In the summer of 2013, Gothamist published the first of many advice columns from native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, kicking things off with the timeless question, "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?" Nearly six years later, the popular series has been turned into a book, Ask a Native New Yorker, with ALL NEW essays from Jake. Today, Jake returns from hiatus to answer a question from a subway rider with a creepy habit.
Dear Native New Yorker,
I've developed a bad habit during my daily subway commute. Standing next to the door, holding on to the pole, trying to read my magazine, I can't help but notice the shiny screen of the straphanger below me.
They're texting up a storm, and I'm rakishly reading the whole exchange! Now they're fighting with their significant other, now they're talking shit about their significant other to a group text, now they're texting their mom, now they're setting up a date on Thursday. It's like a mini reality TV show, how can my reading material compete with that.
I've only been "caught" once, when someone turned around and made eye contact with me and put their phone down. I feel bad snooping like this, but also, if no one knows, no big deal, right? Should I keep reading with abandon or should I mind my own business?
Stranger Text Fiend
As New York's "summer" of transit hell continues into its third year, you need to decide if you're one of those people that wants to make things better for your fellow commuters, or one who wants to pour more gasoline on this blistering inferno of delays, discomfort, and dread. Overcrowding and equipment failures mean rush hour is already a baffling ordeal for most of us, face to our neighbors' armpits as we attempt to get one finger on to a distant pole, not sure if this will be the day we get stuck in the tunnel for two hours with no way to escape (or pee). In the rare event you have enough room to access a phone, must we now worry that transit voyeurs such as yourself are reading our every text? My god, man—look in that dark mirror of the subway window, and ask yourself: is this the person you want to be?
Yes, like most problems in urban life, this one is at root caused by Governor Cuomo, who's stubborn refusal to fund mass transit over his three terms had led the MTA to this dark and overloaded place, and ensured that your face is close enough to your neighbor's phone to actually read their screen. But though the governor has created the underlying conditions, your unbridled curiosity is the proximate cause of this invasion of privacy. No one is forcing your eyes to scan that screen—if you can't find something else to do, like read saved posts from Gothamist, a great local website, or listen to a highly rated podcast like Radiolab, brought to you by WNYC, you could simply close your eyes and mediate on why you're unable to spend even one minute without some kind of entertainment or distraction.
All the great spiritual traditions agree that wisdom lies on the other side of boredom. How lucky you are then, as a New York City commuter, to have so many opportunities to be stuck in a tunnel with no escape. Breathe in, perhaps noting how blessed you are, either to be living in the Greatest City on Earth, despite its transit flaws, or maybe to be in such fine health that your eyes are able to make out tiny lines of text on a neighbor's screen. Instead of shoulder-surfing, sail the inward seas of your own consciousness, thoughtfully offering compassion to yourself and all living beings, especially those poor souls waiting for the L Train, which despite whatever MTA.info says is going to be at least 20 minutes late.
In the spirit of that compassion I will say that the crime of eavesreading someone's texts is relatively low on the list of transit etiquette crimes. It's certainly worse than reading a fellow straphanger's book, because though obnoxious, that is only an invasion of their personal space, not of their personal life. Despite everything we've learned recently about government surveillance and hacking, people still put the most insanely personal stuff into text messages, and though it's fair to ask whether that means they share some of the blame, by tempting you with such a careless display of their secrets. Ultimately we are each responsible only for ourselves. So yes, your information perversion could be worse—at least you're not airdropping dick pix—but that doesn't make it anywhere near okay, and it's a slippery slope to worse things.
Isn't it hypocrisy to decry this kind of invasion of privacy on a website that has published hundreds, maybe thousands, of posts with pictures of people behaving badly on the subway? Doesn't the man transporting an upright piano on the G train deserve the same deference? Though we, as journalists, have a strict legal right to publish these types of embarrassing pictures, do we, like you, have an ethical obligation to avert our eyes? The answer, of course, is no—our work serves a higher purpose of enforcing standards of good behavior, while yours serves only your private titillation.
We're creepshotting for the greater good, man.
NB. If you must text intimate details of your life to friends, consider installing Signal or another encrypted chat app, and setting the messages to disappear after a day or two. At least that way, the subway peepers will only be able to read your most recent message.