A boy stands on an elevated subway platform in New York City. At the Castle Hill Avenue station in the Bronx, to be precise. He’s about 15 years old, young in relation to the gathering masses of morning commuters slowly filling the platform. The boy is armed with a briefcase, a hard-sided piece of luggage more commonly seen in the hands of business types. But this is 1969, and backpacks have not yet been invented. Oh, they’ve been invented all right, but are larger in size and meant for Boy Scouts packing for a week-long Jamboree in the Catskills. In elementary school the boy carried what was called a “school bag,” a very imitation leather satchel modeled after pre-war European luggage. But high school calls for a meaner look, and a briefcase bears his schoolbooks, homework and lunch nicely.
The No. 6 subway makes its presence known to the commuters and rumbles busily into the station, too quickly at first, then slowing with an almost audible sigh as if the station presents a necessary hindrance to its tight schedule. As the ten subway cars’ windows flash by the massed commuters on the station, they signal that this morning, this train will offer more of what can be expected at this hour: crammed bodies inside, some sitting but most standing, taking up every available inch of space in each car. The lucky commuters who boarded at the Pelham Bay terminus are sitting, while everyone else is holding onto handles over the seats or poles placed strategically throughout each car. A fair number of people are not holding onto anything at all; the massed bodies around them make it impossible to fall no matter how fast the subway travels or how tightly it hugs a curve. Personal space does not exist and is not expected.
The massed commuters on the Castle Hill platform view this scene with resignation. Nothing new here. Maybe another, less crowded train is just behind this one; that happens sometimes. The boy’s eyes narrow involuntarily. He sees something different. Like a football offensive lineman eyeing the opponent’s defensive line, he sees a challenge, one he knows he’s up to. He’s the Crimson Tide of Alabama, after all. His opponent, a worthy foe from a lesser conference, is simply overmatched. Game on.
The subway lurches to a halt, and the boy aims for one of the double doors nearest him. As they slide open, a familiar sight greets Castle Hill station: the sturdy backs of the two passengers who had been leaning against the doors, and beyond that, not a breath of space that is not occupied by massed bodies. This being only the fifth stop from the terminus and still a long way from Manhattan, no one is getting off. Castle Hill is where tired workers come home to sleep, not commute to in the morning. The subway car appears to exhale imperceptibly. The open doors yield some of the constraint that had held the passengers in, but the passengers themselves are reacting in a subliminal manner: they almost seem to will themselves larger to fill any void created by a hopeless attempt at civility in a crammed moving car. They are bracing for attack.
The boy takes the scene in, and his practiced eyes move to the threshold of the open car door. The door opening is roughly five feet wide. Usually only two passengers lean against the closed doors, and today is no exception. Three to a door has been observed at times, but only with very slim individuals who ideally know one another. The boy knows the math without thinking. Two pairs of shoes, no matter how wide or strategically placed, cannot cover five feet. Now he’s a running back facing a defensive line of four shoes with a distinct disadvantage: they cannot move to tackle him. No contest.
Even as his fellow Castle Hill commuters sigh in resignation and remain fixed in their tracks, the boy moves decisively forward. He chooses a vacant gap in the threshold not guarded by a shoe and plants his right foot firmly inside the car. His left hand brings the hard-sided briefcase across his body like a Roman centurion’s shield as he reaches up with his right hand and anchors it just inside the upper edge of the open doorway. Once this position has been established, the result is inevitable.
The boy is keenly aware of the reaction of the massed bodies inside the subway car. No one looks at him; no one makes any sign of acknowledging his presence. But the mass of humanity in the car moves as one, like a viper poked with a stick and uncoiling in anger. Passengers well inside the car inch toward the door, and the two stiff backs facing him actually arch outward. “You are not getting in,” the mass speaks silently. “We are suffering here collectively; we do not need you to add to our grief.”
The boy does not heed the objections of the mass. His right foot and right hand are firmly in place; in his mind he’s already staked his claim inside the car. Stiffening leg and arm muscles, the boy arches his body forcefully against the backs in front of him, accepting no debate or resistance. The mass pushes outward, but the boy has an unfair advantage—his age. Not the strength that comes with being fifteen; that’s an even exchange in the heat of a commuter war. His advantage is the fact that a fifteen-year-old boy can shove adults more than twice his age with impunity. The adults cannot reciprocate; it comes with the territory of being more mature. In mere seconds the battle is over. The boy’s body has been forced inside the car, and the sliding doors scrape his and other backs on their way to meet each other. He is inside.
As the subway lurches forward and picks up speed on its way to the next station, the human mass inside the car relaxes from its battle mode as passengers attempt to recover their tiny zone of comfort and politely refrain from pressing against one another as much as they can. Battles in New York City are constant and frequent, and feelings dissipate rapidly as the next set of challenges is presented and addressed. The boy is now just another passenger leaning on a subway car door, maybe the newest addition forming the infrequent three-across formation, or perhaps having displaced a previous leaner who is now doubling up on an overhead handle.
