Monday, April 24, 2006

Take the A-train

by B. Strong

Subway scene
Originally uploaded by kaweeden.
I'm not much of a photojournalist, but these three fellow travellers on the A-train caught my eye.

I'm also evidently not much of a blogger, because the post I wrote about the photo seems to have disappeared. I don't have time to reconstruct the post now, so I'll leave it to my fellow marginal utilitarians, including visitors, to guess why I found the scene interesting enough to risk the ire of these three New Yorkers.

Hint #1: I'm a sociologist who studies inequality for a living.
Hint #2: This particular A-Train goes from Rockaway to Manhattan via Brooklyn. I took the picture about 7:45 am, somewhere around Broadway/Nassau, the first Manhattan stop.

Tom adds:
I saw the draft post before it got bloggered, but won't give the answer away quite yet.

Hint #3: The answer is something that everyone depicted in the photo, including the pair of knees at lower right, has in common.
Hint #4: It tangentially relates to a W$J Marketplace article from a couple days ago that made a claim about gender-specific attitudes that I found totally implausible.

Extra brownie points may be awarded for identifying all of the funny things about the addendum.
Hm... the post must have been eaten in one of these rounds of Blogger database fixes. I know the answer, because I read the draft post. For now, I'll add Hint #3: It's something that the three riders (and, indeed, the set of knees at lower right) have in common.
I would say it's that they're all "sitting wide", a strange phenomenon in which male NYC subway riders suddenly develop such "large equipment" that they have to spread their knees as far apart as possible, at the expense of anyone sitting nearby them (at least they aren't taking up two seats). However, the man on the far left has his knees politely together, so I'm guessing that's not it.

They're all wearing at least one item of black clothing...they all have their arms crossed...they all look like they're snoozing (or at least adopting the "I'm in a different universe" subway pose...)...

I dunno...they look like a pretty standard NYC subway bunch...
I'm with Mrs. Coulter's first choice, mainly because of the "knees" hint and the idea that the WSJ would say something implausible.

(Btw, it's not risking the ire of The Three that is problematic; it's that photo taking on the NYC subway is now banned. Otherwise, I would be posting some of the marvelous Shuttle train adverts, where they turn the entire car into, e.g., Deadwood.)
Outlaw blogging... who'da thunk it?

Mrs. Coulter has a good guess, though it perhaps hasn't put enough weight on Hint #1.

Hint #5.
Picture-taking on the NYC subway is illegal? Ooops.

Mrs. Coulter: Excellent observation about the knees. The "man" on the left is, in fact, a woman. So one type of inequality illustrated in the photo is a gender inequality: men claim a disporportionate amount of public space than women, even after you adjust for differences in size. (Incidentally, the woman was also the first on the train, so by gender-neutral rules of engagement she should have the most right to the space.)

But that's just a bonus, from my perspective.
Why can't U take pics on the subway? Will check back 4 more details on this entire myster!

The Tart
; )
Apparently, Kim is not an outlaw after all. From the MTA rules:

Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used. Members of the press holding valid identification issued by the New York City Police Department are hereby authorized to use necessary ancillary equipment. All photographic activity must be conducted in accordance with the provision of these Rules.

Here's a backgrounder. Security concerns were the issue, but the "get real" set -- led by Michael Bloomberg -- won out.

So it looks like you can take pictures of those train adverts, Ken.
Having blogger issues myself, I love Tom's bloggered word.

They are all wearing pants or casual clothes, and not in business attire?

Oh, I know! They all look sad or grumpy. Even the bodiless knees look grumpy.
Janelle: They do indeed look grumpy -- though no grumpier than professional D.C. Metrorail riders. You get the gold star for your observation that none of them are wearing business attire.

The W$J article I mentioned was about resistance to a new generation of wash-and-wear suits among a generation of suit-wearers that thinks of suits as formal inconveniences. In the not-too-distant past, just about everyone in a "white collar" profession would have been wearing business attire. You'd have to look for comparatively subtle signs such as inexpensive or lived-in suits vs. impeccably tailored suits a la Roger O. Thornhill in "North By Northwest" to identify status. Now, it's a matter of certain institutions that retain the formalities -- at my workplace, for instance, nobody wears anything approaching business formal on a regular workday. (Though you can easily identify my status in such hierarchy as we have from that of staff who are not any younger than me.)

The questionable utterance was from a "fashion historian" who claimed that men are more uneasy about what they wear than women. That may be true in the sense of willingness to sway with fashion, but I think even the 75th percentile man couldn't, to a first approximation, give a rat's ass about the differences between a suit made from a "convenient" vs. an "inconvenient" fabric.
There's a problem with your analysis, and it can be summed in one word that should mean something to a sociologidt: class. Not all workers are office workers. And not all office workers are educated or middle class.

