Subway Series #2:
Human Nature Underground

by Steven Hill

I usually pass my time on the commute home from work by people-watching. You know, studying faces, expressions, mannerisms. It's like a game I play, it helps me unwind. Most commuters read a periodical or newspaper or something, but I figure I can do that at home. Instead, I watch and listen. I mean, where else but on a subway can you find such a cross section of humanity?

What a cluttered menagerie, these subways are. Kind of like the Bronx Zoo. What a modern day Tower of Babel. Why, just on my forty minute commute, I hear Arabic, Yiddish, Ethiopian, Australian, French, Haitian French, ten different dialects of Spanish, Kor ean or Chinese or Cambodian, I can't tell the difference though my girlfriend Estelle says Chinese has a bit more of an upward 'ping' to it, whatever that means. And then there's the 'nasal stiffs.' That's what I call the ones who specialize in waxing p hilosophical on the subway, trying to use big words that nobody else understands.

Just last Wednesday, a very pregnant, very Spanish-speaking woman and her male companion got on at one stop. The only word I could make out was "Hospital! Hospital!" By the periodic grimaces on her face, I guessed that her contractions were getting sho rter by the minute. At the same time, these two white guys got on and proceeded to hold court like they were practicing for a Ph.D. dissertation. Thick accents besides, one sounding Italian, the other French or Greek or something. Must be the faculty f rom the Mediterranean Renaissance Academy or something, I joked to myself. What a circus, this subway spectacle.

"But of course the ends justifies the means," said the Italian sounding guy. He was a surly, dark haired character, prone to gesticulating wildly to punctuate his loudest proclamations.

"Oh Machiavelli," responded the Frenchman pityingly. "Mon ami, you unhappy soul, how you carry on! Such a dim view of the human species. Including yourself, after all."

"Bah! Rousseau, you are so -- so French! So annoying! Let us not talk of trifling fantasies about human nature. Let us not fancy great things about the human animal, or parley idly about the way man ought to act. Let us be realistic and look at the way man does act! Look around you, look at these denizens of iniquity surrounding us," he said, gesturing in my direction. "Fornicators, abusers, criminals, thieves and murderers," he bellowed, looking directly at me.

'Of all the nerve,' I thought to myself, staring straight ahead and shifting uneasily. I don't normally mess with people on the subway.

"Humans are depraved and wicked," fumed the one called Machiavelli. "Motivated by self-interest and greed. And for that reason Rousseau, we must have a strong central authority to keep the peace and security."

Rousseau shook his head.

"Oh Machiavelli. I feel bad for you, you miserable fellow. Why is it that you refuse to see: that if we discover the goodness in human nature, and our common interest too, our general will -- which is, after all, the basis of our social c ontract -- then we can reconcile this dilemma between ends and means, between security and freedom, n'est-ce pas?"

Machiavelli spouted rude disagreement.

"Oh rubbish. Foolishness! The only type of freedom or security that is or ever will be possible is the result of naked self-interest between competing interests. Nothing more! The general will is a fiction of your wine-soddened imagination!"

I looked over my shoulder cautiously at this odd pair. That Machiavelli was a nasty-sounding fellow. From the Camille Paglia school of elocution, no doubt. I tried to mind my own business as best I could. I would have shuffled away from them if the ca r hadn't been jammed so full.

Rousseau shook his head like a parent to a child.

"Au contraire, mon ami, au contraire," he smiled confidently. "See here Machiavelli. No one is denying that humans have baser instincts. Yet you are completely discounting the ability of virtue to counter-act our baser selves. Nor the ability of educat ion to act as a vehicle toward enlightenment that leads one to find that higher self that does, in fact -- " and here Rousseau chuckled confraternally to Machiavelli -- "do what one ought."

I groaned, rolling my eyes. I've had an aversion toward philosophers ever since I dropped out of my Philosophy 101 class when the professor hinted, in no uncertain terms, that the women in the class could find enlightenment -- and an A grade -- by attend ing overnight study sessions at his house. Today, that's called sexual harassment. Back there in the swingin' '70s it was all hip and groovy. It was called sexual liberation. One woman actually took him up on it.

I turned my back away from the subway sages, as did most other passengers nearby. But that Machiavelli fellow was a nasty blowhard, and hard to ignore.

"Bah! Drivel! Foolish knave!" spat Machiavelli. "Vice will bring security, not virtue. And to these ends the means are justified! It is a matter of power, not principle. Human nature is wicked and rotten, I tell you! The masses like superficial thi ngs, frilly appearances and illusions. Rousseau, your ideas are not only foolish, they are fanciful and dangerous. They will lead to everyone's ruin!"

I wished I could have heard Rousseau's response, because I found myself rooting for him. That loud mouth Machiavelli deserved to get his comeuppance. But just then there was a disturbance at the other end of the car, so I craned my neck to see. Two wee ks ago some one got robbed and then shot on the subway. I could feel a wave of alarm spreading throughout the car. Oblivious to the charged atmosphere, that irascible Machiavelli poured it on, his words buzzing in my ears.

"Man on the whole is wicked, depraved. Capable of the most heinous acts. Murderers and thieves. Let us talk about what is, Rousseau, not witless half-baked notions of what we wish were true."

Maybe Machiavelli's right, I reluctantly admitted. I stretched to see what hoodlum was causing this latest commotion. From my vantage point I could not see much, but I could hear moans and groans. And I could feel the crowd surging, pulling away from th is latest indictment against our humanity.

Machiavelli taunted and sneered as the crowd pushed back harder. He poured it on like a unrelenting burst of semi-automatic gunfire. Good God Rousseau, say something smart, will you? Defend us, for cryin' out loud!

The crowd surged, like cattle getting their first whiff of the slaughter house. Some us got pinned against the wall. I wasn't very close to an exit, and I grew afraid for my safety. Good God, I thought suddenly. I hope that pregnant woman is safe! I re membered seeing her sitting somewhere in that vicinity.

"There is nothing about objective reality that can make one assume the best about man," continued Machiavelli. 'Oh shut up!' I wanted to scream at him. His condemnations of human nature were getting under my skin. As the car came to its next stop, sudd enly a great shout sprung from the crowd. Lo and behold, a newborn infant was thrust into the air, all red and raw, kicking and screaming its first breaths of life!

So! That's what the commotion was all about! That pregnant woman gave birth, right here on the subway! And all these New Yorkers, of all languages and faiths and creeds, assisted with the birth! What a miracle, what a joy! What a blessed testament to our human nature!

With renewed faith, I turned to give that blowhard Machiavelli a piece of my mind. But to my dismay, he and Rousseau had gotten off at the last stop.

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