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.

Readin’ and Ridin’: The Subway Car as Reading Room

Like many New Yorkers, I do a lot of reading on the subway, standing or sitting. (It is a depressing fact, of course, that too many of us now seem fixated by smartphones, playing video games, or texting endlessly.) Sometimes I walk into  a car with a book already open, sometimes I seat myself, open up my backpack and settle in to continue the read. And sometimes I have to stand and read. Whatever option may present itself, I read whenever I ride. (Unless I have company, in which case, of course, I do my best to engage in conversation with my companion(s).) I don’t necessarily do this to be anti-social; it’s just that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have something to read. (In desperate times, when finding myself riding a train without reading material,  I have even descended to reading The New York Post; yes, that is how out of sorts I can feel with nothing to read at hand.)

My reading on the subway these days is limited, of course, because I do not commute to work by subway. I walk to work, so my riding the subway tends to be limited to short rides to my gym, and the usual traveling around the city to meet friends or partake of its other pleasures. In days gone by, when epic commutes took me to work, I read more, and moved through my bookshelves’ store of unread material a little more expeditiously. In 1995, I commuted from Little Italy to the Bronx for work, riding the D train from Lafayette-Broadway to Fordham Road; in 1999, I traveled to Queens College to teach my morning classes, catching the F train from 2nd Avenue and taking it out to Kew Gardens before transferring to a bus; in 2002, I rode the 2 train from 125th Street in Harlem to Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College–the end of the line. In each case, I was fortunate enough to not be stuck standing for too long, if ever, and enjoyed uninterrupted access to whichever book I happened to be reading at the time.

It has been said that New Yorkers read on the subway so that they don’t have to make eye contact, so that they can remain ensconced in their private reveries, untouched by those around them. I think there is something to that theory, but I think part of the reason is that our hectic lives leave little time for the leisurely read, and the subway commute can provide a moment or two of unhurried reflection. This is not to suggest that the subway car is a perfect reading lounge: too many people talk too loudly on their cellphones (in trains riding above ground) and sometimes to their friends or families; kids will be kids; headphone volumes are often set at eleven; rush-hour cars can be impossibly crowded and will not permit the standing read; panhandlers and buskers can raise a din. But in general, a not-too-crowded, not-too-frigid subway car and an entertaining read still remain one of the city’s enduring pleasures.

‘Swiping in’ a Vet on Memorial Day

Every New York City subway rider, at some point or the other in his riding career, becomes the ‘target’ of a solicitation, a beg, or a panhandle. And all around us, signs–put up by the MTA–tell us: don’t indulge them, don’t give; if you really want to, there are plenty of charities that would be happy to relieve you of your dollars and pennies; just don’t add to the ‘disorder’ on the trains. There are also, in addition, warnings from the MTA about not misusing our unlimited-ride Metrocards: don’t give away free rides, don’t give anyone a ‘free swipe.’

To some extent, I have internalized these warnings. I rarely give money on the subway; somehow, I become oblivious to the beseeching look, the plaintive appeal, the witty–and sometimes musical–plea for support and sustenance, for the alm not to be spent on drugs–the horror, oh, the horror!–but only on food for the family and children.

But I find it harder to resist the plea for the ‘free ride,’ the ‘swipe’ with the Metrocard. I have unlimited rides on the Metrocard; I’ve already spent my money ($104 a month) for it; the MTA has its money; why not give someone a free ride on it, especially when I’m done riding? (I”m usually asked for a swipe when I exit from a subway turnstile; the putative rider stands there, patiently, asking for swipes as passengers exit; the Metrocard can only be reused after an eighteen minute gap, so there is a good chance that my card is usable again, and more to the point, it is unlikely that I will use it again so soon after having finished a ride.’)

The economic argument against handing out free rides is clear and strong: every single ride thus denies revenue to the MTA. And the more revenue the MTA loses, the greater the chance that it will hike subway fares again, and give us all the collective middle finger. So why hurt yourself and everyone else by a misplaced act of charity?

Well, the MTA does pretty well with unused unlimited Metrocard fares. (These, among other unused Metrocard rides add up to $52 million a year.) But sometimes, our reasons for taking an action can find their grounding in something far more elemental.

This morning, as I headed toward my gym to participate in Memorial Day festivities (a brutal workout, followed by a barbecue and beer), I exited the Seventh Avenue turnstile and was asked for a ‘swipe.’ I mumbled a ‘No’ as I headed for the exits. Then I turned and headed back; I had only been asked for a swipe and the man who had asked me appeared to be wearing an olive-green jacket with pins and insignia. As I approached him, I detected the distinctive aroma of those who live on the streets, who have no home. Perhaps he was a veteran, but one not treated so kindly by the non-service life. Perhaps he wasn’t, but wanted to be one. In any case, it was Memorial Day and all the economic arguments against denying the MTA revenue didn’t make that much sense any more.

I ‘swiped’ him in, wished him well, and went on my way, wondering about my dispensation of illegal acts of kindness to someone who might be among those being honored on this Memorial Day, 2012.

PS: To the MTA: Sorry about that.

PPS: Edited to add link and change 55 to 52 in MTA figures above.