The joy of talking to strangers on the subway again, in 14 photos
The combination of rising temperatures and the highly anticipated reopening of New York at the end of May had electrified the city. Restaurants were back. Hugs were back. Sitting way too close to each other on the subway was back.
But are we really ready for all that? Forced isolation for over a year has caused our social muscles to atrophy. Luckily, Subway Social Club helped flex this muscle.
Subway Social Club was founded in 2019 by a mother-daughter duo, Wendy and Claire Feuer. Wendy's fondness for New York’s underground transportation system stems from her decade as the director of art and design for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Claire, an anthropology graduate, became interested in the subway because of her deep curiosity and passion for community. The club has a simple premise: Wear one of their pins when you want to chat, take it off when you don't. Their mission is slightly more complex: to create an environment that celebrates conversation between strangers.
Journalist Melinda Blau and psychology professor Karen L. Fingerman, provided weight to the club's mission in their book Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter … But Really Do, by describing the relationships we have with our baristas, dog walkers, or fellow subway riders as vital to our happiness, growth, and day-to-day existence.
"Consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger," Blau and Fingerman said in their book. "They also enhance and enrich our lives and offer us opportunities for novel experiences and information that are beyond the purview of our inner circles.” Their project, originally published in 2009, recently rose to prominence again because of its relevance to how we’re navigating the pandemic.
I shadowed Claire for a week in June and watched her connect with strangers. We met at her stop, Bergen Street station in Brooklyn, and ventured back and forth between her two favorite stations off the F line — Delancey Street station on the Lower East Side, where the platform provides enough space for people to linger, and West 4th Street station in the West Village, where Claire would skip ballet classes as a kid to read Harry Potter and people watch. The following stories are a few of the characters we met along the way.
If someone held Claire's gaze for a bit, she would gently approach them and, from a distance and introduce herself. That’s how Claire met Nick at the Delancey Street station. He was open and friendly, sharing that he moved to New York from Atlanta right before the pandemic to pursue a degree in audio engineering. "My friends from back home have been asking where all the best spots are in the city, but all I know are the parks and the wine shops,” he told us.
Breaking past the fourth wall (people’s cell phones) is another hurdle, but attention to detail proved to be a low-stakes ice breaker. At the West 4th Street station, Claire noticed Micalea’s peach tattoo on the back of her left arm. “Excuse me,” Claire said, mid-wave, “can I ask about your tattoo?”
“My sister and I got matching tattoos back home in Atlanta,” Micalea replied, her smile evident through her mask. She unlocked her phone and began scrolling until she found what she was looking for, “You should follow the tattoo artist on Instagram in case they travel.”
In the same station, Claire stopped in her tracks when she saw the sunflowers Deco was holding; they were for his mother. "God bless her — she doesn't have a green thumb,” he said, his eyes crinkling into a smile. “So I get her flowers to brighten her home.”
On the F train, the crystal rings on Animesh's fingers sparked Claire’s interest. He said he started wearing them a few years ago when he was going through a rough time. “Do they work?” Claire asked, of their rumored "energies," over the screeching of steel wheels. “I don’t know,” Animesh, a researcher at NYU’s Center for Cybersecurity, replied, “but it makes me feel better to wear them.”
At the Smith & 9th Street station in Brooklyn, Yaminah kept the doors open so an older man with a cane could board. Claire commented on the small act of kindness. "It doesn't happen a lot where I'm from, but somebody has to do it," Yaminah said. They then exchanged IG handles while chatting about important care for your community is. Later that night, Yaminah DM'd Claire and said she'd made her day.
Because of train delays, their small talk evolved naturally to medium talk. Aakanksha, originally from Mumbai, and Brittany, originally from Miami, both work for a fragrance company. Aakanksha is invested in influence of scent and its integration as a pillar of brand identity and Brittany, in the relationship between health and scent.
Claire’s process isn’t for everyone. It’s a practice that requires stamina and an observant eye, with the goal of easing the anxiety of becoming social again. She found that people are eager to connect and appreciate being drawn into conversation with a stranger. The interactions Claire encountered on behalf of the Subway Social Club revealed the fundamental desire to be known and perceived, to have our own humanity reflected back at us.