When your face is pressed against a steel pole slathered in some kind of gritty texture and someone’s hot breath is on your neck, hating the subway system is natural. In fact, some of us actively loathe riding the subway with a vitriol seldom seen outside of silent movie villainy. Service can be sadistically flaky at times and getting stuck in the Hot and/or Smelly Car is always excruciating, but one of the main reasons why people have such strong feelings about these underground torpedoes is “other people.”
No single type is responsible for making so many commuters miserable; rather it takes a mélange of distinct flavors to form the human nightmares rainbow that sprawls across each subway car. While the cases against seat-hogs, nail clippers, and to a lesser extent shoe lickers have all been well documented, that’s just the tip of the landfill. Countless others commit their various crimes against civility every day. Aside from putting up posters that wag a gentle finger about subway etiquette, what can anyone really do?
Like most other annoying aspects of life, most of the time you have to just endure whatever awful surprises the subway has in store. One of the worst is when you’re in a central area as the doors open, and everybody except you has to exit. Against the crush of bodies, you are just a reed twisting in a terrible storm and no matter where you stand, you cannot not be in somebody’s way. This is nobody’s fault and there’s no solution, but in certain other situations, you can fight back. The difficulty lies in determining when.
For some reason, awful men tend to sit with their legs spread as far apart as possible. It’s as if their balls were enormous egg-shaped grenades that detonate upon contact with thighflesh. Even during rush hour traffic! But just because a seat is partly occupied by someone’s left flank, that doesn’t mean it’s unavailable. Don’t be intimidated; as soon as you make to sit down, those legs will snap shut like a bear trap. Unfortunately, in the opposite scenario—when someone overestimates the room available next to you—there’s no stopping them from cramming in either. Your body is going to be smooshed against a stranger’s, and it’s going to feel icky. Your sides will settle and interlock like Tetris pieces, and it will be uncomfortable. The only option is to stand up and walk away.
Another source of discomfort is backpacks. Wearing one on the subway is the spatial equivalent of giving Wee Man a piggyback ride. If the person behind you is strapped, and you don’t want to get continually bumped into, stand at a 45-degree angle and jut out an elbow. This under-praised body part will absorb all the impact, and Backpack Guy will take note of the resistance and adjust. Actually, your elbow is your first line of defense in general against accidentally spooning with anyone on the way to work.
Overcrowding can affect you when you’re sitting down too, of course. Sometimes a man will stand in front of you, crotch hovering mere inches from your face like a Chippendale’s dancer. These men are often oblivious to the fact that they’ve positioned themselves so close, and junk-first. Unfortunately, bringing this intrusion up is a worse offense than them standing that way. The only time you can reasonably ask a guy to back off is if they’re also leering at you. 
Of course, anyone seated in front of a subway map will inevitably have to endure a different form of leering. Mystified tourists are known to lean down two inches from strangers’ heads, gawking at the map like a fast food menu, without a trace of self-awareness. There are two ways to handle this sustained scrutiny, aside from just sitting there, squirming. You can help them figure out a route, or passive-aggressively offer up your seat. Nobody will ever accept the second invitation—rather, now they’ll hurry up just to get away from you.
A daily commute seems like the ideal time to get one’s best reading done. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Any intellectual material consumed in transit must be breezy enough to withstand full audio interruption. Subways are soundgardens in perennial springtime. One could spend the better part of a clench-jawed ride home debating whether it’s appropriate to say anything to the bro playing first person shooter games with the sound way up. Headphones on the subway always seem to be leaking the tunes they’re playing, and then some assholes tend to play tunes direct from their cell phones. Even the cruddiest device’s tinny speakers are loud enough to blanket a ten-seat radius. 
Tempting as it is to tell the person with porous headphones to lower the volume and perhaps consult an ENT, doing so is off-limits. Since this noise pollution is (more or less) accidental, intervention is unwarranted . Micro-blasting music from one’s cell phone, though, is both rude and intentional, and it just sounds garbled and crappy. Few people ever speak up in this situation, but if it’s loud and it’s near you, you are entitled. Ask without a shred of condescension or meanness for them to turn the volume down, and at least when you get screamed on, it’ll be clear which of you is the jerk.
As for those unavoidable half-conversations that occur when phone reception is available, since subway rides are too short to merit designated quiet cars, these just have to be tolerated. Either that or you can always get out at the nearest stop and move to the next car. Odds are that it will be loud and annoying there too, though. Between religious nuts, parents who take a laissez-faire approach to childrearing, and mariachi bands , there isn’t a lot to do about how it sounds on a subway.
Entering and exiting a train shouldn’t require written instructions. Yet someone always seems to be standing directly in front of the doors at each stop, back turned like a shy lead singer unwilling to face the fans. At the same time, there’s usually someone on the other side who won’t wait for anyone to exit before hurling himself inside, resulting in a Red Rover-like grudge match in which nobody wins. All you can really do about any of this is just wait your turn and trudge through, unless a more aggressive approach is required.
Upon crossing the threshold, some people just stop abruptly, with an otherworldly confidence that no one is behind them, leaving whoever is back there (i.e. you) wedged into the doorway or unable to board at all. It’s a total fight-or-flight moment, and you’ve got to react immediately. Always start with a spirited ‘excuse me’, but if the human obstruction is wearing headphones, it’s time for some light shoving. This is entirely called-for. A shoulder tap will just startle the person into confrontation mode, but if you shove your way past instead, the logjam resolves automatically.
Shoving is a tool that should only be used when absolutely necessary. Those who burrow their way across the entire length of a crowded car just to get to a preferred door before the train stops are abusing this tool the same way that people who always lie about the subway as cause for tardiness are abusing a good excuse. As cathartic as it may feel to stand firm and obstruct a rude shover from getting by, though, it’s best to just lean aside and let them go. You need not be the one to teach them this lesson.
One behavior worth instilling in others, finally, is a willingness to share the pole . Even though five or six people should be able to hold onto a regulation subway pole, often a party of one will annex it off by either leaning against it, or wrapping his entire body around it like a zipline. On the plus side, at least this person is holding on to something—an improvement over those who allow themselves to be jostled around and repeatedly flung into other folks. Still, you should never give up the scrimmage for pole-space just because someone else got there first. Just making eye contact should be enough to get a person to disgorge from the pole, but if you’re sensing stubbornness, a fun thing to do is reach for the highest open area and grab on, thereby situating your armpit near the person’s head. This move sends an unmistakable message. While it might make the rest of the time you spend holding onto the pole together uncomfortable, let’s face it—it was probably going to get uncomfortable anyway.