The New York City subway system. I think I read somewhere once that it’s the biggest in the world. Something like 730 miles of tracks spiderwebbing the city, sometimes in labyrinthine underground tunnels so pervasive you can’t help wondering that the skyscrapers above don’t collapse into it with an immense, dusty sigh. Especially in the summer heat. From down below, the pointed tip-tops of the buildings look too upright in the humidity—shouldn’t they be sweating, slouching, wilting into their flip-flops like the rest of us? Dropping lazily down into the blessedly cool earth below?
But then, the subway platforms are hotter than the streets above most days, and somehow—incredibly—smellier. Trade the hot garbage stink of the surface for the musty, moldy driplets of whatever-it-is forming stalactites of filth on the ceilings, mix it with late-night layers of vomit and urine, and douse all that in thousands of sweaty bodies crammed into far too little space, waiting impatiently for far-too-few trains. The New York City subway. A marvel of the modern age. Let me tell you why it makes me want to go homicidal almost every day.
Suffice it to say, I’m testy on the subway in the summer. Especially on weekday mornings. Rush hour here is nigh incomprehensible to the uninitiated: bodies crammed so thickly into cars that bodily fluids are exchanged without consent or even awareness. None of us have had enough coffee or sleep—even with air conditioners running on high, New York apartments are notorious for trapping heat, and most of us wake already covered in the sweat that, fittingly, makes it easier to slip between other people and into the train car. By the time I’ve gone a few stops and had my face smashed into a stranger’s hairy armpit, all before 8:30 a.m., I usually find my mind coming up with colorful adjectives and creative colorful ways to quietly murder every human stink machine in my purview.
This Tuesday morning was no different. I’d barely slept the night before; food poisoning and heat had dehydrated me, and the one paltry gulp of coffee I’d managed before running out the door was inadequate to lift my spirits. So when a young, attractive brunette in an impossibly crisp summer dress wiggled her way into the train car and planted her hand just above mine on the pole my boyfriend and I were sharing, I was not in a generous mood. The brunette had the distinct look of someone who was not entirely aware of her surroundings, and I stared at her milky-white fist as it slowly, inevitably, slid down the pole toward my own. I did not want to be knuckle-buddies with her. As her skin settled comfortably atop mine, I rolled my eyes at my boyfriend and made a show of removing my hand and re-gripping the pole higher up, where she couldn’t touch me. I looked at her pointedly as I did so, just in case she was paying attention, but she wasn’t. She was listening raptly to something on her iPhone, which she grasped tightly in her other hand. Her eyes were glazed over, her earbuds firmly in place, and her mouth was hanging open as if she were about to speak.
I looked back at my boyfriend, who was blearily attempting to keep his balance. When I looked back at the brunette, her mouth was still open. She still had not spoken. Her eyes had not un-glazed. Then I realized: this put-together-looking young lady was a mouth breather. I couldn’t hold in a giggle. Dear lord, I thought. A mouth breather. What a pity.
I looked at my boyfriend again, caught his glance, raised my eyebrows, and cocked my head meaningfully at the brunette with an amused look. He followed my eyes, took her in, and looked back at me, clearly confused. I mimicked her slack-jawed face and cocked my head back in her direction, stifling another giggle. He looked back at her, then back at me, still puzzled. He shrugged. I pouted. But look at her! I thought loudly at him. She looks ridiculous! Who does that?
My boyfriend, it must be said, is a better person than I am. He doesn’t take pleasure in demeaning others in order to work off the morning grumps. But even he of respectful habits must have realized how silly the brunette looked, with her lower jaw hanging so loose it would have wobbled if we’d hit a turn!
Then it dawned on me. When men mouth-breathe, they’re labeled creepy, idiotic, socially inept. When women mouth-breathe, they’re just cute. Maybe they look a little less than genius, but when’s the last time you heard a guy mention that he was turned off by a woman’s tendency to stand there gawping like a goldfish? Never. It’s endearing when women do it. Because we’re inherently cute. Ugh.
Double-standards never look good on anyone, in my opinion. But particularly, in this case, I realized that in my attempt to apply condescension to all mouth-breathers everywhere, I wasn’t showing my lack of gender bias. I wasn’t being an equal-opportunity hater. I was being a catty, bitchy, commuter who was standing too close for comfort to both a younger, more attractive woman… and my boyfriend. Who I didn’t want to notice the fact that the other woman was young and cute. My nasty, early-morning instinct was to find the one physical flaw this lovely young woman was displaying, and point it out to him.
Wow. I bet if it had been a young man of similar attractiveness I’d have thought, What a shame, and actually meant it. Because I don’t feel the need to be a bitch to all men all the time, because they don’t threaten me in the same way. (When they do threaten me on the subway, it’s an entirely different kind of threat… maybe in another column we’ll go over that.)
I’ll go ahead and blame this on the subway system and the heat. Let’s not spend too much time thinking about that conclusion, shall we? So, yeah. The fucking subway. Made me do it.