Soon the subway slows and reluctantly comes to a halt at the Parkchester station, which bears the name of a rather large nearby subdivision, called a “project” in the day. The teeming masses on the elevated platform dwarf those at Castle Hill, and this crowd is restless. The subway doors open, and the battle is joined.
The boy, his back to the masses on the platform, makes his next practiced move. Reaching up with his right arm again, he anchors his hand on the same doorway edge that had served as a fulcrum in his last campaign. His move and intent are obvious to all, but once again age is an overwhelming advantage: fifteen-year-old boys have no shame. Braced for anyone who dares to breach the gates of the keep, the boy arches his stiffened back outward in preparation for the possible threat. Often the mere sight of the braced boy elicits defeat on the part of the platform commuters, but if a challenge does come, the outcome is not a foregone one. The subway car mass exhales again and surges outward, the boy leading the defense. Sometimes an attacker will even win, slipping past the boy or forcing his way in on the momentum of a tightly massed attacking force on the platform. Either way the battle is fierce, ending only when the sliding doors separate the winners from the losers and allow the subway to proceed to its next battleground.
As a logistics executive in my previous life, I had several opportunities to join new departments and companies as my career progressed. Often I was the new manager, one hired to look at situations with a fresh eye and invariably tasked with turning them around. An advantage of bringing a new guy in from outside the organization is the different outlook and wealth of new ideas the newcomer brings. His perspective is fresh; he bears no preconceived notions or pre-established loyalties.
So it was whenever I came aboard. Looking at everything with a critical eye, I questioned procedures, motives and standards. How easy it was to spot faults that seemed obvious to everyone: How long have you guys been doing this in such an unproductive fashion? Are you seriously still doing things this way? The pushback I received ranged from subtle to not so. What the hell did I know about their organization, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and not having gone through countless battles with deadlines, budgets, personnel issues and the myriad obstacles strewn in the path of a weary team?
Pushback or not, I prided myself on ramming changes through, as subtly or forcefully as was called for. Invariably the changes had their intended effect, the organization strengthened and thrived, productivity increased, all was well with the world. Then time went by. Anyone who’s taken even a cursory look at company payrolls knows that managers earn their keep; operations are a slogging campaign in the trenches, obstacles are numerous and imposing. After several seasons of struggle, everyone is bloodied and bruised, getting through the next day and project with as much grit as can be mustered.
In comes another newbie, perhaps an auditor or a new member of senior management. The dreaded questions are raised: Why are you doing this or that? How do you justify your performance vis-à-vis your burgeoning budget? My reaction in such cases was invariably harsh and not unexpected: Who do you think you are, what do you think you know about our problems and issues? Your proposed methods are slick, but they don’t mesh with the systems we’ve set up and have been running for years!
As the young boy on the subway platform so many years ago, I fought the subway wars as a sport on my way to school, much as I played pick-up basketball after classes. The social implications of the battles did not register with me, and almost certainly not with the passengers within or without. We were all just trying to get to school or work in the quickest and most comfortable manner possible, two qualities that were irreconcilably at odds during rush hour.
It wasn’t until I was in management that memories of the subway wars came back to me and symbolized typical human behavior in confrontational situations: If I am outside, I will fight the Enemy inside to take my rightful place in their midst. Once I am inside, I will band with my new-found Allies to repel attacking outsiders. George Orwell describes a scene in 1984 where a party rally supporting Oceania’s alliance with Eastasia against Eurasia makes a dramatic u-turn literally mid-sentence to portray Eurasia as the new ally against Eastasia. The subway wars of my youth were very similar in the rapid and constant shifting of alliances among passengers. Management u-turns, or even slight bends in the road, are not as dramatic, but they are most definitely a reality. The rationale may differ from Orwell’s doublethink, but the results are the same. If you and I are not on the same side of the subway threshold, we are at odds.
How many other decisions and attitudes are determined by a subway war mentality? How many people hew to a political party line simply because that’s the accepted plank in the platform? Don’t even get me started on religious differences. And is there an answer to the “I’m in, you’re not” mentality? Actually, there is. I could have left my house earlier, stood on the platform and let trains go by until one arrived with reasonable breathing room. Step inside, no fight. That’s called “Compromise.” I make the extra effort, I let reason prevail, and everyone gets what they want. But tell that to a fifteen-year-old boy running late to his geometry class.
I still fight subway battles with others engaged in similar wars, both in business and on personal fronts. What is it they say, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”? In many ways, we are all too often just fifteen-year-olds still repeating history.