When you ride the subway in New York City alone, you have a small number of options to pass the time: read a book or newspaper, study the advertisements along the top of the car, ponder society’s ills, pretend to be important and play with your Blackberry, listen to music or even make conversation with the stranger sitting/standing next to you. Due to the very close proximity of a crowded subway car and because native New Yorkers have a tendency to be cranky, this last option will likely get your groin kicked or your throat slit.
I used to read a lot on the subway but I’ve recently caught up with technological advances and started downloading some music onto my iPhone. I only have about nine songs on there so far, my musical Brady Bunch if you will. Even more pathetic is that I generally listen to only two of the songs over and over, Creep by Radiohead and Say it Ain’t So by Weezer. This is because they are not only great works of music, but because each has a personal significance. Creep was one of the first (and only) songs that I learned to play on the guitar, and my teacher was dumbfounded that I could accomplish it. Not because it’s a particularly difficult song but because I’m simply not very talented. Say it Ain’t So and I were introduced right after college ended, during a time when I was doing a lot of soul-searching about my future and what I wanted for my life. Every time I hear it I get nostalgic and wonder what the future would have held if I had just married that Swedish model who was so tragically in love with me. But I digress.
On a recent subway ride downtown I was in a car that, although not completely full (perhaps 30 people), had enough passengers that I couldn’t get a seat. Rather than holding onto one of those filthy poles that run from the roof to the floor I leaned against the back of the car and put my headphones on. For this ride it was again going to be me, Radiohead and Weezer. While having your wallet stolen is always a slight risk on the subway, I closed my eyes to listen to the first few guitar notes of Creep. I quickly felt myself fading away in the tune, remembering the moment that I could move my fingers around the fret board and produce the same sounds.
But I’m a creep…I’m a weirdo…what the hell am I doin’ here…I don’t belong here…I don’t belong here.
By the time Say it Ain’t So started I was really feeling it, taking in that emotion that only comes from music, that feeling of being immersed in the beats and pitches. All the sounds around me were blocked out: the train on the rails, the muffled conversation about our shitty economy, the crackle of the New York Post with A-Rod on the back. And as the bridge to the song began it was as if the sound had completely enveloped me.
Dear Daddy, I write you, in spite of years of silence.
You’ve cleaned up, found Jesus, things are good or so I hear.
This bottle, of Stevens, awakens ancient feelings…
White Man’s Overbite as the guitar solo approaches.
Like father! Stepfather! The son is drowning in the floooooooddddd! Yeah, yeah yeah, yeah yeah!!!!
As the dystonic solo began I could feel my fingers strumming on my air guitar. I opened my eyes in a moment of self-consciousness and realized it was awfully quiet for a subway. A teenage girl a few feet in front of me giggled and two guys in suits were stifling their laughter. And most of the other people were simply staring at me.
As the crimson overtook my face I realized I had been singing. Loudly, in retrospect. And since we had apparently just left the previous subway stop, there was no darting out of the train to avoid the inevitable. I was going to be the subject of ridicule, at least for a few minutes.
“Um…sorry,” I said, as if that would solve everything.
We’ve discussed how I encourage clients to psychologically handle embarrassment here. Years ago I, like many people currently in therapy, would have wanted to crawl into the closest hole and die and quick and painless death. This is because the moment would have confirmed deep-seated thoughts that many of us have which come out during times of social clumsiness : I’m such an idiot, people will now see I’m weak/flawed/defective, I’m inferior, etc. But that is neither true nor adaptive. So I posed to myself the same questions I tell clients to ask themselves:
1) Is it factually accurate that people are focused on me? Yes, of course they were.
2) If so, do they truly care all that much about what I’m saying or doing? Maybe. They seemed intent on watching what I would do next.
3) If they do care, for how long? In other words, will they remember something I’ve said or done, something foolish perhaps, in a few hours? How about a few days or weeks? They might remember. Hell, they may even share this story at a party with friends one day: “I saw this big-headed guy bust out in song on the subway!” But is this going to be the focus of their day? Doubtful. The world doesn’t revolve around me or my actions and everyone else ultimately has more important things to do.
4) If these people who I’m not even all that close with do ultimately care so much about what I say or do, who the hell cares? At this exact second, I care. Will I care in five minutes? Probably. I might care even a day or two from now. But after that? Fuck no. That’s a waste of my time. Time that could be spent listening to my other seven songs!
At that point my mortification changed to a more manageable embarrassment, at least to the point where I didn’t consider throwing myself under the car on the parallel track. And a few hours, it was mostly forgotten. Of course I made the mistake of telling Dr. John what happened to me, to which he replied, “You’re such a fuck-up. The best part of you ran down your mother’s leg.” Not cool.
I share this story of raging idiocy specifically for those people who are caught up in others’ perceptions of them, who are consistently worried about saying or doing the “wrong thing.” It’s not to impress you with how I handled myself after the fact; rather to impress upon you the cognitive mechanisms we can all use to decrease that odious anxiety and self-consciousness we want to purge.
Clients often say that they will ask the questions above but don’t get immediate results. Neither did I. Change is a process, not an event. It something that needs to be practiced and incorporated into who you are. If we don’t consistently challenge the thoughts that generate the humiliation and notion that other people are and will remain focused on us, we will be at the mercy of always trying to behave flawlessly.
If any of you have other tunes with which you’d like me to regale my fellow New Yorkers with on the subway, just use the Contact tab and let me know.