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Abigail Borah / Staff Illustrator

Swiping my MetroCard to enter the 116th St. station is more than a monetary transaction. With it comes my promise to be quiet, to keep to myself, to occupy as little space as possible: all the things that are required of a good passenger on the subway. If the train is more than three minutes away, I wait huddled against the wall, feeling the weight of my hands tucked away in my pockets. Typically, my headphones are in as I attempt to distract myself from the sound of subway cars screeching to a stop like nails on a chalkboard (it’s the one noise I haven’t adjusted to in the city), and all the voices that inevitably follow.

But today, my boyfriend visiting from home is one of those voices. He goes to school in a suburb of Boston, I in Manhattan. He’s an extrovert, I prefer my own company. He doesn’t understand how people can be rude to strangers just for occupying an excess inch of space, and, well, I ride the subway, where this experience is ordinary. Today, I oblige to my boyfriend’s requests by sitting in one of the seats while we wait for the next arriving train, and the only thought in my mind is that any other person on the platform might want the exact seat that I occupy. I dwell on this long enough to miss something he says to me. I apologize by saying that I’m not accustomed to chit-chatting underground. Later rather than sooner, already on the train, we watch a young man run and hold open the door to squeeze into the car. My boyfriend shoots him a friendly laugh in a silent train, and I shoot him a glare. I tell him that he’s taking up too much space, and people may get mad. “Why are you so cold?” he asks me, and ironically that’s when I freeze up—I don’t have any answer to offer him. I simply view it as keeping to oneself.

Space can be both tangible and metaphorical. Wherever we choose to place our bodies is the space that we occupy, and it’s visible. Space is also found in subtlety, when we share a laugh with someone or fill silence with the ramblings of our thoughts.

Coming from a small town where everyone knows everyone else, sometimes more than you would like, New York City is daunting. No one knows you, nor do most care to know you. Once you’re here, you enter the 8.5 million-and-counting people trying to go about their lives without disrupting those of anybody else, which can be a difficult task. One of the first things you get taught as a new student during NSOP is how to ride the subway. What I took away from that lesson is once you find your space, own it. But don’t take too much. And never expect anyone to offer it to you.

Because our school is situated at the heart of one of the meccas of modern civilization, everything is competitive. Back home, I let cars cut in front of me while driving. Here, I squeeze my way onto packed subway cars. There, I make small talk with the person next to me in line, even if I don’t recognize them. Here, I avoid eye contact so as to not bother the wrong person, because you never know what kind of day they’ve had. We fight to claim space for ourselves, yet we do so politely. We’re extra cautious to not step on anybody’s toes (literally and metaphorically) when occupying space, all while living in a city that never promises to make space for us.

In the moments after my boyfriend called me “cold,” I felt frustration. I was upset that my boyfriend, who grew up in a small town like I did, was oblivious to the unspoken protocol of existing in an overpopulated space. He didn’t know how to minimize his personality or how to avoid the simple interactions that make up our every day. At the time, I thought that I wasn’t cold, I was conforming to my surroundings and I had my hands full with everything he needed to be taught. The truth is that there is much more for me to learn from him. It’s a courageous act to interact with the space that we hold; it could be as simple as smiling and saying good morning to the stranger standing next to you, or reaching to grab the pole on the subway, even if that means taking an extra inch or two.

The space that we occupy and the space that we give are fundamental pieces of our interactions with the people around us. And every interaction is a transaction, of words or inches. Without these (albeit sometimes miniscule) exchanges that we make, even the busiest of places can feel sparse and lonely. I’ve only lived in New York for a little over a semester, and I’ve already learned the language of headphones in and eyes straight ahead of you. I know what it feels like to ignore and to be ignored walking down the street, and I am sure that I am not alone. Claiming your space is important, undoubtedly, but I can’t help but wonder what existing in this bustling mecca would be like if we were all just a bit more lenient with the space that we take. Making this transition is easier said than done, and I’m particularly aware of that as I sit in the corner of Starbucks, tucked behind my laptop screen writing this. But today, I smile at the woman ordering before me. And I ride the subway without headphones. I hear laughter on the platforms as we pass, and I am sure that space is nothing if not for the people in it.

Enjoy leafing through our fifth issue!

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Space Subway Headphones New York City Busy Isolation
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