Open Questions

Toenails On The Train: Your Private Business And Public Transportation

A man cutting his toenails. i i
iStockphoto.com
A man cutting his toenails.
iStockphoto.com

In the slow part of summer, one's thoughts naturally turn to toenails.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Specifically, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a woman on the bus who took a stick of deodorant out of her purse, took the cap off, reached inside the deep neckline of her dress, applied it to one underarm, changed hands, and applied it to the other underarm. "That," I thought to myself, "is a bold move."

I have long been oddly fascinated by the etiquette of personal care and public transit, which recurs as a topic of conversation just like the scourge of oversized strollers and the fact that express checkout lanes always say "or less" instead of "or fewer." Some people consider applying lipstick on the subway to be a disruption of the social order tantamount to removing all your clothes and running naked up and down the aisles, singing "Groove Is In The Heart" and high-fiving everyone. Other people have an attitude more like, "Well, I have to floss, I have to take the train to work; why wouldn't I combine them?"

When I brought this up on Twitter, I received a number of responses, ranging from horror to shrugging to something akin to what I felt, which was more like, "I don't personally care, and yet I feel I have seen something I was not meant to see."

One rule that was suggested to me was that if you do something in the bathroom, you shouldn't do it on public transportation. In some cases, obviously, this rule has merit. But I don't always clip my toenails in the bathroom, and if there's one thing that we all seemed to agree on, it was that there is something about clipping your toenails in public that taps into some hard-wired, caveman brain chemistry that says that TOENAILS ARE PRIVATE, FOR THE LOVE OF LITTLE APPLES.

This fundamental truth emerged in the form of a couple of tweets from people who noted that in some parts of the world, it's common to clip your toenails on the subway. It was an observation seemingly designed to communicate instantly that there are places where there are absolutely no rules whatsoever about this kind of thing. If toenail-clipping is allowed, we are through the looking glass. Those who clip their toenails would intercede with the deodorant lady only in the event they decided to offer to hold the cap for her.

I must admit that I find those who draw the line at lipstick perhaps oversensitive. I don't know why someone whipping out a lipstick and freshening herself up would matter to anyone — all you are seeing are lips and lipstick touching. It's no more intimate than applying Chap-Stick, which I've almost never heard anyone complain about, perhaps since its medicinal qualities move it into the realm of emergency medical care (more similar to applying a Band-Aid). Makeup in general, in fact, I find largely unobjectionable, although I don't do it myself, because applying mascara on the bus is a good way to subject yourself to a forehead full of mascara, a scratched retina, or both.

And yet! While I don't personally mind a little touch-up, there have been times when I have watched women perform full, thick applications from stem to stern (as it were), from foundation to blush to powder to eyeshadow to eyeliner to mascara to lipstick to whatever else. I do often find it ... not offensive, necessarily, but profoundly odd, partly because it invites people to watch every single thing you're putting on your face and to have a thought come to them — perhaps unbidden! — along the lines of, "Oh, HONEY." (Somehow, subway makeup-appliers seem to wind up being users of very dark eye makeup, and I recently watched one put her black eyeliner away and then take it out again to apply more, and then repeat the pattern about four times.)

It took me a while to determine that I actually have a set of three rules that I apply to these kinds of things.

1. Nothing that leaves anything behind. In other words, no nail clippings, no clouds of powder, no misty fog of perfume, no brushing your hair if it's going to dump hair on your neighbor, no bronzer dust settling on the seat beside you like sawdust at the lumber mill.

2. Nothing that constitutes a show. What you need to do in order to juggle your complicated schedule, I understand. But what you are doing because you think you look capital H-O-T while you're doing it, I don't care to see. This includes the kind of extravagant lipstick application that women do when they think they look like film noir sirens while doing it.

3. Nothing that intrudes. This rule was one I never even knew I had until The Hair-Flipping Incident Of 2007. While I was living in New York, I was on the very, very crowded F train when a woman standing right in front of me decided it was time to do her hair and makeup. Standing up. Smushed against some other people. She had an enormous mane of curly black hair, which was almost in my mouth anyway because of its sheer volume, and then, as she worked on her makeup, she began to flip it out of her way repeatedly. Every time she flipped it, her hair flew into my face. You have X amount of personal space on any given bus/train. You may not exceed that amount of personal space when you are working on yourself. Thus, if you do not have room to fling your hair about without exceeding your allotment of space, you may not fling your hair, irrespective of the otherwise unobjectionable nature of such flinging.

My three rules, however, are not the same ones everyone has, so I put this matter of common public culture to you. Is it acceptable to put on lipstick on the train? To do your makeup? To reach inside your shirt to rub deodorant on yourself? Would it be more or less acceptable if she hadn't had the low neckline, so she'd had to reach more awkwardly inside what she was wearing?

And, more than anything: What is the proper penalty for spraying cologne on yourself in public? I'm thinking it's prison, but I might be able to be talked into community service. Maybe.

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