Nowhere am I more besieged by verbal notification and billboard instruction than I am in the bowels of the New York City MTA. “Stand clear of the closing doors.” “A crowded subway is no excuse for unlawful sexual behavior.” “The next Rockaway Parkway bound L train will depart in approximately twenty-two minutes.” Back in August, Oliver Burkeman’s “This column will change your life” series summarized various studies on the impact signs have on human behavior. What I gather is that greater specificity leads to greater compassion (or obedience), and that over-signage is an enormous disturbance that perpetuates compulsive behavior.
Despite the transit authority’s gallant attempt to distract us from fears and wrongdoing, can we discuss, for a moment, the one sign yet to be posted: the one asking us to please refrain from jumping in front of the train as it enters the station? I find an almost magnetic propulsion in myself to dive onto the tracks, skull first, like a ram, the moment that glinting machine comes roaring around the bend.
Let me clarify. The desire is never to be among the tracks. The threat of contamination from the rats and smoldering refuse is horrifically real. Breathing air below the platform has to be carcinogenic, resulting in lung spores that must sprout some insidiously debilitating disease. In spite of the disgust, there is still this wanting to leap into danger, to fly jubilant into gravitatation-less freedom, a child again.
Am I the only one who remembers that feeling?
Waiting on the platform strips us of agency and eradicates free will. We submit to information that is inadequate, almost irrelevant, information that pretends to reassure, but in fact seeks to control. We attend to ourselves, absently grooming, plucking dead skin cells, flicking the flakes, in an attempt to reclaim boldily self. This compulsion does not exist in the street amongst traffic.
There is also the force of the train to consider. Hard steel on a loose track in a tight tunnel. Suddenly, at the appearance of the train: a sexiness. Something with power. Maybe the inclination to dive headfirst is simply a bizarre manifestation of the desire to compete. To enter into the engagement, to participate rather than be shuffled along, even with the knowledge that one will lose.
Notice how the desire weakens further along the platform, closer to where the front of the train stops. The train decelerates to such an extent as to appear sluggish. Losing power. Not so sexy anymore. No one needs a sign to keep her from jumping in front of that.