Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story. —E. A. Poe
With time to kill before my train, I moseyed into the New York Transit Museum’s shop at Grand Central Station. A train-mad little boy was going wild, and a clerk spoke to his mother sharply about not touching, which seemed to me tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. There were lots of T-shirts with the logos of different subway lines on them.
The shop was also selling merchandise bearing images from the MTA’s recent “Courtesy Counts” campaign—cheeky subway posters prohibiting “man-spreading,” in-car performances, incivility. My favorite is the one that portrays a female figure brushing her hair while a nearby male clips his nails. “Clipping? Primping?” it says. “Everybody wants to look their best, but it’s a subway car, not a restroom.”
I’m sure I am not the only person to find public nail-clipping among the most antisocial and aggressive of activities. The metallic click, the knowledge of the dry, jagged flakes of nail drifting to the floor, the fact that there is clearly something deeply wrong with the perpetrator—all this makes me shudder with physical horror. I once moved to another table in the New York Public Library’s main reading room, of all places, because of the insouciant clipping of a defiant old woman. But a train car—especially a crowded one—is a trickier business altogether. I bought a four-dollar magnet portraying the ad, even though the motion lines drawn above the nail clipper made my blood run cold.
The day passed, an absorbing blur of travel and work and interviewing. The magnet was quickly forgotten—one of those small, inessential impulse buys destined to be rediscovered in a few days, or weeks, when I’d wonder why I’d spent the money. Even at the time of purchase, I’d realized the magnet wasn’t very strong; a part of me could already see it gliding down the face of the refrigerator under the strain of supporting a single sheet of paper.
The Metro North train home was quiet until a large party of young financial types, looking very much like the cast of Metropolitan, boarded in Connecticut. I considered eating a banana, but decided it would smell too strongly.
And then I heard it. Click. Click. Click. It was unmistakable.
The nail clipper has been around in one form or another since the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1947 that William E. Bassett patented the crisp, riveted jaw design that is a necessary evil in any modern medicine cabinet. And since 1947, no one who has heard that noise has been in any doubt as to what is happening: steel cutting through keratin.
Click. Click. Click. It was faster now. Clearly the perpetrator was not merely doing a cursory trim, but attempting a crude shaping. I stood up ostentatiously and looked around to try to discover the culprit and shame him with a look. But the sound seemed to come from nowhere, and everywhere. Click. Click. Click.
I felt a cold sweat gathering. “Are you okay?” asked my neighbor, whose backpack was embroidered with the name of an equity firm. I wasn’t. Click. Click.
It was all I could hear; it was everywhere. Click. Click. Click click click click click. Dead things, living things, together, discarded, disgusting! I stood up and screamed,
“STOP IT! STOP IT! WHOEVER’S DOING THAT, STOP IT!”
There was silence. “Please,” I said more calmly. “Whoever’s clipping his or her nails, please stop.”
A woman looked up. She was around my age. “Excuse me?” she said.
“It’s disgusting,” I said. “And it’s against the rules.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, blank and hostile.
You know what happened next. I rummaged in my bag. “Here,” I said, striding over and dropping the magnet on the seat next to her. “Keep it.”
I strode out of the car. It was one of the great triumphs.
Of course, I’d left my ticket stub behind, and there was a new conductor working. But I didn’t mind paying again.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.