I’ve always been a big fan of public transportation. Whether using the Tube to move around London, buses in Amsterdam, or water taxis in Venice, I just love being able to get to a destination relatively quickly without paying a ton of money to get there. It’s like, heck, if we’re all going to the same place, we might as well use the same vessel to get there. Subways are just like giant carpool lanes, right? This sentiment was strengthened by virtue of growing up in a place with no real transportation options to speak of. In Tucson, you drive a car, ride a bike, or take a bus. And if you are taking the bus, it usually means you cannot afford a car, your car is broken down, your bike has a flat tire, your license has been suspended, you need a cheap, air-conditioned place to hang out, or you are writing a short story and need some character inspiration. Very few people ride the bus by choice and that’s because it generally isn’t the best experience.
Tucson isn’t alone. Most American towns and cities are not big on P.T. So when I visited NYC a few times before becoming a resident, I loved using the subway system. I’d get back to Tucson and actually gush about it to my friends, saying, “I wish we had a subway here! It’s just so convenient and good for the environment. Plus, you can totally tune-out and read or do whatever you want when you don’t have to pay attention to the road. It’s kind of awesome, you guys.”
|Dude. You're kidding me. Right?|
Cut to my morning commute last Monday. I walked to the 86th Street Station and descended the stairs with literally hundreds of other Upper Eastsiders, being careful not to trip, walk too fast, or walk too slow lest I fall down and get trampled. I plugged my ears with my fingers as the Daily News lady yelled and screamed in an effort to get people to take the free publication from her hands. “Get your news! Good morning! Get your news! Good morning!” Honestly, she should try to switch it up a bit. I got to the turn-style and swiped my card, then grumbled under my breath when the display read, “Insufficient Fare.” I got on-line for the Metrocard machine – a line fifteen people deep – and braced myself as hundreds more people continued pouring into the station and weaved around our queue. Ten minutes later, newly refilled Metrocard in hand, I passed through the turn-styles, quietly smirked at the blonde girl who had been nabbed by the station police for not paying her fare, and descended more stairs to the 4/5 platform below.
The minute I turned the corner, I knew I was in for a ride. The platform was jam-packed, a sign that the trains were experiencing delays of some sort, and that the trip down to Grand Central was going to leave me with that not-so-fresh feeling. I took my place in “line,” letting others who had obviously been waiting longer smoosh their way on to the arriving train, and opting to hang back and wait for the next. Then I positioned myself, like a manic mother on Black Friday, near where I knew the doors on the upcoming train would stop. The platform was already refilling again, and I looked down the track, hoping to catch a glimpse of oncoming headlights to ease my anxiety a bit. A minute later, the train pulled into the station and the doors stopped right in front of me. They opened and a person or two got off, then the rush to get on surged forward. A man in a business suit who had just arrived on the platform snaked his way through those of us who had been waiting and made it on comfortably. Lots of petite twenty-something girls in business-casual work attire weaseled their way in, too. I was finally able to step into the car, but just barely. As the doors closed, they pushed me to the side and I stepped on a guy’s foot. “Sorry!” I yelped. Someone’s briefcase was sticking me in the ribs. The tall guy to my right was fiddling with his phone and his elbow was bobbing dangerously close to my face. I was nowhere near a pole or any type of hanging-on implement, so I pressed my body as firmly back against the doors as possible and did my best to remain upright as the train jostled us around. A baby somewhere started to scream. I could feel sweat begin rolling down my forehead, the result of anxiety and the residual body-heat of 100 strangers. “Fuck the environment!” I thought to myself. “I want a car!” And this was all before I’d had my morning coffee.
Moving to New York was not an easy transition for me for many reasons, but over the past (almost) three years, I’ve managed to adjust to my surroundings and feel more at home. But the subway is one element of city life that is still a huge pain in my ass. It wasn’t so bad when we lived further downtown. The trains in that area were never nearly so crowded, and if worse came to worst, I could always walk the twenty minutes to work. But now that I live a 60-minute walk from the office, I rely on the subway every day – and so do a lot of others. The 4/5/6 line is the only train that runs on the Upper Eastside (for now), so hundreds of thousands of people use it during morning and evening rush hours every Monday through Friday, not to mention the poor tourists who thought they’d get a head start on the day and leave the hotel at 8:30am. (Last November, I had an entire high school cheerleading squad pile onto my morning train. They were on their way to practice for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and with their thick Southern accents, they managed to charm a group of commuters who would otherwise have been very annoyed at their presence.) It’s a commute so infamously bad that CBS Sunday Morning did a piece about it a few weeks ago. If you head to the 5:00 mark in the video below, you'll get a glimpse at the very same commute I face every morning. While the city continues working on the 2nd Avenue Subway line – set to debut sometime around the inaugural term of Malia Obama as POTUS – I guess we all have to grin and bear it. I thank my lucky stars that we chose to live far enough away from 2nd Avenue that we aren’t woken up by large underground explosions at night.
Even when trains are running smoothly and without issue, arriving and departing every couple of minutes, it can be a fight just getting onboard. Once you’re on the train, the real fun begins. I’ve been face-to-armpit with many residents of Gotham City. I’ve grimaced as the hair of someone standing so close behind me actually tangled with my own. I’ve dreamed about telling off those young guys with the huge backpacks who never take them off and hold them at their sides like the announcements tell them to (you know the type… just the worst). I have, on occasion, called out those with the worst subway etiquette, those who push their way onto a crowded train rather than wait for the next. (“Seriously, man?” I said aloud as I was pushed forward from behind one day. I looked back to see the biggest, tallest man I’ve ever seen staring at me with crazy eyes. Didn’t push that one any further…) I’ve watched in terror as people have behaved no better than George Costanza, pushing small children and the elderly out of their way in order to get to the last seat on the car. Tensions run high on the subway. There are no real rules, no way to enforce manners. Everyone is under Scout’s Honor to be on our best behavior, to act fairly and rationally. But that system is one that breaks down easily when you are just trying to make it to your morning meeting on time, or get to class, or make your way to your doctor’s office when you aren’t feeling well. It’s a special kind of hell and one that I’ve come to dread.
The MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) also has a big role to play in my commuter woes. Aside from constant fare hikes, conductors that relish closing the doors right in your face, and some of the least helpful employees on the planet, they just make some real weird choices. I’ve been on local trains that suddenly went express for no good reason. I’ve been stuck on an unmoving train in Manhattan for thirty minutes due to a “sick passenger” in a station somewhere in Queens. I’ve had to try to explain to tourists why they are now being charged an extra dollar just to purchase a Metrocard. And yes, I’ve had to walk 60 minutes to work when the subways stopped working, the busses were full to capacity, and there wasn’t an available cab in any of the five boroughs. (And what, pray tell, causes a “signal problem”? Why do they only seem to happen when you are in a huge hurry? That sounds like a problem that could be avoided with regular maintenance, doesn’t it? You’re not fooling me, MTA.)
Not that there’s really anyone to blame here. It can’t be easy to effectively shuttle 8 million whiny kids to school every morning. And as someone who is generally quite grumpy before 10:00am, I’m sure I’ve unknowingly been that nightmare commuter someone tells his or her co-workers about at the water cooler. (I once accidentally slapped a guy’s glasses off his face and sent them flying across the car. Sorry, dude!) I have come to terms with the fact that this pace of life just isn’t quite for me. I hope to someday drive to work in my very own energy-efficient vehicle as I listen to NPR and sip my soy latte. I have newfound respect for that kind of leisurely commute. Until I hit my first traffic jam, that is.