Running the marathon, I noticed many signs that read “You run better than the subway” or “You run better than the __ train!” I found the signs funny, especially the ones relating to the R, the train I take to work each morning. There has been some work being done on the tracks, causing service changes, besides the fact that the R is generally a slow train by New York standards. But when I stepped back and actually though about it, I realized that the New York City subway is one of the best things about the city.
When I first moved to the city, after being familiar with only the Riverside line on the T in Boston, I found the subway system a bit intimidating at first. My first forays out into New York were generally confined to the 1 train line, which runs along the West Side of Manhattan. On this line, I was able to travel between school and Times Square to catch a play or Lincoln Center for the ballet. The subway system was relatively fast and relatively clean, and when I returned to Boston for Thanksgiving break, I was shocked at how small the T trains were. For me, the subway is the veins and arteries of the city. Cabs are for tourists; real New Yorkers take the train, saving time and money in the process.
As a writer, I found the train to be the perfect place for people watching. Men in business suits are literally rubbing elbows with single moms riding to the late-night shift or musicians with guitars strapped to their backs, beating time on plastic pails as the train pulls into the station. Homeless men in rags who haven’t showered for days smile at you and ask for a quarter, nickel or dime. Sometimes they even sing you a song. It definitely took some getting used to after a small-town upbringing, but now I enjoy the subway, brimming with lives waiting to be interpreted and recorded.
I have branched out, too, in my use of the subway. I’ve worked in the Bronx, having to take the 5 train to the Concourse and then a bus. I’ve worked in Cypress Hills, on the J train out past Broadway Junction. Now I work in Bay Ridge on the R train. I love taking a new train to the end of its line and seeing all the different neighborhoods. New York is really a city of smaller communities and each subway line truly has its own unique character. You’re likely to see kids selling candy on the 2/3 line and Mets fans riding the 7 out to Citi Field. Times Square station is always raucous with marimbas or steel drums or saxophones, while at Lincoln Center, you are more likely to hear a flute or violin. There is art in every station (if you know where to look) and poetry on the subway cars.
I find it strange now to hear a New Yorker say he doesn’t like to ride the subway. I personally wouldn’t want to live in New York without it. Though the subway can be noisy and crowded and the service changes can cause major delays, for the most part, it is a joyful representation of a city that has so many different cultures and flavors to offer.
I wonder what public transportation is like in some of your cities.