Reihan: Subway Demographics

Rest assured, political blogging will return shortly. For now, more half-asleep reflections.

I recently told a friend that I'd sooner have my eyes scooped out with spoons than be caught reading a book commonly consumed on either the F or L trains in New York, which, as she helpfully pointed out, is kind of idiotic. To this day I haven't read The Corrections, and I don't think I ever will. Indeed, when someone tells me that, "Oh man, it's actually a really great book," I immediately think to myself, "when we're living in a post-apocalyptic 'time of troubles,' this person is not, for the good of humanity, sharing my bunker or my canned peas." The trouble is I quite like Tom Perrotta, so I've already caved. The smart and principled thing to do would be to follow the lead of my good friend GCAW and only read book that are twenty years old or older, to know they've stood the test of time.

Tonight, as I returned home from the wilds of suburban Connecticut, I considered all of the demographic surprises I encountered along the way. Like a lot of city kids, I started placing people in boxes at an early age. Profiling, you might say. Here are the people who get on the subway at this stop. They wear immaculate, enormously large sneakers. And here are the armies of editorial assistants and junior publicists and minor intellectuals. Being able to identify these patterns was a great source of social confidence for me, particularly since I came from a marginal, in-between family, neighborhood, social class, and ethnic group. As underinformed as I really was, I nevertheless entered into all New York social situations with the sense that I at least knew the lay of the land, and that even the toughest or shmanciest people could be pegged on the basis of a few easily identifiable characteristics. What fun! Soon the parlor game got out of control, and I'd make all kinds of guesses as to a person's background and musical preferences, etc., and found that I was right a decent amount of the time. I was sixteen, scrappy, and heading nowhere fast academically speaking, but I had a gift for stereotypes and cliches. Kind of a nightmare, really.

While reading Jeffrey Rosen's The Unwanted Gaze a few years ago, I thought about how corrosive this parlor game really was. My closest friends were often "predictable" in all these ways (beautiful dark-haired girls of my acquaintance often listen to Spank Rock and of Montreal, hipster cads wear expensive sneakers), but they also blew my mind with left-field surprises, and shamed me for being so smug.

So yes, I thought about this on the way home, particularly as my expectations were upended again and again: wait, he's getting off the train here? She's exiting there?

I mean, this has more to do with the changing geography of class in Brooklyn than anything deeper, I suppose, but still, food for thought. It's eerie to sense that you're growing up, and to give up comforting old certainties.