Subway Serious – railing on the hottest ride in town

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Chambers_st_nyc_subway  NY Subway Map subway platform

With the good fortune of recently being hired by a well-known company to work at their corporate offices in NYC downtown, I’ve been re-introduced to a form of transportation used by thousands daily. The NYC Subway.

I’ve commuted to NYC for most of my 30+ years in the workforce; this is the first time that it’s been necessary for me to go downtown to work via the subway everyday.  Oh sure, I’ve used the subway sporadically all my working life; quick hops to get to appointments, avoiding the rain when there aren’t cabs, lunch with friends, head to Yankee Stadium, etc.

Still fresh in my mind are the fond memories of the underground life in the gory, er glory days of the early ‘80’s before subway car air-conditioning.  Subway cars were covered in graffiti, relatively dirty, loud and the car windows were open all the time. In the summer, riding an express train was your only option for a “cooler” train as the hot air flew through the car at high speeds creating the illusion of a temperature drop.  Coupled with the heat was the unmistakable and highly fragrant presence of the “residents” who roamed beyond the turnstiles.  Often times, one would see people camped out on subway platform benches and in corners, huddled in what I’m sure wasn’t a swaddling cloth, but more like a mangy blanket reeking of a number of unessential scents. Of course this phenomenon was pre-Giuliani administration and then we woke up one morning and this crowd had vanished.

Oh, and I remember using subway tokens, which have now been replaced by Metro Cards.

subway tokenmetrocard_199x125

Despite the noise and darkness of the underworld, you still can’t beat the subway in NYC for convenience. You can get most anywhere in town and the 5 boroughs for what is now $2.50. The system has improved greatly over the years. Most cars are air-conditioned and it’s working pretty well a good percentage of the time. The maps are clearer, even visible electronically on the trains, and announcements have been introduced telling you about the upcoming station.  For people watchers, you get a view like no other into the diverse NYC population. It’s also a helluva lot cleaner down there as compared to the old days.  Interestingly, like the past, the subway is full of people still mumbling to themselves, but now it’s due to the onset of iPods and Smartphones.

The main thing that hasn’t changed is the temperature.  In the summer months, that underground world is one big convection oven.  Those of you from Phoenix, AZ reading this – no, it isn’t the legendary “dry heat” of your climate. Also, I can assure you that those “things” you see moving on the tracks are likely not geckos or gilas.  Might be an alligator or two, though, but don’t ask.

Yep, at least in my opinion, the heat’s still a big deal. So, if you’re like most subway commuters whether living in NYC or commuting from Penn or Grand Central Stations, the plan is to spend as little time on that subway platform as possible.  It’s a challenging goal, and there’s a real science to timing your entrance to fly through the turnstile trying to get on the train that is sitting in the station right now.  Because the alternative is waiting for the next train which could mean a few minutes or 15+.  If its 15+ you’re going to find yourself feeling like a chicken roasting in a self-basting bag!  In fact, if you wear a suit to work, it’s pretty much guaranteed that post subway ride you’ll be simmering in your own gravy by the time you arrive at work.  Best plan is to find a dry cleaner near the office!

As a public service to subway neophytes who need to navigate the system, I’d like to offer out some things you may see in your travels and some tips:

  • Turnstiles – Make sure to run your MTA card through the slot and pause briefly until it registers. Most males reading this will know this tip as we’ve all had the “please run it through again” message simultaneously flashed while trying to move our crotchal region through the iron bar. Something’s gotta give – and take it from me – it’s not going to be the turnstile.
  • Train platform – the rule of thumb is to stay off the yellow strip for safety, especially when packed.  But you also might find it beneficial to hover under a fan which is blowing cool air which will help with the several minute wait in the convection oven. Those fans seem to be covered in something which looks like a dark sweater, but I try to not think about it
  • Know your locations – after a few rides between the same locations, quickly you’ll discover where you need to stand on the platform and which car to be in to depart right off the train and to the stairs upward and out.  This is essential commuter knowledge to reduce your time in the tube which is the goal
  • Droplets – unless somebody’s Coke just exploded, most likely the drops that fell from the ceiling onto your head would be a really cool sample for a biology student at NYU.  Meaning, get them off there quickly before they grow into something evil
  • Platform crowds – at rush hour, predictably, it will be a mad house on the platform. Be prepared to get jostled by others who are trying to get on the train with you at the same time. Yes, briefly let people off and then jump in. But, don’t be timid, or you’ll be waiting for several trains while continuing the self-basting process
  • Train cars – once on board – depending on the crowd size, you could very well make many new friends in what appears to be tribute to Dirty Dancing. It’s so tight people are seemingly attached to your hip, arm, butt – anything that (we hope) accidentally presses into you while the train is careening. Agoraphobics and claustrophobics, you should take a taxi.
  • Hold onto something – don’t just stand there untethered; grab poles, overhead bars, straps (the old word), your significant other – because the train will inevitably lurch at some point, and no anchor means no more stand up for you. Sitting if fine, but you risk having someone standing right in front of you and leaning in on sharp turns…just keep your book in front of your face!
  • Empty Train CarsDo Not Enter! There’s a reason they’re empty, and it’s not because it’s your lucky day.  Most likely there is a fragrant rider in the car, a crazy person, or a combination of both and they decided they couldn’t make it to the loo. Most riders make this mistake only once; I’m saving you that agony.
  • Portable music – essential on any subway ride, cuts out the noise of the train, the droning electronic announcements, the panhandler spiel, and depending on the tune can be really entertaining. For example last week after waiting 3 trains to get on, I was then crammed inside the fourth, sweating, body to body with some big people, heading uptown at high speeds and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” came on my MP3.  Think my laughter creep-ed out a few people, who stepped away. Hey, whatever works to clear some space!
  • Eye contact – as a NY’er you should know this already; avoid eye contact with all people – choosing instead to read the compelling advertising above. If you do by chance make eye contact, you know you will likely look again – if they are still looking at you, then look away….forever!
  • Exiting – there’s two kinds; from the train and from the station. If you are exiting the train, you have a nanosecond where the hoards on the platform are adhering to the electronic “let ‘em off first” warning. So move quickly or you’ll be trapped on board as the swarm enters. In leaving the station, you’ll immediately notice there are a large number of shufflers – these are the people in no rush whatsoever, similar to a slow driver in the passing lane on a highway. You need to move around them and at a pace just ahead of the crowd to work your way out. By the way, in a large station with hundreds of people, no eye contact works well here as well – just keep looking forward and although you see that large person peripherally about to smash into you, don’t look at them – just bravely go forward, most times you’ll find your own right of way without collision!

Hope these suggestions help and I have to say that despite the high temperatures, in the end the subway’s a lot cheaper than a taxi ride each way everyday and often times a lot faster – and for me a necessary evil.

Good luck, and oh, and most importantly – as they say in the UK underground – Mind the Gap!

mind the gap

About Wally

Wally Greene is both an eternal optimist and cynic, a waffling right-winger, a somewhat decent husband and father of three, budding masters swimmer, delusional comedy writer, chocolate lab lover, martini drinker and executive recruiter...not necessarily in that order.

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