Joel had never run for a train and believed he never would. So when the Uptown 3 train screeched away from the station as he descended the stairs, Joel sighed rather than swore, and set down his carrier bag next to a pillar.
The reactions of the other commuters were on a spectrum, from those who brushed it off, to those who kicked or threw trash onto the already littered tracks as though Armageddon would have been preferable to waiting. Joel could judge how long a person had been in New York by their reaction, since those who understood the transportation system knew that the next train followed soon.
Joel met eyes with a few fleeting faces that had just gotten off, like the lost Japanese tourist family that had wandered too far from Times Square, businessmen who loudly argued over downsizing and economic competition, and a group of teenage boys his age who huddled around a small speaker that blasted nightclub music.
Joel was alone among the crowd of people who fluctuated on the platform, but he wasn’t the only one. He had grown to love people-watching; most New Yorkers partake in subconsciously judging strangers using the smallest of clues. Joel’s fondness for analyzing people made him frequent areas like Times Square or Columbus Circle, where he could always see diversity.
Right now, Joel was looking at a man in his late thirties, with one baby, a cat, and a wife. Joel could tell all this by the weight of his eyes from midnight wakings, the bulge of a pack of diapers in his bag, the fur clinging to his jacket, and the ring on his finger. Joel guessed he worked a high-paying job, but here he was on the train at 6 p.m., tie removed and a faint glimmer of gray in his purposely tousled hair. Joel wondered if he’d ever be like this man, but was abruptly interrupted.
An announcement over the PA system warned of an incoming train, heading downtown. Joel watched as men and women took a step back from the yellow line without even looking up from their cell phones. Paper, tissues, plastic bags and food wrappings flew up into the air or onto the tracks as the train screamed into the station.
Joel pulled up his torn jeans and leaned against the pillar to watch the mass of people press against the doors, waiting for them to open and flood the platform with new judging material. With a ding, the doors opened, and in a flash the contents of the train had reshuffled and repopulated. Joel’s eyes picked through the crowd for something unique, like an instrument or strange clothing. Joel had realized through his people-watching that a good New Yorker conforms and walks on, isolating themselves in a crowd. Your job is to do what you do and to get out of the way.
Just as quickly as it arrived, the train left.
Joel looked up at the electric sign, noting that his train was two minutes away. He went back to watching, only to be startled by the loud banging of a once-quiet steel drummer. Joel met the eyes of the percussionist, who smiled and looked to the basket in front of him and back. Joel thought that this musician would be great for his game, but his prolonged staring only resulted in Jamaican-accented expletives from him.
Joel’s mother had always told him of the dangers of gawking, how it was “both rude, immature, and disrespectful” in her wise, grammatically incorrect way. Joel faced forward, adjusting his leather jacket. It wasn’t the first time he had been called out for staring.
He wondered why people retreated into isolation, usually on their cell phones, when in a public place. Personally, Joel thought that if he stared at someone he was giving them a compliment, since he deemed them worthy of his time. He looked down the tracks and saw a faint yellow light growing ever larger. The PA system offered a warning to passengers.
Joel coughed as he picked up his bag and did a little stretch to get the tired out of his bones. He faced the tracks, and his long brown hair blew back as the train passed before stopping. At the advice of the intercom, Joel stepped back and waited as the riders departed before stepping on.
He could tell already that he wouldn’t get a seat on the crowded train; teenage boys come last in the unspoken yet all-powerful seating order. This rule is based on implicit respect, an important value for New Yorkers. The top of the order is obvious: older people, those with a handicap, and pregnant women. Next come children, then women, then teenage girls, surprisingly, before adult men. Joel wondered if this was part of the rule or simply the raw power of loud and confident of teenage girls. Lastly, after middle-aged men, come teenage boys. This is one of the most powerful, unspoken laws of New York, up there with cutting in front of someone hailing a cab, and not looking at a crazy person.
• • •
Julie sat in the corner and watched as new passengers subtly scrambled for seats on the train. She wondered about the stories of each and tried to use her self-proclaimed detective skills to guess what people do or think. Or maybe she had just watched the show “Sherlock” a couple too many times.
Julie glanced over bland older women in pairs and a middle-aged man with two kids and a dog, by her judgment. Her eyes settled on a boy her age in a dark green leather jacket and ripped black jeans. To Julie, this boy thought he was in a punk rock band, with his surfer haircut and skater shoes.
As she continued to watch him, she realized he had begun to stare at her, looking slightly perplexed. Eyes locked, both confused. Suddenly, Julie broke the stare. No one had ever looked at her like that.
Julie watched out of the corner of her eye as the boy walked toward the door, ready to exit at the next stop.
• • •
Joel prepared to get off one of the most interesting train rides he had ever taken. As the car screeched into the station, he held the bar on the ceiling and shot one last look at the girl in the corner. Her eyes, which were previously fixed on him, turned away as he looked. Joel left through the opening doors and slowly made his way up the stairs, still puzzled by that girl. He realized that she had been watching him the way he had watched her.
The PA system warned of the closing doors. Joel turned back and ran for the train.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.