Subways and Silence

As a teenager I had a blatant disregard for subway rules. Each metropolitan transportation system has a specific code of conduct, but most operate under the same basic principles. Those unexplained norms were foreign to me. I didn’t know and I didn’t care.

I remember one of the first times I ever rode a subway. I was a senior in high school visiting the east coast of the United States. I had grown up in the Midwest, very far away from the nearest funcional public transportation system. The long escalator to the underground was a dangerous journey into the underworld. The advertisements on the wall, the rush of the air, the winding tunnels…this was not normal for me.

We were visiting Washington DC. With the White House, monuments, capitol buildings all on the itinerary, we were privileged to use the subway to make it to where we needed to be. In that period of my life, public transportation was a luxury.

The doors opened, we all shuffled in, and I took the first seat I could. Had I known then what I know now, I would have stared at the floor, kept to myself, and respected the silence. But I had never learned the subway rules. I was operating on different rules from a small town. These rules were to greet people, look them in the eye, and get to know them.

Surprised by the blatant disregard for established customs, the conversation with the lady at my side started like the subway car itself, with a lurch. But in my young life, as a self conscious teenager, most conversations were like that anyway. But after our initial exchange the young lady looked at me and said, “I haven’t told anyone this yet, but I need to tell someone. I just got a job as a cheerleader!” Some professional sports team had just hired her, and I was the first to know.

I can’t remember how I responded, whether we high-five’d, or shouted, or I just congratulated her, but I do remember what I learned – If you always live by the norms of society, you may never make a new friend.