A few weeks ago, New York State Senator Bill Perkins introduced a bill that would outlaw eating on New York’s subways. The bill, which was designed to curb the subway’s impressive rat problem, would slap masticating riders with fines of up to $250. Unsurprisingly, the proposed legislation has drawn criticism, not only from long-suffering subway riders but also from none other than the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who said in an interview that he watched too many children eating breakfast on the subway to support such a ban.

Still, the bill has led to a bit of soul-searching, as pretty much anything related to New York public transit does. Yesterday, an op-ed contributor to the New York Times linked the proposed ban to Victorian-era racial and class stereotypes that portrayed public consumption as a filthy working-class pursuit, a “gateway sin that led to drinking and debauchery.”

But while eating on the subway has certainly proven to be a gateway to disturbing but highly entertaining skirmishes, I don’t think it’s so much eating in public as eating in a fetid, enclosed public area that’s really the issue. If personal space always comes at a premium in New York, it’s a black-market commodity underground.

It’s hard enough to squish yourself into a seat about the size of a battery hen cage and to fend off the intrusions of fleshy buttocks or that dude who insists on spreading his legs into two separate time zones. But there’s no way to fend off the creeping aroma of someone’s hot anchovy sandwich or slowly fermenting Egg McMuffin. You can’t cancel that shit out with headphones, no matter what science says about the effects of loud noise on our sense of taste.

It’s also a matter of context. Removed from a restaurant, pungent smells or the sound of smacking lips are both unexpected and intrusive. It’s a violation of expectations, and of personal comfort.

That said, there is a hierarchy of acceptability when it comes to eating on the subway, one that roughly corresponds to moisture content and smell. At the high end are granola bars and plain bagels, while the low end is occupied by plastic-foam boxes of spaghetti and meatballs, General Tso’s chicken, heads of raw garlic (hey, it’s happened), and egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches. Sunflower seeds, seemingly so innocuous, warrant their own circle of hell.

Cities like San Francisco and Washington DC have their own prohibitions on public transit eating. DC is so hard-boiled that a few years ago, Metro police actually arrested a 12-year-old girl for eating french fries. It’s hard to imagine that kind of thing flying in New York, if only because subway police are too busy dealing with crazy, naked racists and third-rail suicides. And honestly, it would take some of the fun out of one of our most popular pursuits, which is regaling friends and acquaintances with stories of the crazy, horrible things we see and smell on public transit. And that, when it comes down to it, is a far worse crime than an errant meatball.

Image source: Flickr member Unsuck DC Metro under Creative Commons

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