Ride the Subway

Ride the subway. The New York subway system is unforgivable. This ancient warren of tunnels, bridges, and elevated rails has not aged well over the last one hundred years. As you descend to the depths of the New York subway all kinds of smells—human, animal and chemical—assault the senses. Screeching train wheels, synthesizers of subway musicians turned up to 10, incomprehensible intercom announcements, and irate passengers yelling through the thick windows to the MTA ticket sellers make it hard to hear your friends, your podcast in the headphones or even your own thoughts. It is filthy. Sticky platforms, rats running across the tracks hunting trash, disheveled fellow passengers, and pukey late night drunks compete with the usual germs of so much humanity crushed together. This is the setting where the first-time visitor—or even the New York Subway veteran—tries to figure which way to go in a maze of stairs, passages and signs. What platform, which direction? Local or express? Where to change trains, especially where it doesn’t feel like you have to walk a mile or leave the station? And on the weekend – forget it. It’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the track repairs, replacement shuttles,  and non-functioning lines. It’s poorly managed and the platforms are sweltering in the summer and it’s the favorite topic of complaint of New Yorkers, following the weather and real estate costs. 

BUT! I implore you: Ride the subway.

With the above unfavorable conditions a given, the New York subway provides several key advantages as a means of travel. With the exception of a taxi late at night, it’s almost always the fastest way to get anywhere in the city beyond a few blocks’ walk. Despite residents’ complaints, the subway trains actually come on very regular bases throughout the day. Outside of rush hour or in its opposite direction, the train cars are often not crowded. More and more frequently the tracks are equipped with electronic signs showing the arrival of the next train. These rides are cheap. A single ride famously tracks with the average cost of one slice of pizza in the city. Currently $2.75. And most importantly they are teleportation devices to other worlds to be explored.

Get on the B train at Columbus Circle at 59th Street in Manhattan and ride all the way to Brighton Beach. You rocket over the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn, beckoning. You plunge back into the earth only to emerge again above the far plains and suddenly: You have arrived at the Atlantic Ocean. Walk on the boardwalk, then eat caviar and drink vodka in NYC’s Little Odessa.

Or board the A train at West 4th in Greenwich Village and ride up to the Dyckman Street Station at the tip of the Island. Exit and find yourself at the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s actually a gigantic Frankenstein’s monster of buildings- Churches, cloisters, monasteries – bought by wealthy New Yorkers in Europe and shipped to the northern end of Manhattan, and reassembled in a fairy-tale castle housing one of the most exquisite pieces of art in the city: the famed Unicorn Hunt tapestries from 15th century Belgium.

Or ride the 5 train to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and eat delicious Italian food made by Albanians. Or Take the the Q Train to Prospect Park and go fishing in its lake. Or take the L Train all the way to Broadway Junction to walk in the Evergreens Cemetery, and follow the secret path the British took in 1776 to surprise and defeat George Washington’s army in the Battle of Brooklyn. Or just take 6 train to your dinner reservation. Slowly master the map, it’s one of the great joys of being in NYC. Your map app on your smart phone most likely will be happy to give you directions using public transport. You’ll make a wrong turn. No problem. Correct course and you are on your way. Or don’t and see where the unexpected takes you.

Ride the subway train because it’s beautiful. Not all the time, granted. But riding the train and shooting out over the Manhattan Bridge, sun streaming in, the Upper Bay and the statue of Liberty in the distance, these are special moments, provided every few minutes by the Q, N, B and D trains. Or perhaps you’ll be in a train car where several of your fellow passengers will burst into dance, a beat driving them to the ceiling in breathtaking flight. Or a quartet will break into old soul songs. Or put in your earphones and watch the greatest human drama unfold: new loves, breakups, friends laughing, strangers arguing. Or take out your earphones and overhear the greatest human drama at top volume as the city’s anonymity provide cover for loud private confessions. Observe the mosaic of humanity so like you and so unlike you. Speaking hundreds of languages in every skin tone, sipping coffee, on the way to work, on the way home, riding the train. Like you.

Ride the subway, because it is civilization. True, there is almost nothing that makes a New Yorker feel more animal than riding the subway. Squeezed into a rush-hour car, crammed up against perfect strangers as the train takes a long pause in the middle of the tunnel, killer feelings arise. Yet this is precisely why the subway is civilization. There are nearly 2 million rides a day (and nearly a billion a year!) and only the smallest handful of “incidents” each day. People manage in the crowded, claustrophobic, uncomfortable conditions to resolve their tensions, strategically ignore minor offenses, let people know about the unspoken rules, and remain crammed against dozens of strangers and keep their absolute cool. You’ll notice that master look of cool on the faces of many of your fellow riders, even in an almost empty car. A beautiful stare in the middle-distance, respectful of the great mass humanity who is stranger to us, but acknowledging that we are on a journey together. Our world is only growing more crowded and the NYC subway is a model of conflict-minimum interaction, facilitated through a couple million small interactions and negotiations each day.

Ride the subway. Give your seat to those who need it more. Hold tight. Your stop is next.

© 2019 Bruce Burnside

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