I just moved to New York City three months ago. I love it here. It sounds trite, cliché, corny and all that stuff to say, but it’s true: it’s everything I imagined it to be and more. I like that there’s always something going on and it’s never more than train ride away.
That’s something I’ve had to get used to, riding the train. I grew up in a suburb in southeast Virginia, where everything is only accessible by car. I hate driving. Some people get a thrill from it all, but it requires way too much mental energy I feel could be better put to use on solving life’s great mysteries, like how to end patriarchy or why the cartoon characters of my youth shunned pants. Zone out too long on Darkwing Duck’s naked lower half while you’re driving, and accidents will happen. Not that I’m from speaking from experience or anything.
That isn’t the case with the subway. You just hop on and ride. Theoretically. I had the romantic idea of riding the train in NYC and listening to music, or reading, or chatting with friends until I reached my destination. But there’s much more thought to put into it than I originally anticipated.
Not just on a crowded car where you’re trying to figure out how to squeeze everyone in and not feel violated (this is impossible), but I now think more consciously about my performance of masculinity. Stay with me. If you’ve seen the “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train” Tumblr, you have some idea of what I’m talking about. I see these guys all the time. Legs spread wide, taking up the space of three or four people, leaning against the train doors and blocking the entrance, stretched out so no one sit next to them. It all plays out like an assertion of male dominance, in which every one of them feels as if they have to claim their territory and their manhood in this public space, even at the discomfort of all the other passengers. Who gives a fuck if you can’t sit, they are men. See their balls.
I never thought about the way I sit or stand in public before now. I never felt the need to sit with my legs wider than the shoulders of an NFL linebacker to feel comfortable. When I stand, I sometimes cross my legs. I move to accommodate people. And now I wonder what people see when they look at me doing so.
Perhaps they think I’m exceedingly polite. Maybe I’m a docile black man. I may be read as effeminate. I never worried about these things from behind the driver’s seat of a car. But now people can see me, and as much as I want to divorce myself from the idea of there being a proper way to perform masculinity, I find myself burdened with thinking I’m doing it wrong.
And this is what our culture does. It takes the most mundane of activities and turns them into performances that are supposed to articulate or worthiness as human beings. When I stand with my legs crossed on a train where people can clearly see me, I’m supposed to feel bad about myself. I’m supposed to adjust into a more “manly” pose, whether no regard for whether it feels natural or comfortable. Apply that to things more important than how one looks riding the subway, and the crisis of masculinity becomes a real, dangerous one that requires our introspection.
Now I’ve got to go make sure the L is running. I love New York.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute who writes with his legs crossed.