DO THIS DON'T: Talk To Strangers On The Subway

The best transit exchanges happen when something strange is going down around you. The good news is something strange is usually going on around you, especially in New York.
Publish date:
September 6, 2013
do this don't

Social graces, like the leatherback turtle, are becoming extinct. Next time you’re out in public, look around. You’ll be met with a sea of heads looking down, studying the screen of a glowing rectangular object with the fervent passion of a scholar pouring over ancient holy texts. Only they’re playing Candy Crush.

Or maybe listening to music (but probably playing Candy Crush). Whatever they’re doing on their smart phones, they are most definitely tuning out everything around them that’s not contained in that handheld apparatus of social-media connectivity (with a bonus of actual social isolation).

It is an epidemic, and one I hope my kids (who don’t exist yet), and your kids (who might already exist) will revolt against when they come of age. I wish them to see the value in real human contact, put down their phones and maybe even smile at a stranger every now and then.

In an attempt to fill the aching random social encounter void inside of me, I’ve been talking to strangers in the one place that strangers rarely speak (mainly because our precious smartphones are hogging up all of our time and attention): on public transit.

As a teenager and into my early twenties, before iPhones and Androids replaced everything that we were missing, and nothing that we actually needed, I’d always talk to people on transit. Granted, I was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada at the time. You know Canada is friendly, but Calgary is a smile and say hi to every stranger you pass, yahooin’, how you doin’ town masquerading as a city that puts the friend back in friendliness. Taking the bus there, I regularly made friends with my seatmate, whoever she or he may be, for the duration of the ride. We’d chat about the weather, or our lives, or dogs, or boyfriends and girlfriends, and leave that public transport vehicle feeling elevated by pleasant conversation. Pleasant conversation has that effect, remember?

One must be careful when talking to strangers on the bus, streetcar or train. They are strangers, after all. I was once followed off the bus in Toronto after engaging with a man who was certifiable. Nothing happened, because despite my elfin stature, I can pretty much out-speed walk anyone, but it was a wake up call.

But that only happened once in the hundreds of times I’ve talked to strangers on trains, so don’t let it deter you. Not all train interactions will be pleasant, mind you.

Sometimes, you don’t feel like talking and the twiddle-dee chick-a-dee next to you won’t stop yammering on about how lost she got yesterday and how sore her calves are. Other times, I’ve been the talkative one, and have gotten SHUT DOWN by people who thought I was crazy, annoying, or just really weren’t in the mood to make small talk.

I get that. It’s like a magnified version of the stop and chat, only without the obligation of knowing the other person. If you’re having a day, or a year, it’s fine to go full out Larry David on your fellow MTA passenger and simply walk away from a train chat. Larry would do it, although if he did it to me, I’d follow him through the train until he yelled at me. It’s my ultimate dream in life to be yelled at by Larry David.

The best transit exchanges happen when something strange is going down around you. The good news is, something strange is usually going on around you, especially in New York.

The other day, I got on the train at the same time as a few girls I didn’t know and as the doors of our caboose closed, we quickly realized why it was empty. The smell that assaulted our noses was comparable the deepest recesses of a jam-packed outhouse hole.

We gasped, gagged, laughed, declared: “JESUS CHRIST THAT SMELL!” and banded together to open the “Do Not Open” sliding metal door to hop into the next car. We quickly became comrades, all determined to get away from that smell, and not fall onto the tracks as we switched cars.

Sadly, getting onto a public transportation vehicle that smells like human feces has happened to me more than once. When I lived in Rome, I boarded a packed bus that stank so badly, everyone was covering their faces with their scarves and shirts. I looked directly into a young man’s eyes and began gagging, and he started laughing, and gagging, too, and we both had to get off the bus so we could breath normal, polluted Roman air and have a gut-grabbing laugh attack.

Nothing bonds people quite like feces does.

Public transit is great for fleeting moments of human kindness and humor, but unfortunately, it’s also a pretty good place to be exposed to the absolute worst of humanity.

I once sat in front of a lady on a bus who sandwiched her sweaty foot in between my seat and the seat beside me. When I turned my face, my nose actually touched her rank foot, and when I asked her to move it, she started punching the back of my chair and calling me a bitch. Nice, lady.

I’ve had people give me the evil eye for no reason, and elbow me for standing too close to them inside a packed car. Look, no one likes a packed car, we’re all tired, don't want to stand, and definitely don't want our perspiring wiggly bits pressed up against a stranger’s perspiring wiggly bits, but it’s happening, so mind your damn elbows.

I’ve lived in a few cities now, and although I was once a wide-eyed friendly transit stranger, I sadly had to adopt a much less loquacious subway persona, mainly because train rejection is the worst. I’ve grown accustomed to blending in on trains, so when I started trying to talk to strangers on New York City subways last week, it was a little awkward at first.

A few things I learned:

#1 No One Wants To Talk To You In the Morning

This is fairly obvious. Between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., people are still thinking about how comfy their beds were when they got out of them and how much they wish they were still in them. It’s not the best time to ask the sleepy woman next to you, “Is this train moving slower than normal?”

#2 Pay Attention To The First Five Seconds

When trying to start a conversation with someone, they will let you know, obviously or subtly, if they want to talk to you or not. If you say, "It's a beautiful day today, isn’t it?” and the guy next to you puts his earbuds in and looks away, don’t worry, it’s his loss. You’re the friendliest transit stranger ever!

#3 Be Prepared To Get Hit On

This was actually a nice surprise of my little subway stranger experiment. When you’re friendly and nice and start conversations with boys, some of them will totally hit on you and ask for your number. The key, for me, was that I was determined to talk to anyone who sat or stood next to me, so I didn’t get shy around the cute guys because they were just a part of my research.

#4 Be Prepared For The Painful Sting Of Total Rejection

A few days ago, a woman asked me if I had a problem because I asked her how her day was going. I told her I have a few and quickly darted to the other side of the train as she stared me down like I was vermin.

The best transit moments happen when you meet someone you’d totally want to be friends with, on and off the train. This is a rare public transit occurrence, but when it does happen, it’s all rainbows, pink unicorns, fairy dust and chocolate.

I met a woman named Shawna on the C line going into Manhattan from Brooklyn who made my entire week. I sat down next to her and noticed she had the sickest nails I’ve seen. Ever. I’m normally not even a fan of nail art, but her nails were Mona Lisa-level excellence, so I started gushing. She told me where she got them done, and we chatted about beauty and nails and clothes and New York and our mothers. We became train BFFs before she left me at Canal Street with a high five and a mouth breather took her seat. Miss you, Shawna.

This week, I met a construction worker named Joe who has five kids and a busted knee. Joe sang, “Stand By Me” with such passion, the entire car full of tired, seen-it-all New Yorkers started cheering when he finished.

I also met Anita, a single mom with two gorgeous little girls who was kind to everyone around her, and is working two jobs right now, trying to save up to move out of her mom’s place in the Bronx.

Marv, a kind-eyed older man, was a standout among the subway strangers. He lost his wife on September 11th and works as a tour guide at Ground Zero in her honor. I teared up as he stood to leave. He pinched my cheek like my grandpa used to and stepped off the train, and I wept like a wee infant until Susan, a seasoned nurse who just got off from a 14-hour shift, offered me a tissue. We talked about Marv, his wife and true love, and, tears being contagious and all, Susan started crying, too. We nodded knowingly at each other as I got up to leave, our watery eyes meeting one last time as the doors began to close.

Subway strangers are my best friends, sometimes.

Will you be talking to strangers on your city’s public transit now? Tell me your transit stranger stories.