The Subway: Let the Love-Hate Clichés Roll

When I first moved to New York City, I lived on 95th Street in Manhattan and rode down to 42nd Street for my graduate seminars.  My first commute on the subways was blindingly quick: I took the 2 or 3 downtown express at 96th and Broadway and one stop later (at 72nd Street) I disembarked at 42nd Street. Later, commutes grew more esoteric: when I briefly lived on the Mid-Upper East Side and worked in the Bronx, I walked west from 1st Avenue to Sixth Avenue to catch the D train uptown till Fordham Road. The ride was long and the subway cars were invariably empty, having disgorged their loads of passengers at Rockefeller Center. I had ample time and space–riding to and fro from work–to read the New York Times; I’ve never managed to read it as comprehensively ever again. Once I moved downtown, to the Lower East Side, my commutes changed again. I taught as an adjunct at Brooklyn College  and Queens College; travelling there required long subway rides and occasionally inefficient transfers. The Brooklyn College commute was worse: I taught on a Saturday morning and often had to deal with the surprises that the MTA often hands out on weekends to unwary train riders. When I returned to New York after my post-doctoral fellowship, I lived in Harlem and took the 2 downtown all the way to its terminus at Flatbush Avenue. I stood till Wall Street and then after procuring a seat, could finally settle down to reading.

Now, I walk to work and have been doing so for seven years. I miss the subway commute once in a while; mainly for the reading and the opportunities it provided for people-watching. I still ride the subway, of course; you cannot live in New York City and disdain it (unless you are driven around town); but now my rides are mostly quite short; they do not possess the quotidian sense of a daily ritual.

Thanks to walking to work, I do not miss: the rush-hour jams; the ‘sick passenger ‘ , ‘police incident’ and ‘track work’ delays, which occasionally resulted in the momentary, yet terrifying thought that immurement in a tunnel underneath the city would be my final fate; , the reroutings late at night and on weekends; the malodorous reminders of the City’s unfortunate who occasionally choose to make subways cars their home; the men who aggressively sprawl out over two seats and look askance at your suggestion that more space be created; the parents who bring gigantic vehicles on-board, which are ostensibly baby strollers, but which in appearance and girth resemble the kinds of motorized armoured vehicles that might have been used to invade Poland in the autumn of 1939; the incomprehensible squawks, er, announcements about service changes; the too-cold cars and too-hot stations in the summer; the open-air stations in the winter; the loud chattering on cell-phones; the harsh, tinny sounds emanating from a personal music player’s volume turned up too high.

That said, I still love the subway. It’s great and grand and old and tired, yes, but it still keeps the city running. If you didn’t know that you found out during Sandy or during the MTA strike a few years ago. If there is one thing in this city I feel almost warmly paternal towards, it’s the subway.

Note: In a future post, I hope to describe my first encounters with the New York subway–some twenty-six years ago.

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