Subway Strategist

A personal essay by Ivy Berchuck

In recent years over a hundred people have acknowledged that I’m getting old. I object on principle, but the evidence can’t be disputed.

These finger pointers are not mean or ill spirited. On the contrary, they are kind and they smile as they single me out for preferential treatment. Regardless of the crowding in the rush hour subway I won’t be standing for long. A seat will be offered with a deferential gesture of concern for me, an elder who has been unwillingly identified.

It’s not as if I didn’t look in the mirror in the morning. I did, carefully and was satisfied. With the right lighting and before I put on my glasses there wasn’t a wrinkle anywhere. Add a touch of makeup, walk briskly to the subway and I am ready to start my day.


It is the tail end of the rush hour. No seats are available , but there is room to stand without being jostled. Some of the seated heads are bobbing in half slumber…That bunch will surely ignore my presence. The well dressed types reading the Wall Street Journal are above noticing the likes of me. Whatever their mothers taught them about courtesy departed when they entered the hedge fund crowd. I scan the others and within minutes one of the seats is mine. I’m full of gracious thank yous, but my mood is ambivalent. Didn’t the woman standing near me look as decrepit as I did? I’m being typecast…Face it I’m an old lady.


In the beginning I tried to deflect the attention .by registering surprise “Who me?…”How kind of you, but are you sure that you’re getting off soon?”…and then the worst thing I ever said  …”Do I look that awful?” The young man laughed. His response was wonderful…” You look fine…I’m just not from New York. .I always give seats to women.”…Notice…no mention of my being an older woman.

So I sit dawn and then the good feelings start. The train is now fuller, and the standees look uncomfortable. I take out my book and have a pleasant ride from Forest Hills into Manhattan….


Like dealing with grief, there are stages to this life situation. After the stage of humiliation comes acceptance. No matter how favorable was my response to the morning mirror, I now accept the deterioration of my looks between home and subway station. I appreciate  my good fortune getting a seat and have begun to love New Yorkers more than ever.

So now I have arrived at Stage three and this is the most interesting….developing a strategy.         Once I have accepted the designation conferred by the strap hanging community, I want to ensure the fastest success on every trip. Now when I scan the seats, there is demographic research in my head, a compilation of data from all the seats awarded prior to this trip. I want to stand near candidates likely to make me an offer. Best bet are twenty- something Latino men. This group has proven that they have enduring love and respect for their mothers and grandmothers. As soon as there is eye contact one will jump up and I slither into position. Middle aged African American men are an alternate choice, but only if they have not become part of the Wall Street Journal crowd. And I must not forget older Asian women, because they’re not on the train for the long haul, but will get off in Jackson Heights to do their shopping at the ethnic markets….and that is just one stop away. Younger well dressed women will never give a seat, but poor, disheveled types not only offer seats, they manage to dispense coins to the unfortunates looking for a handout.


So where do I take it from here? Is there another stage? No, but I can put my training towards some public good. With all those baby boomers reaching retirement age there is an entirely new population in need of my advice. And I am the one to do it. So watch for my lecture series on “ How to age successfully while riding the subway” The only problem is, where do you think I can teach it?


Ivy Berchuck wrote stories in high school and college and forgot to continue until sherediscovered the joy of writing in the IRP. The support of participants in the Memoir study group has encouraged her to forge ahead.