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November 15, 2004

Simple Steps: Subway Choreographies


Choreographic instructions by the MTA
Rendered with poetic license, in decameter, by A. Banerji

1. How to Ride the Subway

Find a subway map. Slide your MetroCard
Through the slot in the top of the turnstile,
Walk through. Follow signs for the subway route
You want to take. Wait behind the yellow
Line on the station platform. If you are
Traveling when it's not rush hour, stand
in the Off-Hour Waiting Areas.
Station agents will be able to see
You. Board the train after the people who
Want to get off have exited. Never
Try to hold closing doors open. If you
Do not get a seat, please hold the railing.
For your safety, do not lean against doors.

2. Avoiding Accidents

Most subway accidents result from slips,
Trips, and falls on stairways when someone is
In a rush. The best safety advice we
Can give you is: slow down when you are on
The stairs, and hold the handrail. If you stand
Near the center of the platform, you won�t
Have to rush when the train arrives. Please stand
Behind the yellow strip, and away from
The platform edge. Keep off the tracks! If you
Drop something, please go and tell the agent.
All tracks contain live electricity.

3. Another Thing

Please, please do not throw yourself on the tracks!

4. Expressions

Appear confident. Always look as if
You know where you�re going. You�re better off
Not displaying any money. Stay awake.
If you feel drowsy, it�s best to get up
And stand. If you see something, say something.
Keep alert if you sense a commotion.

5. General Etiquette

Step aside, speed your ride. It really works!
Stand up for people with disabilities.

6. What Not to Do

Please don�t draw graffiti or scratchiti*.
No smoking, no panhandling or begging.
Don�t drink alcoholic beverages.
Do not use more than one seat or lie down.
Blocking free movement is prohibited!

7. Final Tips

And when you are inside a moving train,
never ride between cars.

Always hold on.

(*I didn�t make this up! Actual �indigeneous� term, native to MTA insiders!)

I enter the Jay Street-Borough Hall station after a fairly non-eventful bus ride. I am waiting to take the A train to the West 4th station. On the platform, I look around: some people are standing, some are sitting, some are perfectly still, reading books or newspapers or reports, others are walking around. Some are moving slowly while others are rapidly weaving between the indolent ones, trying to reach their destination with maximum speed.

The platform feels green and phosphorous, somehow, full of surreal luck, full of hopeful passengers, early morning grass and leaves reaching for the light. And the light of the subway shines like the sun on us, as the train curves into the station. For one hundred years it has been like this, I imagine.

When the doors open, all us who have been waiting restlessly slip into the subway, which seems to be trembling. I walk in and stride towards an empty seat, pivot on my right heel, sit down. Everyone avoids looking at each other, as subway protocol dictates. Or at least, everyone avoids looking at each other for too long. A woman stands in front of me, holding a book, The God of Small Things. Her other hand holds the rail. Suddenly, I see hands everywhere. Some are folded together on people�s laps, some are loosely interlocked, some are tightly holding onto a purse, a bag, a briefcase. Some people have their hands in their pockets, some fingers tap on thighs, rest on knees, search for an object inside mysterious bags. Some hold cups of coffee or other potables. Lovers are on the train, close to each other. One boy drapes his arms over his girl�s shoulders, leaning over to kiss her now and then, while she giggles shyly. A young woman, sitting near them, regards their kisses surreptitiously, and catches me looking at her looking at them. We exchange a tentative smile before I quickly look away, only to collide stares with another woman sitting directly across from me. She is quite attractive and I keep looking at her. Her hands are resting on her lap, one with fingers curled in, cupped and shielded by the other. I wonder if she thinks it�s strange that I am gazing at her gestures with such intensity. She keeps looking over too, but I cannot read her expression � is it curiosity, or appraisal, or a recognition of my admiration for her beauty? I�ve broken the implicit rules of looking, but do they count when a woman looks at another woman?

I deliberately start reading the advertisements lining the interior of the subway car, faithfully scanning the ads promoting the following: a dermatologist�s practice in Manhattan; the excellence of CUNY; a campaign to reduce smoking among New Yorkers. With their eager faces and exuberant gestures, the images of the people in the advertisements seem to have a vibrancy, an intimacy, and a degree of joy that is, sadly, starkly absent in the expressions and movements of the subway riders themselves. We seem to be still life portraits in comparison.

