The Subway Car’s Daily Dose Of Culture

My train ride into Manhattan today reminded me that yesterday’s lament about the possible lack of adequate ‘cultural consumption’ in my life in this city was sorely missing one aspect of my urban experience: the culture that this city’s residents  experience and ‘live’ by the mere fact of being in this city.

This morning, I dropped my daughter off at her daycare (one run by a very hard-working and well-organized Haitian lady) and then caught the uptown Q.  To describe that train’s usual complement of passengers as a veritable United Nations is a running cliché in Brooklyn; this morning was no exception. (The Q starts at Coney Island and terminates in Queens.) I could hear at least four different languages–Russian, Spanish, Bengali, English–around me as I sought a position in my crowded car. Having secured one, I opened up my book and began reading.

Distractions came easily. Standing next to me, and leaning against the subway pole in a manner that might soon require a reminder in subway etiquette from a subway rider more cranky than me, a young, fashionably dressed Orthodox woman read the Torah, swaying her body as her lips moved. Across from her, a thirty-something hipster, inadequately dressed for the cold, his lips, nose, and ears a bright scarlet, began loudly muttering to himself. A young couple, one standing, the other seated, held hands, and gazed soulfully into each others eyes, perhaps preparing themselves for the moment when the intended destination for one of them would induce a tearful and kiss-inducing separation. And so on. (For some reason, morning rush-hour trains do not feature, quite as often, the musical performers, break dancers, and various panhandlers who are a near-constant accompaniment in the evening hours.)

Such descriptions of the ethnic, cultural, and psychological diversity found in a New York City subway car have the status of cliché now: Oh look, so many different ‘types’ of folks and behaviors! How interesting! How fascinating! For all of that, the resultant edification remains the same as it ever was.

The substantive point here, of course, is that such experiences constitute a very distinct and pleasurable kind of cultural phenomena; they are not second-rate or low in comparison to attendances at classical music concerts, museums, ballets, operas and the like. They enable an education; they refine our senses; they introduce us to distinct ways of living (I have observed many, many, diverse techniques of wooing, childcare, passive and overt aggressiveness, reading, listening to music, and the like on subway cars). They bring us into contact, sometimes a little too closely of course, with those we share our urban spaces with. Yesterday, like a good New Yorker, I complained: about the lack of time and money and attention and energy. This morning, I was reminded of other riches in my possession.

Note: As a reminder of some of the mixed blessings of a subway ride, as my train pulled into the 34th Street Station in midtown Manhattan, a malodorous aroma indicating an overly rich breakfast or an upset stomach, or both, wafted around the car. The car emptied in a hurry.

Does the Left Hate America? The Case of Soccer

Yesterday, as the United States struggled to hold on to its 1-0 lead against Ghana, the rumblings on social media grew: Ghana were surely due to equalize any moment now. When they did, the jubilation on Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds was palpable. But it wasn’t just Ghanaian fans that were cheering for that 1-1 scoreline. Plenty of Americans were too. And these folks, identified quite easily by their previous histories of publicly avowed political sentiments, were clearly of the leftist political persuasion. A few minutes later, John Brooks cast a pall over them. But not for long: some looked forward to the American team getting its comeuppance later, perhaps against Germany or Portugal.

There are few sports in which American sports teams are underdogs. Soccer is one of them. But America isn’t much of an underdog in any other domain or dimension. So for those who like to cheer for underdogs, cheering for America is a highly unnatural act–and so they won’t, even if it means supporting Germany or Portugal, two soccer powerhouses.

The leftist cheering against the American soccer team is motivated by something a little more visceral: a desire to not be on the side of those visibly cheering for the American team. Many American fans, like those from other countries, drape themselves in their nation’s flag–in various forms, sometimes shirts, sometimes bandannas, sometimes something else–and raise loud slogans and sing tuneless songs. The semiotics of the American flag and the American chant are quite complicated for this seemingly anti-American demographic.

The American flag–thanks to the complicated history of American imperial ambitions and its modern incarnations–is a loaded symbol; in the domestic political context it has often to come to represent a forced, unambiguous American identity, one that all must pledge allegiance to, a quasi-religious icon that cannot be desecrated. And the most common American chant–USA! USA! USA!–has, in this post-911 era, come to represent an aggressive proclamation of American triumphalism. (You can hear it in the background as George W. Bush speaks at the site of the Twin Towers and promises revenge; you could hear it on the day he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium that same season.)

I don’t think those cheering against the American soccer team have anything against the likes of Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore and their mates. The American team is, as befitting an American grouping, quite diverse: players of mixed racial parentage, of immigrant backgrounds, drawn from a variety of social and cultural settings. The American team plays a hybrid style all its own, and its many players entertain, in the US’ professional soccer league, crowds that are increasingly eclectic in their economic and ethnic makeup.  But when an international tournament is underway, the American team does duty for the nation, and they are often cheered on by those who seemingly would like to see yet another domain fall to the inexorable march of the American juggernaut. An American win–it is feared by those Americans who would cheer against their national team–would merely spark another orgy of self-congratulatory exceptionalism. Better to root against it–to ward off such unpleasantness.

Note: I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in. The US might be a soccer underdog, but its team does not seem to be lacking in resources.