Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Subways

Over the years I've seen tourists react to the subway in one of three ways: 1) as a dark, dangerous place filled with knife-wielding predators and possibly alligators if not dragons; 2) as an E-ticket ride at Disneyland with all the attendant shrieking one finds at the Matterhorn or Pirates of the Caribbean, or; 3) as a safe and reliable (albeit somewhat shmutzy) way to get from point A to point B.

I go with #3.

The NYC subway system is 104-years-old. It's continually being upgraded but like any 104-year-old it's creaky in some spots and smooth in others. Despite it's age it still transports over 5 million people per day to work, school, movies, the beach, golf courses, shopping, theatre, doctors' appointments, you-name-it. And it operates 24-hours-a-day. In the City That Never Sleeps that's a good thing to have.

Some tips:

1) Subway maps can be confusing. Don't be afraid to ask any New Yorker for help. But also expect six other New Yorkers to jump in with an opinion. We want to help because, honestly, even natives have to look at the map every now and then so we know it can be tough for you. Also remember that to a New Yorker the proper response to the question: "Where can I get the A train?" is: "Where do you want to go?" We're not being difficult. We just assume we know a better way.

2) Don't call the subways the "red line," the "blue line" or the "green line" unless you've just moved here from Iowa and want to show everyone that you've just moved here from Iowa. It's the only time you will ever get a blank stare from a New Yorker. Yes I know those are the colors of the lines on the map. Look, if all the lines were black that would be really confusing. Call the subways by their letter or number designations. We will love you for it.

3) Hang on! I can't tell you how many times I've seen tourists go flying when the train starts because they didn't get a seat and didn't grab on to a pole. They're in New York, they're on the subway, they're excited and they forget. I always tell my tour groups: it's a TRAIN. It starts with a jerk and it rocks and rolls and bounces and sways. So grab onto something before it starts and hang on. The people you don't crash into will appreciate it.

4) If you're a teenager don't shriek when the train starts. It's just a train. If you're an adult and you shriek, well, I can't help you.

5) If a packed train shows up with one virtually empty car it's not your lucky day. Either the air conditioning or heater is out or a homeless person is in residence and the smells will melt your fillings. Avoid it.

6) You will often see New Yorkers imitate the Flying Wallendas as they lean over the edge of the platform in a delicate and gravity-defying pose looking for signs of an approaching train. Over many generations we have developed a genetic predisposition that keeps us from falling onto the tracks. Unless you also have that gene I suggest feeling instead for the slight breeze on your skin that tells you that a train is approaching. Also, the noise. Plus, at some stations the tracks will give a tell-tale "clank" that tells you a train is approaching before you can see or hear it.

7) If you're in a large group don't stand in a clump by the door. Spread out so other people can get on and off. And because you're spread out make sure everyone knows the name of the stop where you will get off. If you're stuck by the door because the train is very crowded step off at each stop to let people get off then step back on.

8) If you're here on a weekend you must check http://www.mta.info/nyct/service/advisory.htm before you take the subway. NYC does track and station work on the weekends and many trains are re-routed, skip stations or disappear altogether. You can also find helpful posters in the large map displays in each station but the small posters on the support beams are usually indecipherable. In any case, check the MTA website before you head underground.

9) Finally, if you really want to ride the subway like a native enter the first car and stare out the front window as the train hurtles down the track. It's fascinating, it's mesmerizing, it's geeky and after all these years I still do it.

Next entry: Those Darn Metro Cards.

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