I�m surprised by how little most people move. The only one among us who stands out is the teenage boy, diagonally across from me, sitting wide-legged, and listening with great pleasure to his iPod, moving his body side to side and singing the words. His presence is all the more striking because of the contrasting landscape around him. A few people are looking at him disapprovingly, although he is simply delighting in the rhythm of his own music, his own body.

Many of the women on the subway are in their own worlds, reading. The New York Times, Getting to Yes, Bling. Many read magazines: Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Real Simple. They read without moving their faces even an inch. Then they turn their heads slowly and nervously. Some of the businesswomen hold their heads high. They look straight ahead. Proud. One woman runs into the car right before the doors close. I�m astonished: she�s sprinting while wearing heels! She notices an empty seat, half taken up by a man who is also sitting with open legs, daring someone to come in on his territory. Brave woman - after a slight hesitation, she squeezes into the space between his body and the woman on the other side. She folds her shoulders into her body, and presses her hands together, in a sort of huddle, clearly uncomfortable but determined to hang on to her spot.

I smile and start surveying the ads again. My eyes finally land on the panel for Poetry in Motion, a series sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I read the opening lines from a poem by William Butler Yeats, called �The Second Coming:�

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Lost in my own thoughts for a second, my gaze drifts over the crowd survey the crowd, I am momentarily startled by a pair of eyes meeting mine. I am surprised by the power of the stare, but I return it, flattered and flustered at once. Then I quickly bow my head, and pray for the doors to open soon, and exit the train, knowing the gaze is floating away, yet still feeling the tingle of pleasure at the exchange of desiring glances.

-8:46 am
-Jay St. Borough Hall to W. 4
-Waiting, morning rush.
-Subway centennial
-Poetry on the subway � Yeats. Things fall apart, center cannot hold. Look up later.
-If you see something, say something
-Ads put out by the city to quit smoking � hand gestures in ads mix in with people�s real gestures on subway
-Everyone avoids looking at each other. Will anyone notice I�m staring. Is that strange.
If I look too much do I look like I�m cruising, or desperate?
-Hands � folded, one holding wrists, loosely interlocked, tightly interlocked, hands in pockets, on knees, around the girl�s shoulders, one hand holds the other fist, folded across chest, the standing one
-reading, books � god of small things, new york times, getting to yes, bling,
-women reading look important. lonely.
-expressions. slouch, straight, head high, head bent, arrogant, proud, nervous
-Bodies. Can�t see much. Layers of winter clothing now.
-Eyes move without face
-like a daytime bar, sort of. People checking people out.
-Holding door open (Chambers St.). Legs apart, one on platform. Runs in. Heels?
-Boys � guys � sit with legs apart??? Why???
-Taken this line so many times.
-orange and yellow seats. fast food.
-If I look at ads, people look over at same.
-Coming in, some don�t wait for people to leave.
-Squeezing in between.
-shell for us, no one seen again, the gaze, temporary
-Skin care facials, CUNY, poems, stop smoking, see something say something
-Temporal insiders, community? assemblage? what keeps us together?
-public space, necessity, waiting to be somewhere else, all going nowhere together don�t know where don�t care
-airport, slaughterhouse design. subway design.
-competition for space, center cannot hold


As an assignment, this one was the most fun I have had so far. Not only did I get to shamelessly �cruise� other riders on the subway, with complete justification, but I also ended up writing a poem to condense some of the information I found about the subway itself, distilling the MTA�s choreographic instructions into the fragments and lines of �Simple Steps.�

As preparation for participant-observation on the subway, I had visited the MTA website to learn as much as possible about the subway, and create a context that would help me better understand the site. To my delight, I found some gems and treasures that facilitated my project of locating the �everyday choreography� of public transit. There are documents providing intricate directions for individual passengers, on �How to Ride the Subway.� And the subway itself is richly peppered with various choreographic instructions at every turn: Step aside, speed your ride,� �Stand up for people with disabilities,� �Stock up on your MetroCard before the turnstile stops you in your tracks,� etc. The MTA is clearly invested in the project of movement analysis: the specific notations suggest an ideal choreography for the subway rider, as imagined by the transit authorities.

I read the documents before going into the field for this particular exercise, and found that it they helped to anchor my method by giving me a sense of what I should be looking for in the physical behaviour of subway riders. After I completed my observation, I came back to look at the documents, and isolated all of the instructions that specifically referenced the line of movement, direct physical actions, and what is known in my dance technique as �abhinaya,� or the set of attitudes and facial expressions relayed by the performer.

