If You Can Read This, Please Back The Hell Off

March 12, 2018

Seriously. Why are you still here? Take your eyeballs and redirect them somewhere they’re welcome. 

The air is thick with foreign sweat, hanging like dank laundry in the tiny space above my head.

A man who smells of boiled eggs and day-old tuna is standing with his sneaker butted up against my foot. A woman loudly smacking gum to the beat screaming from her headphones has her tattooed arm pressed tightly against mine.

The train surges forward and suddenly I’m face-first in the wiry curls of the school girl standing in front of me. The scent of Elnett hairspray assaults my nostrils before I’m able to regain my footing.

I have five – seven seconds, tops – to find a safe corner to cram myself into before I’m forcibly thrown off the carriage with the sea of passengers now erupting from the train onto the platform. I panic, and grab the strap of the backpack of the smelly man moving to the safety of two seats that have just freed up to my left. He startles and turns around to look at me with an expression that says ‘I have nothing left to live for. Except maybe, killing you’.

I quickly pluck my hand from the bag and plonk down onto the seat as a screech spews out from beneath us and the train once again begins to hurtle forward.

Anxious to escape the festering cesspit of angry, burnt out humanity, I pry my cell phone from my back pocket and open up my messages. There’s a text from my boyfriend. And my mom. And something from my best friend asking how my presentation went at work.

My boyfriend is annoyed. I forgot to pay the bill I promised I’d take care of and now he has an email from the electricity company. I immediately feel a surge of emotions. First guilt. Then, almost too quickly, rage. It’s been a long day. He knows I’ve had a lot on my plate. Why is he being so terse? Not even a ‘How did your big presentation go?’. This is not a good time to be having this exchange. And yet, I feel compelled to respond immediately.

As I begin frenetically typing back a harshly-worded reply, tears prickling at my sleep-deprived eyes, I can feel another set of eyes upon my phone.

The odorous man beside me is reading over my shoulder. I quickly angle the screen the other way. Except out of the side of my eye, I can now see the teenage boy on the other side of me, reading too; a sly smirk slowly spreading across his face.

This is my personal hell.

There are no private spaces on the subway. And I know this because the equation works both ways.

I’ve guiltily followed whole train trips worth of couples’ arguments, affair revelations, and confidential business exchanges, discreetly read over the shoulder of someone texting beside me on the train. Once, I even caught the guy in front of me watching porn; his phone only halfway out of his pocket, discreetly angled toward himself in a vain attempt to thwart curious eyes from learning of his foot-sucking fetish.

I’ve felt more repulsed, violated and unhinged on the commute home from work than I have in almost any other place.

Unlike on the street or in the office, there’s no respect for personal space. The end of the workday seems to bring with it a hybrid form of humankind. People are angry, pushy, and devoid of dignity or remorse. They’ll sneeze openly into a crowded carriage, sending saliva flying far and wide, or anchor a pointy elbow into your ribs to make room to step off onto the platform. Unsurprisingly, reading a stranger’s innermost private thoughts and relationship details doesn’t even register as mildly ill-mannered in the world of the peak hour commute.

I once tried Googling the symptoms of a gynecological issue that was troubling me on the ride to work. Despite being almost overzealously furtive about it – the phone obscured by my laptop case – a few moments later, laughing erupted from three sarcastic college girls sitting behind me.

Another time, as I was taking out a book to settle into the trip, a young man audibly snapped a photograph of me on his cell. Nonchalantly acknowledging the horrified expression on my face, he smiled and remarked “It’s for an Instagram page I’m starting; Hot Girls On The Subway”, before getting up and moving to another area of the carriage.

There is something about the atmosphere in this angrily claustrophobic setting that sparks a new kind of social order. One in which the most aggressive and boorish come out on top. Where the quiet and the courteous are the ultimate losers.

My phone is buzzing with the notification of a new message.

I reach for the little green-and-white speech bubble icon, then glance up.

Sure enough, both men are still looking down at my screen, eagerly awaiting the next installment to my argument with my boyfriend.

I pause, then sigh and hit the button anyway, before typing: ‘If you can read this, you are looking at someone else’s private message. Go get a life. PS – To the guy to my left: you smell like rotten eggs and tuna.’

Images via shutterstock.com and tumblr.com.

Comment: Have you ever felt your privacy was totally violated while riding the train?

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