On being caught Manspreading

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Such singularity was found in him that many people refused to interpret the scarlet “M” by its original signification. They said that it meant “Marvelous,” or “Marsupial”; anything apart from the sin-stained frailty and passion of “Manspreader.”

When her elf-child had departed to gaze out the window at the never-ceasing loquacity of the dark tunnel, Hester replied, fervently resolved to buoy him up with her own energy, “Thou art crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery. But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! It shall not cumber thy steps as you treadest along the subway stairs; neither shalt thou freight the bus with it, if thou prefer to cross the traffic. Leave this wreck and ruin here where it happened. Meddle no more with it! Begin all anew! Be, if thy spirit summon thee to such a mission, the teacher and apostle of the close-legged men. Or as is more thy nature be a spreader and a sage among the wisest and the most renowned of the transportation world. Ride! Sit! Spread! Do anything, save to close legs and die! Up, and away!”

“O Hester!” he cried, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away under the terror of the MTA, “thou tellest of boarding a crowded subway car to a man who is bearing airport luggage! I must close here! There is not the strength or courage left me to spread my legs into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!”

He repeated the word.

“Alone, Hester!”

“Thou shalt not spread alone!” answered she, in a deep whisper.

Then, all was spoken!

Tim O’ Brien

A true MTA story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper straphanger behavior, not restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a MTA story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of moving room has been salvaged from the larger crowd, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no moving room whatever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thigh, therefore, you can tell a true MTA story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

He put his hand on the closed-legged boy’s wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa’s hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.


You know. Moral.

He wrapped the thumb in an old copy of AM New York and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was a lot of blood. Smiling, he said, It’s like with that old game Subway Surfers. Have legs, will travel.

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

Yeah, well, he finally said. I don’t see no moral.

There it is, man.

Fuck off.

George Orwell

The station smelt of spilled coffee and old urine. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for the usual advertisement space, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous man, more than a metre wide: the red face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy slouch and ruggedly handsome spread. He made for the stairs. It was no use trying the escalator. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the line was long and crowded during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. His train was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the escalator, the poster with the enormous man gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. DUDE…STOP THE SPREAD, PLEASE, the caption beneath it ran.

He froze as O’Brien’s words coursed again through his mind. Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger on the pillar labeled “Wet Paint”:

Closed + Legs = MTA

The paint was dry despite the label. He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden inside the red figure. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two coffee-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved the MTA.

John Steinbeck

“You remember about us goin’ to that machine, and it give us Metrocards?”

“Oh, sure, George. I remember that now.” His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, “George . . . . I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.” He looked down at the filth in despair.

“You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own Metrocard?”

Lennie grinned with relief. “I . . . . I thought I put it in my side pocket.” His hand went into the pocket again.

George looked sharply at him. “What’d you take outa that pocket?”

“Ain’t a thing in my pocket,” Lennie said cleverly.

“I know there ain’t. You got it in your hand. What you got in your hand— hidin’ it?”

“I ain’t got nothin’, George. Honest.”

“Come on, give it here.”

Lennie held his closed hand away from George’s direction. “It’s on’y a man, George.”

“A man? A manspreading man?”

“Uh-uh. Jus’ a little red man figure, George. I didn’t paint it. Honest! I found it. I found it red.”

“Give it here!” said George.

“Aw, leave me have it, George.”

Give it here!

Lennie’s closed hand slowly obeyed. George took the man and threw it across the track to the other side, missing the electric rail and landing onto a few dropped chip bags. “What you want of a manspreading man, anyways?”

“I could try and close its legs with my thumb while we walked along,” said


“Well, you ain’t closing no manspreaders while you walk with me. You remember where we’re goin’ now?”

Lennie looked startled and then in embarrassment hid his face against his knees. “I forgot again.”

“Jesus Christ,” George said resignedly.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I followed Daisy around a chain of loud teenagers to the yellow bumped line in front that warned us to stand behind. In its deep gloom we sat down side by side on an old bench carved with profanity. Daisy took her face in her hands, as if feeling its lovely shape, and her eyes moved gradually out onto the velvet dusk of the tunnel. I saw that turbulent emotions possessed her, so I asked what I thought would be some sedative questions about her little girl.

