A young professional’s take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.

By Nina Pajak

The following is a series of scenes which I have witnessed over the last year. They all take place on the New York City subway.

Scene 1. Morning commute. Two women, both dressed smartly for ostensible corporate jobs, enter the same crowded subway car at 9:00 a.m. One is preppy, logo-clad, mid-20s, the other middle-aged, buttoned up. The younger woman stands in the vestibule while the elder shimmies into a seat down the row. All is quiet and crowded, like any other morning. Then all of a sudden, this:

Older Woman: Why are you still looking at me?

Younger Woman: Because I don’t like your face!

OW: You’re rude! You have a real problem!

YW: No, YOU have a real problem, lady! This is the subway, people aren’t going to go around smiling all the time!

OW: You were giving me dirty looks! You shouldn’t look at other people like that.

YW: I wasn’t even looking at you, why would I want to look at your ugly face!

OW: You’re the one with the ugly face!

And so on. I think you get the idea.

* * *

Scene 2. Another morning on the subway. Man 1 in a business suit is standing in front of open doors as passengers board at 59th street, causing a small bottleneck of people forced to move around him. Man 2 tsks and groans loudly as he enters.

Suit 1: What was that?

Suit 2: Nothing.

Suit 1: No, you made a noise.

Suit 2: Well you were in everyone’s way? Why don’t you get out of the way?

Suit 1: Why don’t you shut the f— up?

Suit 2: [shakes head]

Suit 1: No, come on, let’s go. Where do you work man, where do you work?

Suit 2: You’re nuts.

Suit 1: Where do you work? Huh? I’ll come with you.

Both men exit at the same stop (mine), and Suit 1 follows Suit 2 in a threatening manner until he goes off on his way to whatever hedge fund job he likely has.

* * *

Scene 3. A Saturday evening. The car we enter is almost empty save for two homeless women sitting across from each other. As we step further into the car and obliviously sit down the row from them, we realize that the car is not at all empty. Rather, roughly thirty people are huddled at the opposite end, avoiding and watching in horror as the two women resume screaming at each other. The fight is mostly unintelligible, though they’re both yelling pretty vociferously. Suddenly, one of them reaches into her cart, pulls out an umbrella, and hurls it across the aisle, directly at the other’s head. They’re both on their feet in an instant and begin to claw at each other and throw punches until one brave British man gets in between them, addresses them as “ladies,” and makes a heartfelt speech about the pointlessness of violence. The women appear unmoved, and we join the herd and switch cars at the next stop.

* * *

Last scene. Just this morning. The train is slow in coming and an enormous group of us is forced to board an already crowded car. We are crammed together like sweaty, irritable sardines. A dignified looking woman, roughly 40, is standing near a tough looking kid, maybe 18. The woman whirls around and says something inaudible to the kid.

Kid: What? Hey, don’t touch me!

Woman [in a heavy accent, maybe Caribbean]: No, you don’t touch me!

Kid: It’s mad crowded in  here! You think I did that on purpose?

Woman: Just don’t touch me.

Kid: You’re crazy! You think I touched you with my backpack on purpose! Go ahead, touch me again.

Woman: No, you’re crazy.

Kid: Go ahead, touch me again! You’re ignorant! Everyone is crowded in here! You’re stupid!

Woman: No, you are ignorant! You’re stupid!

Kid: Touch me again! Try it!

Woman: Get away from me!

Kid: You get away from me!

And so it continues, each one mumbling something hostile and stoking the flames as soon as the other one has appeared to give up. The end.

* * *

And of course, in breaking news, there is the recent epic, wig-pulling, child-endangering, all out ‘roid rage brawl between two women on the L train. Over a seat. Yes, a seat. I believe I caught one of them screaming “railroad b*tch!” before they both fly at each other and one contender’s baby stroller rolls off the train. It’s cool, a bunch of random strangers rescued the kid while its mother maintained her headlock. I’d say everyone’s priorities are in order here.

Now, despite the fact that these individuals span a broad range of ages, backgrounds, and occupations, and despite the fact that in each case, the people in question feel nothing but rage and hatred for each other, they all have one fundamental and overwhelming attribute in common:

They are all deeply, deeply batsh** crazy.

I don’t care who is right or wrong in any of these cases. I don’t care who gave whom a dirty look, or how rude it is to block oncoming passengers, or whether or not that kid could have avoided hitting that woman with his backpack. It doesn’t matter. They are all wrong. So very wrong. Anybody who would start or engage in a fight with a complete stranger on public transportation is dangerously insane in my book. There are all sorts of violent lunatics in this city, any of whom could pull a weapon or a punch or strip down naked and start hysterically screaming at the slightest provocation. So who but a fellow nutcase on the brink would throw caution (and dignity) to the wind in the name of winning an inane argument with a random, passing jerk? Luckily, with the possible exception of the umbrella-thrower, none of these people were, in fact, actual psychopaths. They turned out to be your run-of-the-mill, seething, impulsive, aggressive, hostile, loudmouth fruitcakes who had the misfortune of running into each other. But that is really beside the point.

And yet, as a witness to these sordid scenes, I’ve never once felt personally threatened. I pause my podcast and quietly eavesdrop (if you can call it that) until the altercation ends or, more often, until one of us exits the train. I do this partly to be cognizant of any potential escalation in the aggression levels of those around me, but mostly because who wouldn’t? It’s transportainment (I hope I just coined that)!

No one really bats an eye during these melodramas. Some people don’t even look up from their newspapers. I guess we’re all a little deranged, really. The baseline level of nutsiness in New York and specifically on the MTA is already quite high, and as a result our personal thresholds for tolerating maniacs and their maniacal behavior is in direct proportion. Our lack of fear or any discernible reaction whatsoever doesn’t in any way change the fact that they are, indeed, maniacs.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Without them, we wouldn’t have the YouTube spaghetti fight! Win.


Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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