man couldn’t stop looking at me. He kept shifting uncomfortably. He knew, I knew, we all knew that the only reason he didn’t take that spot was because he was too afraid to sit next to a black man.

The black man got off at the 28th street stop. Right away, the sweaty man looked at me and sat down confidently in the black man’s place. He crossed his arms, widened his legs and gave a snort as his sweaty warmth shoved me into the corner of the train. But that pissed me off.

At 34th street I got up. The train stopped. I looked at sweaty man and asked, “how come you can sit next to me, but not a black man my size in my fashion?” He looked at me in the face. The doors opened. The Latino, the itchy-hair lady and the mom stared at us.

I got off the train.

As much as I love New York, the traffic is not the only problem.

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