Subway Background Radiation

Philadelphia’s subways sometimes feel like something I don’t use so much as borrow. Every day, I get on at 40th St sometime between 8:45 and 9:20 and return home sometime after 6:30. The closer to 8:00am I board the train the more business-like the ridership. As I get earlier or later, that trails off to this collection of unidentifiables and crazies. They’re the background radiation of commuting. Before about 5am and after about 11pm they outnumber regular passengers (commuters, those seeking entertainment, students) and they tend to be louder. Having loud phone conversations with other parties that may not be there, rechecking their bags for some quantity of belongings, or simply sleeping.

The subway has its own demographic weather. There’s obviously rushes every morning and evening for commuters, but there are student rushes during the day as private and charter schools start or end their days. During lunch times, there’s a disproportionate chance of some group showing in force. Every Tuesday or so there’s a lot of disabled veterans and every Thursday afternoon there seems to be an unusual number of queer riders. I’ve not mustered the nerve to ask one of these folks if there’s a community meeting, or luncheon, or what have you that they attend or to see if I’m just subject to apophenia.

Sometimes, late at night, I’ll step onto a subway car where I’m the only person seemingly using the subway to get somewhere and I feel like I’m interrupting. I try not to wake anyone or interrupt someone dancing to music that may not exist and stand close to the door. This is their living room and I’m uninvited. Three stops later I’ll step out and catch a glance with another rider who feels the same way and we exchange a look like two people who just left a party that was in no way what they thought it would be. This library-like quietude seems like it’d make for a good studying environment in case of emergency.

In a way, these always denizens make me feel safe. If someone decided to try and stab me and steal my wallet, there’d at least be four unreliable witnesses in the car. Or, once the person got my wallet, everyone would ask that now obviously more monied person for change. Not even another homeless person wants to endure that.