The Strangers I Meet or Ignore on the Milan Subway

Riding the subway makes me feel like an independent, sassy globetrotter (*shimmy shimmy*) who’s got places to go and people to see (I don’t, usually). For those from New York or D.C., you’re like, “Aw, that’s cute. You betcha.” But the Twin Cities’ only underground is The Gopher Way (a series of walking tunnels for university students to make it to their Oceanography lecture without turning into a glacier), so it’s something of a novelty for me.

Kimmy Schmidt rides the subway in New York

Plus, Milan has a good (and still expanding) underground system that is quite reliable and convenient. On the flip side, the metropolitana can be packed to the brim, and in the summer it’s a putrid B.O. sauna, unless you get lucky and snag a car with working AC. Yesterday, someone brought their fish market purchase onboard, and I thanked Sant’Ambroeus that I only had to ride the yellow line for one stop.

When it’s late, I usually walk to/from stops with an apartment key shiv between my knuckles, like us women are taught to do (easier than teaching young boys to respect girls), but when I’m actually in the subway, I usually feel safe. It’s rarely deserted, there’s usually security around (even if their gaze always seem occupied by Instagram), and my Italian family has conditioned me to always be on the lookout for shady business; occhio, occhio.

Kristen Wiig on Bridemaids makes

Like most metropolitan underground systems, it’s a place you’ll also find people asking or performing for money. One old man sticks out in my memory. I heard a catchy tune and my foot instinctively started tapping — but then I stopped mid-tap, ball of foot lingering in the stagnant air, conflicted about the fact that I was enjoying the live music while hesitating to dig in my purse for coins.

I’ve researched the give-or-not debate before, especially when I’ve traveled to Latin America, but even people who declare a stance often seem conflicted. Are you?

You hear stories about “beggar mafias” where if you give a person money, it’s not going to them but to a horrendously cruel overseer. That might be true, or we might tell ourselves that to feel better about ignoring the mom on the steps.

Or, you hear that if you give your money to someone who begs, they’ll continue to beg and never find “real” work. That might be true, or “real” work and real food may be out of their reach today, for whatever reason.

Or, you make assumptions about what that person would spend the gratuity on. It could be a sandwich or it could be booze, but it’s probably not our place to predict or dictate where our pittance goes.

That time, with the catchy tune, I didn’t think about all that, though. That time it felt simple: I liked his violin performance, and I gave him my money. Mother Teresa over here with her vending machine water bottle change.

Rita Ora claps sarcastically

This was early in the Italy move. Now, I’m becoming Milanese in the sense that I avoid subway interactions and stare coldly into my phone most of the time. Occasionally, people do look up from their devices to talk to me — to ask for directions — and I feel very important and local when I can reply in Italian, “Ah yes yes, you have to change lines at Garibaldi. I totally live here, too.”

Speaking of phones, normally I don’t like when people make hands-free calls because I mistakenly think they’re talking to me or themselves — both initially uncomfortable situations. But with Italians, you get to watch a veritable show because they have unlimited access to all their delightfully expressive hand gestures.

I remember one time I was holding Alberto’s hand as he was trying to tell my family a story. I soon felt a tension, and I knew what had to be done. “Do you need your hand?” I asked. Yes, please. Only then could he convey the full spectrum of his experience.

Italian hand gestures

On another subway trip, there was a disheveled middle-aged man without legs who was dragging himself down the subway car’s floor, pausing every couple of seats to plead for money, before wiggling his way to the next set of seats. Most of us looked away, some looked at him in disgust, others tried to make themselves smaller, hoping he wouldn’t use their thigh as leverage to scoot further down the subway. We make up a story in our minds that the government or some nonprofit is taking care of him; he doesn’t need us.

And then, you meet the people who are battling within their own panhandling world. I was waiting with a classmate who was purchasing a transit card when we heard a commotion in the station near the ticket machines; sometimes people will hover next to them hoping that you’ll drop your transaction change into their jingling cup.

It was a turf war: “This is my spot!” The hell it is, I’m working here today. “Oh no, you aren’t! I’m poorer than you are!” No, I need it more. “Fuck you!” Fuck you!

The story, from my eyes, ends there. My train is arriving. I must go home to study the grammatical past, the passato remoto, so that I can understand Italian literature and Tuscans. What a luxury.

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