Today’s Times article anatomizing the passengers of a random Q train car is a fitting follow-up to Cyrus’s post yesterday. Reporters interviewed 99 out of 128 passengers for information about national and ethnic origin, age, employment and such; the piece suggests — as pieces about subway riders are wont to do — that the subway serves as a microcosm for New York’s “tapestry.” In the parlance of another era, we’d call it a “democratic conveyance,” a mode of travel that forces people from difference walks of life literally to rub shoulders. To use one of Cyrus’s pet phrases, we could consider the subway an engine of cosmopolitanism.
I was reminded by the piece of a late-eighteenth-century account of travel by stage from New York to New Haven. It comes from the diary of a 25-year-old NYC physician and poet named Elihu Hubbard Smith, a central figure in my book Republic of Intellect. Here’s his take on his fellow passengers, 29 November 1795, just following New York’s yellow fever epidemic that year:
We were six, beside the driver: an old, greasy, gouty, lecherous Jew; a huge Irish manufacturer of Fleecy Hosiery; a South Carolina merchant; a middle-aged, decent Frenchman; a young mercantile Hamburger who spoke French & English; & myself. The Israelite was for fun and singing; but no one sung. He & the Irishman discust politics & The Fever. The Frenchman & the German, first fell on the French Emigrants, next on the Fever–& lastly upon this country. All these topics they handled, with prodigious volubility, in French. The Carolina growled a little, & muttered something on merchandise: I was silent. . . . A rambling talk, on religion, at Supper, gave opportunity to all the guests to discover their infidelity; & the Hebrew, in particular, disclaimed Moses & the prophets; & emphatically pronounced this sentence, that–‘from Genesis to Revelations, all is trumpery.’
The Times article makes a point that 8 passengers with iPods refused to be interviewed, raising the well-worn specter that headphones are going to cause us all to be bowling alone someday. Nevertheless, the point remains that most subway riders wouldn’t be as engaged with their fellow commuters in quite the way Smith was with his — even though he clearly positions himself above them as an observer. And that doesn’t even get to the issue of New Yorkers then and now who, by virtue of class, never condescend to ride with the rest of humanity.