Bursting Bubbles on the Subway

Feature photo by Debbie Saslaw

Like millions (not an exaggeration) of New Yorkers, I take the subway every day. After five years in this city, being on a crowded subway car is akin to brushing my teeth or drawing the curtains on a sunny morning. It is routine. If I ever stop to think about it, I am overwhelmed by how bizarre and unique this experience we take for granted is.

It is common to find trains at rush hour so crowded you are physically crushed against fellow commuters. Your armpit is at eye level with the petit woman trying to read her Kindle, poor dear. The book bag of the hipster with the mustache jostles your right butt cheek every time the train lurches. Pressed against your left shoulder is the handsome business man, his wedding ring reflects in your eyes as his left hand grasps the pole inches from of your nose.

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A subway car at rush hour is truly a remarkable experiment in personal space. After such a description, it sounds funny to even suggest, but personal space bubbles are rigidly maintained. As it is impossible to maintain physical personal space, the situation demands a mental bubble. We disconnect from other people, put up mental walls. The Unwritten Subway Code of Conduct: stay in your bubble and no one gets weirded out.

The minute someone invades this sacred bubble, you know. It’s a fascinating sensation, the change in energy. Anytime anyone has spoken to me on the subway, I’ve sensed the impetus before they even opened their mouths. I’ve been acutely aware of men agonizing for 10 minutes, trying to get up the courage to speak to me. How did I know? Just from the change in energy, the feeling of someone trying to get in my bubble.

One day my bubble was burst. It was mid day, not rush hour, and so I had myself a seat. I looked up from the book I was reading, Rachel Dratch’s A Girl Walks Into a Bar (which I actually like better than Bossypants, shh don’t tell Tina Fey) to see how far from 59th Street we were- several stops. When I looked up, I noticed the man seated across from me. He had his laptop out- iPhones are normal but a Macbook is still a strange on the MTA- and his eyes darted all about the car as his fingers rhythmically taped the keys. I saw what he was doing and smiled, thinking, “That looks like something I would do, if I didn’t fear for my Macbook’s life. He must be documenting the experience of a subway ride. I wonder if he has a blog.” The next moment his eyes stopped wandering and fixed on mine.

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Our eyes connected and he began furiously typing. He stared at me, breaking his gaze briefly to glance at the computer screen. My personal space bubble burst. I felt frozen, drenched in scrutiny. I knew whatever he was writing on that screen was about me. I wanted to say something- witty, biting, clever. Something to at least acknowledge I knew what he was doing. Instead I sat silently, feeling intensely vulnerable, fighting a child-like urge to duck under the subway bench and hide. My mind working in slow-motion, I felt stupid. Before I could say anything,  the train reached the next stop. Before I even processed it, the man jumped up from his seat, open laptop in arm, and swiftly exited the train.

I’ll never know who he was, I’ll always wonder what he wrote. This is my strangest subway story to date.


I wonder if that’s how people feel when I write about them here. Specifically, if that’s how a certain ex-boyfriend feels as I detail specific moments of our breakup.
No, I don’t actually know if he’s been reading my blog, to answer that FAQ. I haven’t communicated with him since he told me not to eat the food at the state fair. But I know he knows it exists. And I know I’d sure as hell read it if the roles were reversed.

My objective is not, and never has been, to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Nor is it to exact revenge, nor an attempt to speak with someone otherwise cut from my life. My aim is to express myself creatively, to entertain, maybe even inspire. Perhaps there’s a bit of wanting to analyze and heal as well these days. That’s all I want, I deserve it, and I refuse to censor myself to get it.

About New York Cliche

NYC lifestyle blog by Mary Lane. Events, adventures, epic mistakes, dating, life, humor. A 20-something trying to make it (and make out) in the city of dreams.

6 thoughts on “Bursting Bubbles on the Subway

  1. You should also give Japanese trains at rush hour a try. I bet it’s a totally different experience despite the same number, if not more, bodies crushed together. They have staff who actually push people into the train so they fit.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, but the focues seemed to change there at the end. I was expecting a conclusion that had more to do with the subway experience that day. No biggie though. In fact, I think I’ll follow you. Your blog sounds fun and totally different than my life!

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