Collective Emotions

Out-of-towners often think of New York as an impersonal place where robbery and rape are considered some sort of toll residents are obliged to pay. I used to have a friend who referred to New York as the "cesspool of humanity." While an outsider's opinion is often skewed from reality, the one area where this is most true is New York's sense of community.

Unlike the suburbs, the city is a series of blocks and buildings in which casual relationships easily form. Whether with the people in the deli, the doormen that one passes each day on the way to work, or shop clerks, New York's sense of community is more akin to small-town familiarity.

This sense also carries over to the subway. Of course, millions of people take the subway each day so the chances of seeing the same person over and over again are rare. But, this in fact happened today. The same old man sat right next to me today as did yesterday. A small, pudgy man, he wore well-rounded suspenders and a black baseball hat advertising the Lone Star Saloon in Wayne, Alta. (I still don't know what Alta stands for, Atlanta?). What a coincidence. In my six years in New York, I have also shared a ride with someone, spent a few hours downtown, then on the ride home saw the same person.

The small-town feel is most evident when something goes wrong. Earlier I was planing to go to work (yes, on a holiday) and my good intentions were dashed when I saw the pile of people waiting in the subway station. The turnstiles were closed, dividing those who happened into the station from those who had paid their fare and were leaning off the platform looking for the hope that two headlights provide.

In a situation such as this, New Yorkers come out of their social bubble and approach each other as only New Yorkers can: directly. What's going on? Is the train running? How long before the next train? These questions can be directed toward anyone, no matter how ill-informed the person may appear to be. In this way, New Yorkers share in a common emotion, in this case disappointment. Sometimes I hide my disappointment, remaining distant from the negative crowd. I do remain sympathetic to the limitations of the transit system, but I have my limitations like anyone.

Disappointment or joy, I always enjoy the communal emotion that I stumble upon in New York's subway. It is reminiscent of people who are just trying to make the best of a bad situation, for no one wants to be on the train.