Nicolas Heller’s subway trips have had an added meaning lately: getting New Yorkers to mind their manners.
The filmmaker, known as New York Nico on Instagram, and his girlfriend, graphic designer Naomi Otsu, have begun distributing DIY literature on subway etiquette — a new public awareness project from the couple that Heller had kicked around in some form for two years.
“The reason for it is kind of obvious. You see terrible subway etiquette on the train every day and sometimes you just want to say, ‘Yo, what are you doing? This is not the proper way to act,’” said Heller, a native New Yorker from the Union Square area now living in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “This is something I thought we could pass around.”
Otsu illustrated the pamphlet, billed as a subway survival guide, and helped refine Heller’s messaging to be a playful and gentler reminder to be a more mindful commuter.
“Our main purpose is having people be more aware of other people’s space and how you exist in New York,” Otsu said.
The result is a fun trifold — more in the spirit of the subways’ old “The Subway Sun” campaign of the 1940s than the MTA’s current “Courtesy Counts” posters of bubble figures. It’s a lighthearted design that people wouldn’t necessarily “take the wrong way and punch you in the face” over, Heller said.
“It’s New York. People are grumpy,” he added.
There are great details, like anthropomorphic rats and cockroaches commuting in Uggs and high-heel boots; a delivery driver cursing a traffic jam; and a shining sun greeting residents with another day while donning a Yankees hat.
There are subway quick facts and tips borrowing some of the MTA’s own advice: Be sure to step into your train car so as to not block the doors; don’t take up extra seats and let riders out of the train before you board (Heller’s biggest pet peeve).
It also cautions against being a “pole hog,” — that is, one who leans on the entirety of a grab pole — and reminds riders that it’s perfectly legal to offer a swipe to a needy commuter as long as money is not exchanged.
On a recent Saturday, Heller and Otsu dipped into the Fulton Center transit hub, where Heller dished pamphlets to a mix of locals and tourists visiting the city’s civic center and financial district.
“Some reading for the train?” Heller said as he passed them out.
There was a taker out of every three or four jaded subway riders. One man quickly brushed Heller off before catching a look at the pamphlet and changing his mind.
“Matter of fact,” he said, snagging one.
Heller has amassed more than 140,000 followers on Instagram by highlighting some of the city’s colorful and eccentric characters — from street performers to barbers — through short films and humorous, touching vignettes.
“Can I have one? I love you!” asked one rider of Heller as she made her way onto an A train.
Heller, who at first seemed a bit uncomfortable soliciting riders on the platform, obliged.
“I love you, too!” he said as the doors closed.
The couple has printed 500 flyers to give out. Heller and Otsu are not sure if they will print more, or broaden the tips and tidbits beyond the subways. The flyer is also available online for free download.
The MTA appreciated the duo’s push for politeness. While the guide mentions that the MTA will fax out proof of train delays for tardy workers, MTA spokesman Shams Tarek noted that the authority has embraced newer technology.
“We love the enthusiasm and love for the subway behind these pamphlets, which are a reminder of how New Yorkers look out for each other," he said in a statement. "Also delay verification letters are emailed out, so you can keep that fax machine in the closet.”
Of the roughly 5.5 million daily subway riders, there are hundreds if not thousands of space hogs making their way through the city each weekday. Maybe the pamphlets can make a small dent. But they’ve already changed one person’s perspective.
“The pole hogging was something that wasn’t so obvious to me,” said Heller, who crowdsourced ideas. “That was something I was guilty of . . . but now I’m conscious of it and won’t do it.”