After having spent over two years commuting from Rockland County to Midtown Manhattan for work five days a week, a commute that consisted of one car, two trains, a subway ride and a bit of foot travel, I was extremely relieved the first morning that I woke up and did not have to rush out of the house to make sure I caught the early inbound train. I wasn’t relieved just because it was a welcome break or because I got to sleep in for a few extra minutes. I was relieved because I realized that there were four hours each day (two hours on the way into work and two hours to get home) during which I no longer had to be on “high alert.” It’s not that I didn’t feel safe on the trains, in the stations or on the sidewalks of the city, but I certainly never felt fully relaxed either.
I count myself lucky to have never been a part of an “incident” while commuting. By “incident,” I don’t mean anything catastrophic or serious, but something as simple as being in the vicinity of an altercation or having an unpleasant encounter. I’ve heard stories from friends and prior coworkers about being knocked over by a person trying to beat them to an open seat on a train or being spat on in the subway. I have seen people kick the wheels out from under a fellow commuter’s rolling bag because the person dragging the bag was walking too slowly, people pushing over trash cans when they missed a connecting train and arguments that I was quite sure were one wrong word away from becoming full-blown altercations. This is certainly not to say that every commute was unpleasant. What it did mean for me was that I always felt that I needed to be at an elevated level of awareness so that I could consistently monitor those around me to feel that I had control over my own safety. In a situation where everyone was running to catch the next train and when platforms, train stations and sidewalks could be packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people, I found that the baseline for commuters was often discomfort caused by annoyance or frustration, and which was often amplified by the trigger of a train delay, cancellation or particularly crowded train car. Being able to distinguish when that discomfort escalated and crossed the line towards becoming aggressive and dominant, and knowing how I would react if I were to encounter it, was the key to my own comfort during my commute.
My view of the weekday commute into the city was that it was in a very delicate balancing act, like it was a tautly pulled string that was one delay, cancellation or general error from having all of that tension released. The goal of commuting is to get from the home to the office as quickly as possible, so anything deterring commuters from that path of least resistance becomes a stressor. No commuter wants any kind of conflict to arise. As a result, I witnessed pacifying behaviors everywhere. For instance, people nervous about whether they were going to get to work on time might display their discomfort by rocking back and forth on their feet, crossing and re-crossing their arms or fiddling with the hair tie on their wrist. If a triggering event occurred, such as a delay being announced over the intercom system, people might start rubbing their temples, running their hands through their hair or, if they’re on the subway when the announcement is made, clicking their fingers against the railing. Each person would often have their own way of physically coping with the stress of their commute so as not to disturb the balance.
While the baseline for commuters that I typically identified was discomfort, I found it helpful to go one step further and place each person on a spectrum of the level of discomfort. If there were persistent delays, canceled trains or weather situations, and when the assumption is that everyone is frustrated, angry and uncomfortable, being able to identify the people who were not able to cope with those emotions alerted me to those that I needed to keep an eye on. There was a sort of behavioral timeline that I observed whenever one of these triggering events, such as a delay or cancellation, occurred. First, the baseline of discomfort would be amplified to extreme discomfort, and pacifying behaviors would become even more pronounced. Some people would shift into submissiveness. They would understand that there was nothing they could do to remedy the delay, that there was no point in getting worked up over it and that the best course of action would be to calm themselves down.
The other group of people, those who I felt I needed to stay alert to, would shift from discomfort into the dominant cluster. Unable to cope with the trigger event, these people have hit a breaking point because of that event. They might start physically making themselves larger, perhaps by putting both of their hands on the subway railing and stretching out, trying to create and maintain space between them and the people next to them. They were often the people who loudly and verbally voiced their annoyance at the conductor or the faceless announcement of the cancellation, drawing attention to themselves and their unhappiness. Physical signs often pointed these people out as well, as they were those getting red in the face, perhaps starting to sweat at the temples or those who didn’t just run their hands through their hair, but instead began to pull at it more forcefully. They could also be the people who begin to pace up and down the platform, exerting the energy of their anger through a physical activity. At this point my role as an observer was to ensure that, even though someone shifted into dominance due to the trigger, to make sure that they did not progress too far on the dominance spectrum and did not hit a second breaking point that would lead to an altercation or potentially violent situation. Being able to place each person and each behavior that I saw on a spectrum of severity allowed me to identify those who might not be just feeling the everyday stresses of commuting, but who might be crossing into something more serious and, in the worst case scenario, those who might transition into having violent intentions.
Before working in Midtown Manhattan, I had worked in San Diego, driving about 30 minutes on I-5 every day. During this commute I was often on the road with hundreds if not thousands of people at once, just as I was surrounded by a huge quantity of people on a daily basis while commuting by train into New York City. The difference is that when you’re driving on a busy road, each person is within the safety and confines of his or her own vehicle, their own personal anchor point. Emotions can be expressed privately and aren’t likely going to affect the people in the cars around you or shift the overall atmosphere. In a crowded public transit environment no emotion is private, and those hundreds and thousands of people are without barriers to those around them. Instead of being in the safety of his or her own car, everyone is in one big car together. During my time commuting into Manhattan, I felt more comfortable and safe knowing that I was aware of some of the signs that could lead to potentially dangerous scenarios. Being conscious of where I was in relation to doors on trains and exits on platforms made me feel more secure. Because of this conscious level of awareness, I knew when I should intentionally put space between myself and someone who I felt was shifting from uncomfortable to dominant. Knowing that I was able to detect changes in behavior during my commute, and being conscious of not allowing myself to shift into a state of unawareness, I felt secure and in control of my safety in a situation that could easily have become overwhelming.