On an uptown local train during the height of an August rush hour, an old man fell asleep in his seat. It should be said that the man in question probably believed his music was contained; he was wearing earbuds. But either he’d neglected to properly plug the headphones into the outlet or the mechanism was somewhat faulty. Because for whatever reason, “Let’s Get It On” started blasting loudly in the otherwise quiet car.
The average urbanite sees a few things in a lifetime of public transit. Kids fighting. Women screaming. Perverts perving. Madmen ranting violently. And the occasional eel, escaped from a shopping bag, writhing wildly down the length of a J-train car. On one occasion, a seven-foot schizophrenic caked in filth spent the better part of an uptown express trip berating a woman whom he claimed had grabbed his ass, threatening to turn her into the transit cops for sexual harassment.
And yet, I have never seen a trainful of passengers more uncomfortable than in the moment when the first four insinuating notes started to play, and Marvin Gaye’s sensuous, passion-roughened voice filled the car.
I’ve been really tryin’, baby
Tryin’ to hold back this feeling for so long
And if you feel like I feel, baby
Then, c’mon, oh, c’mon, woo
The old man was asleep. As for the rest of us, we tried not to meet each other’s eyes. Young, old, mom, hobo, man, woman, and teen—everyone was acutely embarrassed.
Let’s get it on, ah baby
Ah, baby, let’s get it on
Let’s love, baby
Let’s get it on, sugar
Let’s get it on, woo hoo
Often in silly public situations, there is some complicity. People grin wryly and roll their eyes and twinkle at each other in solidarity. Not so here. The enforced intimacy of the situation, the sudden sexualization of our determinedly unphysical proximity, struck at something fundamental. A few people listened to their headphones and pretended they couldn’t hear. Others buried faces in their books. The German tourist sitting next to the sleeping DJ looked particularly horrified.
There’s nothing wrong with me
Loving you, baby no no
And giving yourself to me can never be wrong
If the love is true, oh baby woo ooo
I had never realized just how long that song is. It lasted four stops. One brave guy finally tried to ease the tension by saying, “Hey, it’s better than what I’m listening to! They should play Marvin Gaye at rush hour all the time!” A for effort, but it fell miserably flat.
The old man only jolted awake when the song ended and “Smiling Faces Sometimes” came on. Then he left the car.
No one could even laugh. It was almost as bad as the time that schizophrenic claimed I’d grabbed his ass.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.