© Heba Malaeb

Too Close for Comfort
a meditation on the peculiar privacy
of the New York City subway

It had been taught to me; when someone in the family dies, the women wear black for the forty days that follow, or as long as they choose to, beyond that. When my friend nez died in September of a Leukemia-related complication, I had no items in my wardrobe that could have put my grief on display. I didn’t have an outfit that would say, my world is shattered, my heart is collapsing in on itself and for the first time in my life I understand the birth of black holes. No, I had no use for black clothing — an all-black outfit in New York is as anonymous as gum spots on the sidewalk.

I did cry violently for the fourteen stops till home, nestled between two strangers on the subway, catching through blurred vision vignettes of people going on living as the train car emptied and filled. For a few days this choreography went on: me, enrobed in my sorrow, gulping back sobs through my tears and oblivious to a theatre of onlookers looking on. But that’s not entirely true; through my perpetual pleurer I did once or twice stop to remember where I was — to look weakly up at faces that quickly avoided my gaze, and, subsequently, to imagine what kinds of heartbreaks these strangers were conjuring from their own pasts to fill into the blanks left by mine in their minds. Not one of them asked me what was wrong, though; I was relieved. I could relax into my tragedy and allow myself to just feel, thanks to the game of separation-from- and erasure-of- others that we like to play on the train.

One stranger on the street did ask, “Are you okay?” and I could only muster a “No, but thank you.” I’m sure the necessarily transient nature of that interaction is what empowered the person to ask; I suspect the exchange would’ve been different or even nonexistent had we been trapped on a subway car together; had there been a risk of prolonged contact with my despair. On the subway, I’m granted a private 24”x24” plot of sad space; people generally don’t want to know why you are in pain; perhaps because then they’d be in a position to respond to it.

The social contract in the city of crying in public is one I’ve seen in action often, often having been the one doing the crying; the general rule is: leave people alone. This is maybe in part due to what has come to be called the bystander effect, where people either assume that others around them will help the ailing person, or are unsure of whether their intervention is necessary or welcome, and so refrain from intervening. In any case, finding a strange shoulder to cry on the subway is an impossibility.

But one time, someone offered me their seat. On another occasion, a teenager gently handed me a Subway (“Eat Fresh”) napkin, saying, “I don’t know what you’re going through, but it could always be worse.”

In cases like these, could a certain degree of detachment be what encourages the intervention of strangers? Does the fact that the grief on display will not touch their life in any direct way beyond the moment of interaction make the grief easier to accept, and so easier to address? How much of the let-live aspect of allowing the pain to air itself out is based in respect for the privacy of the griever; and how much of it is pure discomfort?

It’s fair to say that as a society, we are reluctant to interact with suffering, especially when we can absolutely afford not to (and we can, when it comes to the suffering of strangers). But the involuntary display of pain that comes with public crying evolves into a different thing completely when the fourth wall — that is, the delicate mechanism that provides us with privacy in public, the game that requires the acquiescent participation of everyone — is broken.

I am talking about the deliberate abandonment of privacy that is offered in exchange for human compassion. Hundreds of people every day actively relinquish their privacy to the public: solicitors; sufferers; those who have to ask, seeking to connect with an inherent humanity in those who are in a position to give. This kind of confessional often happens on the subway: excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to bother you, my name is ______, I have a four year old daughter and I’m hoping to be able to get a warm meal tonight. The vulnerability of these persons, who often have little to barter with but their vulnerability itself, breaks the social code of “live and let live”, “commute and let commute”; no longer is it enough to ignore someone’s pain — and so, by putting their lives on display, the people speaking in turn encroach on the privacy of the people being made to listen.

This invasion of the subway riders’ privacy is what makes the interaction so urgent. You, subway rider, have been told information that you did not consent to hearing; but now we all, witnesses, know that you know this; and what you do next is a reflection on you. The unwrapping of one person’s privacy to be made to involve everyone around them thus calls upon a sense of agency in each member of the collective.
But are we, the intended audience of the performance, a receptive audience?

In Jane Jacobs’ 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs introduces the idea of “contact”, a phenomenon made possible by sidewalks and local establishments, and which creates cohesion and trust in a neighborhood. Contact happens through the casual public interaction between people of different socioeconomic class within the neighborhood. It rests on a delicate balance between trust and familiarity, and respect of privacy. Jacobs says, “Cities are full of people with whom, from your viewpoint, or mine, or any other individual’s, a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either.”

The subway is one place where such drastically different types of people use a space in similar ways to each other. The subway is an equalizer, where a different kind of “contact” occurs: our silent acknowledging and just-as-silent ignoring of one another.

But since the subway is not a neighborhood, and does not have the ingredients in place that facilitate regular, casual, social interaction — and since the delicate congregation of people occupying it is by definition transitory, changing from stop to stop and from car to car on the same train, there is no unifying public identity on the subway that can inform people’s (inter)actions; often, the subway reduces us to our individuality; thus the choices we make on the subway are ours (individually) and ours alone (I could be smiling warmly at the Showtime dancers in the same moment that the person next to me could be vigorously pretending the dancers absolutely do not exist).

In the similarly soupy and undefined space of the internet, a similar story unfolds. Thousands of people, failed by the American healthcare system, or jailed for protesting, or simply unable to gather the means to support themselves or their loved ones, turn to online crowdfunding sites in search of a larger community that might materially support them. Thousands and thousands of people must “sell” their deeply private stories of vulnerability in this way, in order to convince people to donate to a fund that, in many cases, means the difference between health and unhealth; security and insecurity; and, as in the case of Shane Patrick Boyle, life and death. (Shane Boyle died in March 2017 of diabetes-related complications after his GoFundMe campaign to raise money for insulin was $50 short, leaving Shane without proper medical care. Shane died while making funeral arrangements for his mother, who had passed away that same week; his family, after Shane’s death, was forced to then create a second GoFundMe campaign, to raise funds that would help cover the added financial strain of the double funeral.)
The public sharing of private stories of suffering is indicative of a dire need, but also presupposes some hope in humanity, in community. Can we live up to our collective responsibility, and can we act when we are called upon? Can we accept the intrusions onto our individual boundaries, adapt to the information we are given, and respond in compassionate ways?

I will say, I’ve seen people suddenly become very helpful, very concerned, on the train. I once spilled the entire contents of my handbag while getting up for my stop, and a plurality of strangers instantly scrambled into action, to help me recover my tiny Santa figurine; various receipts; a tampon; my birth control pills; pens; a translucent, lime-green bouncy ball. The lack of ambiguity as to what needed to happen to rectify the situation made intervention easy and obvious for the kind passengers of the morning F train, who expertly gathered my weird and private belongings back into my bag. Since that incident, I ride assured that in case of a visible, practical emergency, people will, more often than not, choose to help other people. So I don’t blame them for averting their gaze when I fell apart, on that September afternoon when Seta called with the news. No; I’m thankful for a space where I can weep without trying to find words for an explanation; and I am thankful for the spaces that exist that do allow me to explain.

I don’t take it for granted — the luxury of having a listening ear waiting for me at the end of my commute, and the privilege of keeping my pain private till then. That the shaky vessel of my body is allowed its wet sobs, as the shaky vessel of the subway snakes its way through water to carry me home.

“And please remember God is good all the time.”
— Someone on the subway asking for money or food,
whose name I forgot as soon as I reached my stop

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