Brown rats, more commonly known as New York City rats, can weigh up to two pounds. They are also capable of chewing through a cinder block, as well as fitting through a hole the size of a quarter. It seems only natural that we fear them. 

Horror always resides in the places where the sun cannot touch.

We typically associate rats with death and disease — and also with New York City. It is no surprise, then, that some have a phobia of the steel monster that slithers just under the feet of 8.6 million Americans, hissing among the rats. The monster, identified by the ding of an approaching train, the smell of sewer, and the letters “MTA” enclosed in a small blue circle elicit nasty feelings for some.

But like the rat, lots of animals can live without sunlight, and in New York, lots of people can too. About 5.8 million people ride the subway each day, around 0.2 million more than the entire population of Denmark. 


What I believe New Yorkers have in common, though, is that they all crave the underground. New York is known for its above-ground filth; residing in the land without sun allowed them access to this filth in a way that was permissible — the underground must be dirty. It sits where the dirt once did.

But if there’s one thing New Yorkers are good at, it’s pretending that the darkness is divine. So, naturally, in the early 2000s, the subway received a series of enhancements: the introduction of a new class of cars with an electronic strip map, public address systems, flashing displays of time and route information. Crime decreased. Ridership increased. All was well.

Or rather, all was well except for the persistence of fear, anxiety, and panic. It makes sense, I guess. The subway might have gotten safer, but the world around it certainly had not. In 2019, there have been more mass shootings than days in the year. Climate change will likely destroy the planet. Donald Trump is president of the United States. The subway may have increased its safety features, but the country’s social anxiety did not decrease. In fact, it went up.


To my knowledge, there’s no word for people who fear public transportation simply for its existence in itself like people with musophobia fear rats. People who fear public transportation — people with agoraphobia — fear panic. 

I do not have social anxiety, although I am constantly anxious. I am not afraid of crowds, strangers, or confined spaces filled with both. Instead, I am afraid of the lack thereof: of any space where I am unprotected. I am not talking about being alone, or even of being alone with just one other person. I am afraid of not feeling close to anyone or anything. That’s why I love the subway: because I am obsessed with intimacy. I love having sex and I love squeezing someone’s hand in a crowded room. I love sitting so close to a stranger that I can hear their whispers and the music from their headphones, see the words glowing from their phone. I love intimacy because it allows me, for a moment, to leave myself and become another, feel close to another. 

Maybe this is why I enjoy crying in public — crying on the subway. Several months ago, I stood alone in the 51st street subway station, sobbing over God-knows-what. A homeless man, previously posted on the ground behind a frayed cardboard sign, approached me. I was too exhausted to be afraid. “Are you okay?” he asked, his worn face distorted with genuine concern. “Yes,” I replied. I was okay now. Somehow, the uneasiness of the stranger — the homeless stranger — absorbed my tears. I was okay now. 


Sometimes, I think, as a woman, I should be afraid of the subway. I understand why I should be afraid of the subway. I understand it when a man airdrops me a note from his phone, saying “hey cutie in the white shirt, give me your number ;)” While there are those who fear intimacy, there are also those who disregard it. There are those who disguise their gross lack of boundaries in a cloak of intimacy; the ones who violate you and believe they have the right to do so. All for the sake of “closeness.” I understand all this, and yet, I still don’t think I fear intimacy, fear the subway. I understand this fear, but I do not feel it. 

But intimacy, too much and too fast, can be petrifying, even for me. I feel it, for a moment, when my grandmother, who grew up in the city, reminds me not to ride the subway by myself, or past midnight, or if I have a “bad feeling,” in a disturbingly morbid tone. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please” becomes a sort of code for “leave now or forever hold your peace.” You’re a rat in a trap. Your whole world is now that little map on the side of the wall. The whole city condensed into a single line, plus a few words. Everybody condensed into one car, several feet wide.


I believe that oftentimes, people equate intimacy with fear. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, or else it’ll get broken. Don’t sit on the hard, plastic seat next to a stranger, or else they’ll pull a gun on you, steal your money, push you off the edge into the tracks. Maybe it’s the bitter intimacy one feels with themselves in a subway station that made the city put up all those “anti-suicide” signs. Or maybe it’s the 900 people hit by a train in one year alone. 

The subway has been accused of bloodshed on many occasions. Just two days ago, a man lying on top of a subway, a subway surfer, died. Many on-train shootings have been recorded over the past several decades. In 2011, a video of a rat sleeping on a man’s face circulated the internet. In 2016, the New York Post published an article titled, “Subways are New York’s biggest deathtrap.” At the very least, one cannot question the origin of this terror. There is so much fear, in fact, that when a subway car is broken, we dump it into the Atlantic Ocean, instead of into a landfill. That way, we can be certain that it won’t come back to life, that its wire organs will be incapable of functioning ever again.


There also exists, I think, a fear of being intimate not just with anyone, but with anyone different from ourselves. In October, armed police officers pulled their guns at an unarmed black teenager after he allegedly jumped the turnstile without paying. Apparently, they were responding to an alert for a “male with a gun.” In November, thousands of New Yorkers jumped the turnstiles to protest police brutality.

Yet the city continued to “fight” against fare evasion and the millions of dollars it costs the city each year. They did this by implementing new guards, ones that won’t have to wear cameras on their chests. There is a classist, racist fear of those of whom we have no reason to be afraid of, of being intimate with them. Maybe that’s why, around the world, public transportation is the focal point of protest. In Chile, protestors in black hoods set fire to their subway. 

For some, a fear of intimacy, I believe, may actually stem from a fear of closeness to ourselves. Those fortunate enough to ride the subway without the worry of a threat from an armed police officer are often the ones who fear the subway the most. In reality, they fear the acknowledgment that this fear is not theirs to have, that it does not belong to them. So, instead, they falsely direct it. A fear of the stranger instead of a technical malfunction. A fear of a robbery instead of a confined space. A fear of the unarmed child instead of a man with a gun. A fear of the subway instead of the rats. 

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