‘We don’t know each other very well,’ she said suddenly. ‘Even if we are cousins. You didn’t come to my wedding.’

‘I wasn’t back from my time as a spreader.’

‘That’s true.’ She looked at me absently. ‘Let me tell you what I said when she was born. Would you like to hear?’

‘Very much.’

‘It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was the MTA knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the straphanger right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a nonspreader —that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little nonspreader.’

After that summer the East was haunted for me, distorted beyond my Metrocard’s power of correction. And as I sat there brooding on the sticky bench, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first became a manspreader at the end of Daisy’s station. He had come a long way to this yellow line and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the underground, where the dark fields of the MTA rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in manspreading, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our thighs farther…. And one fine morning——

So we beat on, legs against the public, borne back ceaselessly into the spread.



J.D. Salinger

I don’t even like the MTA. I’d rather have goddam carpooling or a tram like the one to Roosevelt Island, but not if they have goddam anti-manspreading campaigns. I wish to God I’d have some transportation to respect. Always makes you feel phony as hell. But here I was, having to get a move on. There was no goddam other transportation near. You fall half in love with the MTA, and then you never know where the hell you are. Jesus Christ.

“I got my damn bags at the station,” I said. “Listen. You got any dough, Phoeb? I’m practically broke.”

“Just my Christmas dough. For transportation and all. I haven’t done any traveling at all yet.”

“Oh. I don’t want to take your Christmas dough.”

“Here,” old Phoebe said. She was trying to give me the dough, but she couldn’t find my hand.


She put the dough in my hand.

“Hey, I don’t need all this,” I said. “Just give me two bucks, is all. No kidding– Here.” I tried to give it back to her, but she wouldn’t take it.

“You can take it all. You can be a manspreader.”

“How much is it, for God’s sake?”

“Three dollars. No, two dollars and seventy-five cents. I spent some but made sure to leave enough for the subway.”

Then, all of a sudden, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, but I did it. It scared hell out of old Phoebe when I started doing it, and she came over and tried to make me stop, but once you get started, you can’t just stop on a goddam Metrocard swipe.

Herman Melville

Consider the subtleness of the MTA; how its most dreaded creatures squeeze their legs together underground, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of manhood. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the embellished shape of many species of teenagers. Consider, once more, the universal tension of the standing pregnant and elderly; all who are ignored or granted seats awkwardly and helped above each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to the gentle and most docile thighs; consider them both, the publicity and the shame; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling atmosphere surrounds the verdant leg, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Manspreader, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the closeted stretch. MTA keep thee! Spread not off on that seat, thou canst never close!”

William Carlos Williams

so much depends


a triangular


glazed with phone


between the wide


Sylvia Plath

God’s lioness,   

How one we grow,

Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow



Splits and passes, sister to   

The brown arc

Of the neck I cannot catch,



Black sweet blood mouthfuls,   


Something else



Hauls me through air—

Thighs, hair;

Flakes from my heels.




Godiva, I unpeel—

Dead hands, dead stringencies.



And now I

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.   

The child’s cry



Melts in the wall.   

And I

Am the arrow,



The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive   

Into the red



Eye, the cauldron of morning.


Michelle Chen is a poet, writer, and aspiring comedian who takes inspiration for her writing from the events that occur in and around her home, New York City, though she was born in Singapore and hopes to return and visit someday. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bat City Review, and elsewhere, and been recognized by Ploughshares Emerging Writers, the Lancaster Writing Award for Literary Criticism, and the City College of New York Knopf Poetry Contest, among others. She has performed her work at venues including Lincoln Center, Sotheby’s, the National Arts Club, and the NYC Poetry Festival, and has attended writing workshops at Amherst and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio with the support of the National Society of Arts and Letters. She is currently a senior at Hunter College High School and will be going to college in the fall. Visit her blog for ambitious youth at www.mc-ambitiousyouth.com.