Of course it's true that clothing is a dead giveaway of class location and social status. The people in the photo are telling us a lot about who (and where) they are. I ride the NYC subway every day (and I'm a sociologist) and I'm pretty sure that most people you see on the train fall outside of the analytic consciousness of the Wall Street Journal. These people aren't wearing subtle suits or comfortable fabrics that camouflage their status. They're wearing work clothes, on their way to earn the declining wage that now welcomes most Americans in the workplace.
MichaelR: I don't really disagree with your bottom line, but I don't think it alters what I remember of Kim's point from the lost post about the decline of business attire as a class/status signifier.

Note also that per the BLS, something like 60-70%, if not more, of employment in the NYC metropolitan division -- which includes the outer boroughs, White Plains, and a bit of NJ -- is in white collar services.

Also, once upon a time the working class service providers probably would have been wearing something identifiable as uniforms. I'll leave the analysis to Kim.
One class identifier that has not changed: shoes. Yes, everyone can wear khaki or denim to work but shoes (and handbags) and their condition give an idea not only of the wearer's occupation but also status.

Another thought is that the composition of the white collar workforce has changed. One notoriously badly dressed segment, of which I am an active member, is IT services -- I own exactly one suit & my geekier husband owns zero.
My interest in capturing the image was primarily from a class perspective. Specifically, I was struck by the fact that none of the three commuters in the main frame, the commuters in the reflection, or even anyone on the train were dressed in suits, despite it being the peak of the morning rush hour to downtown Manhattan. In fact, I was the most dressed-up person I saw, which is truly unusual in my world. (I was headed to a conference on, curiously enough, social class.)

Either (a) the professionals and managers who stock the Manhattan highrises don't live in Brooklyn, (b) they live in Brooklyn but don't take the subway, (c) they live in Brooklyn, take the subway, but don't wear suits, or (d) they live in Brooklyn, take the subway, wear suits, and just happened to be absent from my car and from the station platforms. Explanations (c) and (d) strike me as relatively unlikely; (c) because according to the WSJ business attire is becoming *more* formal, and (d) because the high cost of parking/cabs in Manhattan would presumable entice at least *some* suits to ride the subway.

And, whether the right answer is (a) or (b), it's a class process. One that's curiously absent from popular media accounts of inequality ... but that's a different post.
I think (c) actually is most likely (having assumed, of course, that apart from small samples and yadda yadda yadda, Kim wouldn't have found the situation bloggable had she run into a bunch of suits elsewhere in the subway), and the W$J's business apparel trendspotting is either off or applies to a relatively small subpopulation.

My inequality-related interest is in terms of what workers will accept as compensation for employment insecurity, long hours w/o overtime, etc... on which I might post once I come up for air.
I just don't think (c) is likely. There can't be more than a small proportion of the professionals and managers who work in Manhattan and who don't have to wear suits. Remember, this is near the heart of Wall Street itself, and few financial services firms ever did adopt "business casual" -- if by that we mean jeans, cords, Yankees caps, and down coats.

The racial and gender profile of the commuters also doesn't fit hypothesis c. Managers, in particular, are still disproportionately white men. The train commuters, by contrast, were disproportionately anything but.

I think it's more likely that the subway scene reflects class-based residential segregation. Manhattan-bound professionals and managers either live in the tonier suburbs (where, Connecticut?) or on Manhattan itself. It's the legions of service workers and petty retail salespeople who live in Brooklyn.

I should have asked the three commuters where they were going, and what they did for a living. Now *that* is probably illegal...
It would be interesting to see comparative scene at a commuter rail terminus. I'd expect that the people who can afford the expensive suburbs work in jobs where suits remain the standard attire.

The problem with (a) and (b) is that I know people who live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, ride the subway, and don't wear suits. They're mostly creative professionals, so I think Cathy's comment about geek (sorry) attire applies, except in these cases it's arty/hipster (sorry again) attire.

Last time I was in midtown Manhattan (on business), for a presentation on a contract bid, the consultants (me, a colleague, and a guy we know from another firm) were in suits, but the other interviewers -- upper-level research staff and managers at a major industry association -- were wearing various forms of business casual. From the street scene, I was somewhat surprised at how far I was in the upper tail of the attire distribution.

(Here in my office, I'm wearing khakis, a polo shirt, and a navy cardigan, with somewhat beat-up loafers. But the sweater is cashmere.)

NYC readers may, of course, tell me how full of crap I am...
Hmm...I had some substantial internal debate about the gender of the person on the far left. After some back and forth, I went for man with dreads. Oh well.

But the fact is that the vast majority of NYC subway riders are not suit-wearers, which, I suppose is why that observation didn't occur to me. But perhaps that observation is colored by the fact that I used to get on at 125th St. I would make a similar observation, though, about suburban commuters, based on my experience commuting via rail.
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