The New York subway system is an interesting subculture with its own unspoken rules. I didn’t see a “Quiet Car” like SEPTA has in Philadelphia, where one, like Greta Garbo, can opt to be left alone. But you almost do not need that special section to enforce the gag rule. I understood the code of silence, and as a born-and-bred New Englander was agreeable to it.
On the ride from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I sat with my granddaughter in my own slip of space, observing (but not so as to be obvious) the other passengers in their own hermetic slips of space. Some read, some slept, some stared into the abyss.
I became aware of the violator at about the same time everyone else did. A man a few yards to my right and across the aisle began to talk to the people around him: “How are you?” And, “That’s a nice hat you got on.” And (to me), “Your granddaughter’s a doll.” The remarkable thing is that no one ignored him and no one rebuked him or reacted otherwise negatively. The person with the hat responded in appreciation, the young man to my left (whom I would have pegged as “stuck-up”) gave his name when asked and even engaged the social interloper in conversation.
The incident broke a spell and lightened moods and made us, for one brief moment, a community of souls, where formerly we were so many separate islands.
It was obvious that the talkative man was a bit “off,” as they say. It could have been drugs or it could have been alcohol or it could have been childhood trauma, but clearly he was not a socially adjusted human being. But then again, what does it say, pray tell, about “socially adjusted” human beings who do not speak to our fellow men on the New York Metro? Why is it that only this man was friendly? How is it that only he modeled the way we are meant to love our fellow man?
I wonder what the apostle Paul would have been like on subways? Or Jesus, for that matter. Paul gives a hint when he wrote:
“For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us …” (2 Corinthians 5:13–14, ESV).
Paul would doubtless break social taboos for the sake of the kingdom of God. Who then is the fool?
And as for Jesus, how mortified I would be to take a seat near him in SEPTA’s “Quiet Car” and hear him turn to a Samaritan woman at his elbow, minding her own business, and strike up a conversation with the awkward opener, “Please give me a drink.”