Sunday, September 22, 2013

Reading Rush Hour

Commuters in New York City are a people that descend upon the streets and transit systems during the hours of 8:00-10:00am and 5:00-7:00pm (a loose approximation), aptly known as “rush hour.” This rush is ultimately dictated by a language of being first—a pushy communication between fellow commuters who are all trying to either get to work or go home, and will get there eventually, but play a game of "every man for himself." Yet despite the way commuters overwhelm transit centers they seem to leave little traces of evidence of their competitive interplay. The language of commuting—of beating everyone else for a seat on the train or out the station door—can hardly be read in the materiality of public transportation; it seems to only exist in its own hectic world whenever it emerges.

For example, one cannot read from seats that fit three on NJTransit trains that some commuters will opt to stand in the aisles or vestibules rather than sit in the middle seat wedged between two strangers. Or how, despite the many train cars that fit crowds of people, most commuters will not engage each other in conversation.

Nor could anyone glean any accurate assumptions about commuter behavior by looking at the thick yellow lines painted on each side of the train platform, which are supposed to read as “Stand Back,” yet are largely ignored by commuters who stand as close to the tracks as they can when a train arrives in order to beat everyone else for a seat. The same phenomenon occurs on subway platforms, where commuters are also given a warning through a friendly announcement: “There is an uptown 1 train approaching the station. Please stand back from the yellow line.” Many people will do the opposite and stand closer, or even directly on top of the yellow line, hoping that the train will stop with a door that will open right in front of them.

Perhaps one could infer how hard it is to walk through Penn Station during the afternoon rush, when commuters become large clots of people hovering around departure boards, waiting for the track number of their train to appear; or how impossible it is if you’re unfortunate enough to have to walk in the opposite direction of a track that was just posted for an outbound train. The train station alone can tell someone these things simply by revealing how it operates—just add in a huge mass of people and one can imagine the difficulty of navigating such a place at such a time. I wonder though, if one could also infer the “me first” mentality that most people exhibit during rush hour. Can it be assumed that the daily grind might naturally cultivate such behavior? Or is there any other tangible evidence that could tell someone of how commuters are islands who only interact by pushing past each other? 

It seems that ultimately, when everyone has finally made it to work or finally gone home, there are hardly any traces left of the competition embedded in commuter life. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that there isn’t much materiality collectively involved in commuter culture; commuter passes, metro cards, styrofoam coffee cups—these things are indicative of traveling caffeinated masses, and perhaps from this one can assume that there was rushing in these masses, and therefore people might have been rude. But the daily, and somewhat fruitless ritual of trying to be first on and off the train is hard to read without being in the middle of it while it is happening. Commuter culture is an ephemeral world that appears and disappears twice a day, and it asserts itself with force during its peak hours, but when it is done it seems to take all evidence of its competition with it.


Becky Fisher said...

Julia - Great Post! It's fun imaging what an excavation of our current world/lives might look like to academics of the future. A lot of questions come up (as you very nicely pointed out) about what will be leftover. What material will future academics be analyzing to figure out who we are and what we do everyday.
Your blog discussion made me think about smart phones and the subway. Almost everyday there is some sort of social tension that develops as a result of people playing loud games on their phones or walking painfully slow up up the subway stairs because they are reading texts.Will the future know about this? What will happen to these mundane moments? What trace do they leave?

Brett said...

Your post reminded me of Buchli's point that there is a continuum of belief regarding whether the past is retrievable, with some believing it is directly retrievable while others think it is only partially or even impossible to retrieve. It seems to me that the material text of commuter rush hour culture is inadequate for us to completely understand what occurs. In some cases the available text could also lead us to misguided interpretations, like with commuters blatantly ignoring the yellow line and approaching train warnings. How would we be able to infer this solely from material culture? I think it would be lost if you could not directly observe people ignoring these signs. I wonder if it would be easier to grasp commuter culture if there were simply more material left over from rush hour. Perhaps if trash was never removed from the subway cars or platform?