So Spring Already (More Notes from the Underground)

Movies is quiet and so is I. I'm knee-deep in a batch of mostly onerous editing to help me pay off the Dreaded Taxes (really, why don't we all stop paying; it'd be a fuck of a lot faster way to derail all and sundry than those faltering protests preaching solely to the choir); reviews to write; books I've committed to read. Mostly, though, I've surrendered once again to the whims of the weather, and am here to report that the best cultural barometer of the moment is not film nor television but subway.

What public transportation relies upon, slavishly, is a complete and utter adherence to the social contract — to the unspoken agreement that the only way to get through the day with so many strangers' elbows lodged squarely and unintentionally up your ass is to practice the golden rule. In the words of Miss Tina Turner back when she was Mrs. Ike: "Nice and easy."

Alas, what with the MTA's wildly outdated signal system, the miserable slush and hail and rain and ice and yellow yellow snow and flip-your-wig winds, an entire city who needs a vacation from the Winter That Wouldn't End, well, the social contract is breaking down a wee bit. Men sitting with legs sprawled out, taking up two seats while old people on canes and pregnant women loom above them. At 8 am a woman smacking loudly on greasy fried chicken drops wrappers at her feet, while every Hungover Harriet gags around her. The angry whir of so many headphones not turned down low enough. The unfathomable body odor of a parka-wrapped people stalled in overheated sardine cans. The homeless person clad in urine-soaked paperbags. The drug addicts drooling their methadone fix on their neighbors' shoulders. The save-it-for-the-couch self-analyses between Williamsburg silverspoons who haven't quite caught on to how the rest of us working joes ain't just background plants. Nasal fusillades that masquerade as girltalk between assistants zipping between the gym and their lipstick gigs. Everyone pushing their way to get on and off first, stepping on toes, bags, egos; pushing past politesse to land that empty seat. No please, no thank you, just an occasional exasperated sigh.

A "Metropolitan Diary" Entry You'll Never Read: The other day on a superpacked 6 pm 4 train speeding down from Grand Central, a 16-year-old slackjaw fiddled with a cell phone game that beeped wildly every five seconds or so. In the grin-and-bear-it category, for sure, until the train screeched to a halt that extended into 10 minutes. The rest of us stood silent, unwilling to honor our despair by commiserating about it. But the beeping, in contrast to that looming quiet, was intolerable.

I have an impolite habit of naming other people's impoliteness. LadyRosman, etiquette avenger at your service, whether you requested it or not. I'll yell at you for littering, for talking during a movie, for wearing your jeans slung too far below your panties. So I said something.

"Do you mind turning down the volume on your phone?"

The girl looked up, cowlike, mouth ajar. But the big woman on her left looked immediately alert, jaw jutting forward to compensate for her charge's slack.

"Why should she?"

"Because the beeping is so loud that it's irritating."

"Maybe you're the one who's irritating."

"I asked her politely and you've answered for her. Rudely."

"She aint' doin' nuthin. You the one who's irritating. You rude."

"Listen to yourself. You're setting a fine example."

Everyone else remained still. Even stiller.

By now the girl was staring into space blankly, the phone abandoned, either embarrassed or markedly attention-deficient. The big woman nudged her, hard, in the ribs, over and over until she started playing again. I started to laugh, more (admittedly) to irk them both than anything else.

"You're all irritating," someone else mumbled.

They had a point.

This just in: No social contract in New York City, not until spring makes her fine self known.
Possibly, no social contract in the United States until our finer selves have a place to shine.

I worry.


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