Public Transit, Public Words

You know you’re a true New Yorker when you are reading over someone’s shoulder on the subway and you begin to grow impatient because the person is not turning the pages fast enough.

I’m sure at least a few of you would like to say that such frustration could be avoided if over-the-shoulder readers would just bring their own damn reading material. And you’d be right.

Yet browsing other people’s reading material has benefits other than finding out what happens next to the main character in the story. It’s a way to discover a book you would have never known about otherwise. And you can sample the writing style of a book you might have already been interested in. Of course there are easier ways to pursue those activities, either at your local bookstore or while in front of an internet-equipped computer. But you have access to neither on the subway.

The over-the-shoulder read can also be useful for providing a demographic snapshot. How many people are reading particular daily papers? How engrossed are they? For some reason, readers of tabloids such as the New York Post always seem to display a kind of detached look, leaving me to wonder if anyone actually believes a word of it. Yet they keep buying the paper, day after day. Perhaps reading the Post is a marginally better choice than having to constantly avoid eye contact with anyone else in the car.

I find that over-the-shoulder browsing is beneficial even when I can’t understand some of the words. Seeing open newspapers in a variety of languages is telling of a neighborhood’s diversity. On the N train in the morning in Astoria, a rider has a choice of browsing papers in Serbo-Croatian, Greek, Italian, and Spanish—reflecting the neighborhood’s makeup.

Reading for work is another popular category. I know there must be a good amount of jobs in the city that require programming languages, because every week I see at least a few textbooks sprawled open. But I have found that the most common work-related reading material is the restaurant menu, complete with a listing of ingredients and potential allergens for each dish. Just this morning, in fact, I studied a waitress’s handwritten notes covering the offerings at what sounded like a gringo-fusion Tex-Mex joint that featured “steak tartare flautas” (beef, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and other bland, nonoffensive ingredients). I wanted to see what else the joint offered, but she was stuck memorizing the ingredient list for one of the bar’s drinks, the “Mexican firing squade (sic),” which, of course, counted grenadine as a main component.

Frustration aside, it gave me a greater appreciation for the work that the front end of restaurants must endure—fielding all those pointed questions on menu items every day, coming from everyone from allergy sufferers to bloggers looking for content fodder to feed their pages.

The majority of the items I see, however, are current best sellers, not surprisingly. Especially books that have just been turned into movies. And then there are the rarities that defy category. Like when a slightly disheveled man was memorizing a crumpled page torn from a German to English dictionary a few months ago. He was lost somewhere between dressieren to durchhauen, but then again, he had nowhere else to go in the alphabet since he only had one page. Where was the rest of the dictionary? Were the E and F pages headed to the Upper West Side on the 1 line?

Thanks to him, if I visit Germany, I can tell someone that I want to do one of two things: dressieren or durchhauen: discipline or cleave. Or both together, I guess.

Thus far I have avoided a moral question: is it rude to read over someone’s shoulder, or is it only rude if doing so violates their personal space? Or is it understood that anything brought into the close quarters of the subway and opened up is fair game for visual consumption? Do some people enjoy the thought of being watched while they read, feeling self-assured that their superior taste in fiction is well advertised?

I don’t have the answers. I am just another over-the-shoulder reader, after all. I may be behind you the next time you crack open a paperback or power up your Kindle on the subway. Just don’t feel any pressure to turn the pages faster.

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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