I live in New York. Not exactly the part that many imagine in their minds (aka Manhattan), but I live cozily nestled in a suburb on the outskirts of the city. Growing up so close to the city, I’ve been in and around the five boroughs well enough to consider New York City my home. If anyone knows this place, then they understand the public transportation struggle. More specifically for those commuting to and from NYC, we know the subway struggle all too well. It’s truly a love-hate relationship. The New York City public transit system has been labeled as one of the most intricate systems that connects all people and all boroughs. Let’s be honest, no one really loves any public transportation system – they suck, cost way more than they should, and destroy the concept of personal space. However, we all have to, at some point, rely on these mass transit systems.
I went to college on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and have relied on the subway system for years. I landed an internship that was located right near Times Square and this made me even more well-versed with the intricacy of the trains (mass media refers to it as the subway, but you’ll rarely catch anyone using that term here. We all say ‘train’). My relationship with the trains is definitely hot and cold. I mean, I love them because they take me where I need to be (sometimes), but they aggravate me day in and day out with all of their “train traffic,” “signal malfunctions,” “sick passengers,” and one of my personal favorites (but not really) when the train randomly terminates at a station that’s nowhere near your stop so you’re left to fend for yourself. Ah, gotta love New York. There’s also the factor of being a young woman and honestly being afraid for my life every single day. There have been so many insane stories of people getting stabbed, harassed, attacked, and even pushed onto the train tracks as a train was approaching.
Luckily, I’m an observer. I’m always very hyper aware of my surroundings and who is around me. I’m always on guard. I’m in-tune to the people that I see on the train and at the station. When I’m going home, I take a train that goes from Manhattan to the Bronx It’s always so interesting when I see the stark difference of people that populate a certain stop. This speaks volumes about race and class and I have seriously analyzed this interesting dichotomy to death (you have a lot of free time on your hands when there’s train traffic every single day). When traveling uptown, the last stop before my train enters Harlem and the Bronx is 86st & Lexington Avenue, a very popular and always busy area on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When going downtown from the Bronx to Manhattan, every morning I notice how I am surrounded by black and brown folk up until we reach 86st, and then the white people with business suits, brief cases, and designer clothes come on board. No one makes eye contact and everyone becomes stiff. In the evening as I’m traveling back, I know when I’m about to finally get a seat on the train when we approach 86st because all of the white people scurry off. I deeply observe the mannerisms of white people when they’re surrounded by black and brown folk. They’re fidgety, eyes shifting, hands clinging to their belongings. They’re scared. Scared of the people of color who live in the outskirts of this monster of a city. Scared because they’ve never had to stand so close to one of “us.”
No one really lives in the city, unless you have the financial means to. A majority of people commute from neighboring areas. A lot of people commute from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and even Pennsylvania sometimes. These people have to take other mass transit systems such as the LIRR, PATH, MetroNorth and various buses. I’ve honed in on my talent of just knowing who commutes from Jersey or Long Island. You can just tell. They’re white and often complain about every little thing while easily having the whole world at their ungrateful fingertips.
My job is located in Midtown. A lot of the people who work with me, commute from New Jersey. Recently, I was having a discussion about public transportation and I mentioned that I’ve been so tired lately that I’ve been falling asleep on the train almost every single morning. This prompted one white Jersey girl to say, “Oh no, I’d be afraid of someone stealing something from me. I mean, I wouldn’t feel that way on the PATH train because I know everyone is just going or coming from work, but not on the subway where everyone is like…a criminal.” I stared blankly as I saw the other white girls around agree. Wow, this whole time I guess I’ve been a criminal and just never realized it! Thanks Mary.
No, but seriously. I’ve been taking the train for years now. I feel like I have this weird, unspoken bond with the people I am forced to commute to and from work with. Of course, there are homeless people who ask for spare change or food, but they’ll just ask and then be on their way. Of course, there are sketchy people on the trains, but I mean aren’t sketchy people literally everywhere these days? Especially in New York. I see the people I’m surrounded by day in and day out. I see the struggle on their faces. The struggle of trying to attain a better life within a system that is set up to oppress them and keep them in unsubsidized neighborhoods. The struggle of a mother trying to get her six-year old son to finish his extra credit assignment on time. The struggle of high school students who are being teased by their friends a little too much. The struggle of college students who aren’t getting enough sleep. The struggle of the colored men and women who work tirelessly in their daily, crappy jobs that are barely allowing them to breathe. I’m not saying that everyone on the train is good and pure. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be cautious of those around you. I’m saying that I take the train every single day of the week and I am not a criminal. I take the train every single day and I know a majority of the others who ride with me, are not criminals. We are people who are suffocating, but waking up every day trying to make the most out of what we have. Also, last time I checked, the real criminals are those who steal and gain privilege from those who are oppressed. The real criminals are those who benefit from ridiculous, unjust, racist stereotypes like the one that was perpetuated proudly that day.
I work with people who haven’t had to struggle with being profiled because of their race or religion. They don’t know better. I will be the first to complain about how the trains suck for multiple reasons, but you’ll never catch me saying the people I sit with every day are criminals. Maybe I’ve just been too spoiled and privileged to have grown up with such diversity in my schools and neighborhoods. I knew ignorance existed, but never have I had to face it head on and so drastically, until I began working in corporate America. That is where white supremacy thrives. I’ve questioned if I’ve entered the “right career field” because I am one out of four people of color in the entire office. Then I remember, we have to be visible in all areas and fields. There are ignorant white people everywhere, but they won’t stop me from pursuing my own interests while also owning my diversity. We all have to fight. We all have to fight for it right to exist in a world that constantly insinuates that our mere existence is a threat. The system of white supremacy is far more larger than me, but that won’t stop me calling out micro-aggressions. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I kept silent.