I never know who or what I might encounter; from running into the rabbi who married my parents to seeing an abandoned underground subway stop, the possibilities are endless. With all of this variability, there are unspoken norms that we 21st-century travelers follow while riding public transportation.
I never questioned the status quo of subway riders. I never blinked an eye at rows of people looking down at their phone screens, or at how everyone looks around to see if they have to move when a crowded train car pulls into a station, or at the fact that 99% of the time people lean on the doors that say in white cautionary type “Do Not Lean,” or at almost all riders’ failure to take out their earphones if a musician is playing her heart out on her guitar, drums, saxophone, or keyboard. But out of all the things one does in the subway, the act most New York City subway riders are guilty of is refusing to see one another.
Now, I do not mean that New Yorkers walk around the subway staring at the ground. Of course, we all look. We steal glances at the person who sat down next to us and the rowdy group of teenagers who just entered the train car. But while we do these things, no one makes eye contact with other passengers. We all actively choose to look straight ahead, refusing to meet each other's eyes. Unfortunately, we look and don’t see. While these two actions are used interchangeably, to me they are profoundly different.
Unbeknownst to me, I too was a member of the “looking club.” I looked at the homeless beggar with his off-brand worn out black sneakers, choppy, unkempt, brunette hair, and porous Bon Jovi t-shirt. I looked at the older woman with her cane and her bag half filled with Trader Joe’s milk, bread, and eggs, glancing around at others in hopes of a conversation. I looked at the stressed-out Wall Street hotshot in a suit shifting from one foot to another, looking at her watch every 30 seconds, plucked eyebrows narrowing at her iPad with the most recent New York Times article.
The thing about the looking club is that its members can differ. While some actively choose not to see (which is sometimes required for safety), others do it subconsciously. They can never say to one another “I see you.”
It was not in my native habitat that I came to the realization that seeing is a much greater act than looking could ever be. Instead it took me being halfway around the world in Jerusalem to understand this idea. While we were in the Old City, my family took to traveling by bus to experience what life was like as a local.
Tensions have been high in that part of the Middle East for a while, and due to metal detectors recently placed around the Old City’s religious sites, the situation was escalating rapidly. The majority of Jews and Muslims were on opposite sides of the metal detector debate, but as Jerusalem is a small and compact city, the two groups were constantly interacting with one another in uncomfortably close quarters. This became obvious to me when I was taking the bus one day after lunch. I looked down the aisle and saw what I can only describe as two people living in a fantasy, where they believed that their respective journeys were not related to that of their neighbor.
On one side of the bus was an orthodox Jewish man, with his payot framing his round face, nosed buried in the Torah. On the other side was a Muslim woman in her burqa, carrying grocery bags in her hands. Both were facing the front of the bus, refusing to see one another. These two people may have been living in the same city, walking the same streets, and going to the same markets. They were so close, yet worlds apart. By refusing to see one another, they were not only ignoring but invalidating their respective experiences.
Before the trip, I was not aware of the looking or seeing club. I had to journey halfway across the world before I realized the clubs were in existence. How had I not realized it earlier? Because I had become a comfortable traveler, a traveler who obediently accepted the norms of my peers. This does not mean that everyone has to travel halfway around the globe to break their membership. All it takes is a little questioning to become a curious traveler. All it takes is asking “why?”
Why do we choose not to look at the beggar? Why do we ignore the old woman? Why do we get bothered by the future Wall Street executive?
While we may not have the answers, it is asking the question that pushes us one step closer towards seeing. For taking the time to really see one another transcends language, religion, culture, socio-economic class, sexuality, skin color, gender, and so much more. The act of seeing is beautiful because when we see one another, we extend an invisible hand to all those before us, despite our differences.
I can now gladly say I have cancelled my membership with the looking club.
Maya Mesh is a senior at Millennium High School in New York City. She loves to read, write, and sing whenever she can.
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