Then, I decided to transform these fragments of text into a poem. This self-imposed task turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the entire exercise. Writing free verse would have been one option, but I set myself the challenge of producing verse in decameter to make it a more interesting creative exercise. Creating the poem was a relaxing process. The poem also became a useful analytical tool. It became a blueprint for the MTA�s choreography, against which I could compare the actual performances of the subway rider, and discern how closely they followed, or subverted, or played with, or improvised with, the transit authority�s directions.

I hope readers will also enjoy the results. Compared to prose, I find poetry far less tedious to write, more fun to read, and well-suited to the kind of attention span that most people have these days, with so many diversions and distractions in the immediate environment.

I myself was supremely distracted during my stint as �participant-observer,� or �temporal insider,� in the subway. My eyes were always wandering. With a profusion of advertisements, clothing styles, gestures, movements, sounds, conversations, and objects in the space around me, I found it difficult to concentrate on a single item as I wanted to absorb all of it, accumulate as much information as I could about all the things around me. Within minutes, I realized this method was not going to be effective for generating the kind of data I needed, and so I changed tactics by forcing myself to focus on people�s gestures alone. Also, as subway passengers were constantly in flux (entering and exiting the train in groups), it was hard to follow individual activities closely. I just jotted down what I saw in terms of collective impressions. I also accepted that fact that I would have to rely on memory as a research tool, as my personal �video camera,� as much as my notes and jottings, because there was no way to really record everything that was happening in this mobile space.

I used a variety of techniques for coding my data. I �pawed� through my jottings (raw data), the prose account I offered above (cooked data), as well as the poem. I also relied on my memory of the sights I saw, and the sensations I experienced on my own or with others during my ride. I noted some disjunctions between the actions sanctioned by the MTA and the behaviour of actual subway riders. I used symbols to relate materials in one text to another. For instance, I circled instances of disjunction, and underlined words or phrases that repeated themselves as metaphor, and used asterisks for those observations that had to do with sexual politics and gender. This coding emerged naturally during my process of analysis; I had not created a legend in advance, but as certain themes surfaced, I just added new symbols to my list.

Surprisingly, my notes reflected a preoccupation with gender. Normally, I tend to place a prime importance on race. Before doing the exercise, I thought I would have time to notice correspondences between the different stations and the racial communities identified with them. But because of time constraints, and my insistence on looking at gestures, this objective was abandoned. I did see that unsurprisingly (and rightfully), women are more guarded about their personal space, about being touched, inadvertently or not, by the men around them, who seem much more casual about contact between strangers. This gave me a heightened awareness about the sexual politics that subtend the subway experience, a politics of which I am aware, but which became much more viscerally manifested as a theme during my observational moments.

Some possible themes to explore, which emerged from the open coding procedure:

-Sexual politics of space (subway as cruising spot, different navigation of space by men and women, subway as a space of erotic transactions)

-Time and corporeal choreography (way bodies change when in a rush, or when slowing down)

-Solos, duets, and ensemble (arrangement of people in space, clusters of families, friends, schoolchildren)

-Gendered choreographies (women reading, vs. men surveying space around them)

-Still gestures on a moving train

-Bodies as mobile fields

-�Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world� (metaphor for subway choreographies)

A final point: I have been thinking about self-censorship as an issue. I was tentative about including the event of �cruising� someone on the train in my account of this exercise. It could leave me vulnerable, or at least feeling slightly embarrassed. But I chose to include that section of my text precisely to raise the role of affect in fieldwork, and learn how others deal with the very real fact of feelings and emotions between bodies that emerge as a corollary of fieldwork with other sentient beings.


Subway Map

Rules of Conduct

How to Ride

Subway Safety

MTA Facts

�MTA subways, buses, and railroads move 2.4 billion New Yorkers a year, about one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders.�

�It is impossible to place a dollar figure on the MTA's land, equipment, and facilities, located on or under some of the world's most expensive real estate. But the greatest value of the MTA lies in its beneficial impact on the New York region's economy and quality of life. New York ranks near the top among the nation's best cities for business, says Fortune magazine, because it has �what every city desires, a workable mass transit system.��

�This vast transportation network � North America's largest � serves a population of 14.6 million people in the 5,000-square-mile area fanning out from New York City through Long Island, southeastern New York State, and Connecticut.�

Posted by at November 15, 2004 12:34 AM