Stirring the Mind into Thought

E trainFor my first fieldnotes assignment, I decided to observe the E train, which I take everyday to go to school and home. My observation times were mid-morning on Tuesday (9:00-10:00), the afternoon on Tuesday (3:30-4:30) and the morning on Wednesday (7:00-8:00). I thought the E train would be the best place to observe because I could spend up to two hours on the E train each school day and I realized that the subway is a very unusual environment. Since it is enclosed space that includes two rows of seats facing each other and empty space in the middle with poles, it causes people to act in a strange manner. A strong presence of authority is not in the subway; so formal rules are often not followed. However, due to the cars often being cramped with many people, there are several informal rules. These informal rules show how the subway in itself has a social structure.

As a result of the economy and MTA budget problems, many of the people who worked in the Subway stations were laid off. At several stops there are no MTA employees around. This has caused a change in riders following the formal rules in the station. The formal rules are no smoking, no littering, no loud music, do not lean on doors, do not hold doors open, do not go through the back door while train is in motion and do not open emergency exit until an attendant is contacted. Only the no smoking and no loud music rule have been strictly followed. All the others are broken everyday. Although litter can cause fire on the train tracks, I still find litter, like cups, bottles, and paper all on the floor. MTA reacted by hiring janitors to clean the subway cars at the last stops. The rules involving the doors have been a result of overcrowding and the rush for the train. Overcrowding in the train is another consequence of high gas prices. As gas prices went up, more people stopped driving their cars and took the train to work. So, the lack of space on train makes it hard to find things to hold onto and instead riders just lean on the door for support. Also, the morning and afternoon rush hour pushes certain people to put themselves in danger by putting their hand(s) through the doors in order to get on the train. The cost of losing a limb, getting dragged by the train or putting the train out of service is less than the cost of being late for work. Using the back doors while the train is in motion and using the emergency exit is the similar result of the rush.

On the other hand, there are several informal rules within cars that riders automatically follow because it does involve so many people within a confined space. Some are no staring, no leaning on someone while sleeping, no loud talking, no putting bags on seats, no eating, no inappropriate touching, give up you seat for a disabled, pregnant or with infant person and basically trying to avoid bringing unwanted attention to yourself. Somehow these rules give the riders a sense of personal space and also provide more space for more people to fit in the train. However, some people unintentionally break these rules, most likely because they are not aware of it. For example, I had two incidents of someone leaning on me while they were sleeping. The first person was aware that he was leaning and constantly pulling himself up, but the second person leaned on me the entire ride. I did not want to cause a disturbance and bring attention to myself, so I waited until I was able to leave. Other riders tend to speak louder when they are in a group with others. In addition to that, some riders, especially during the morning, eat because they did not have time to eat, even though these people may annoy other riders either due to the smell or that the riders want to eat themselves.

Other behaviors I noticed was that the riders tend to listen to their MP3 players, to sleep and to read books or newspapers. Once again, riders do this to create their own sense of personal space; basically those things form a distraction from other people and give us something to do while on the train. Also, the cramped space seems to cause people on train to be a little bit more rude than usual. Getting off the train, riders often knock and sometimes push other riders in a rush. In a regular situation, a fight would probably start or the other person would get angry, but on the subway it is expected because there is no room on the cars. It also goes for the rush for seats when the doors open in which people almost push each other just to get a seat. The idea of “every man for himself” rule applies. Furthermore, when the train starts to become empty, people move apart immediately. Like the behavior of electrons, the riders try to be as far apart as possible until they have to be near each other due to lack of room. However, the riders are willing to be near each other near the poles, since most people do not like the bars on top, either because of height or pain of holding hands up. Last, I noticed that most people have casual clothing on, such as jeans. Most likely the riders go to a school with no school uniform (I see people with book-bags), do not have school or work, or have jobs that do not require business attire.

As a participant observer, it was awkward watching the other riders. Mainly, I had to pretend that I was not staring and look discreet. I would frequently look up quickly, scan my surroundings closely and then look down. Other than that, I looked like a normal subway rider, even though I felt a little uncomfortable. Even more, I recognized that many of the actions other riders do I do myself. Studying closely what goes on in the subway cars instead of closing my eyes and listening to music helped me to realize how strange the subway environment is and how we as riders become so indifferent to it all. My observations have increased my interest in “subway life.” In the future, I might continue observing other train lines to see if they are similar to the E train line and also interview in depth people who ride the subway and find out how they feel about riding it.

July 12th, 2009 at 7:32 AM and tagged , , ,

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