It opened in 1904 making it one of the world’s oldest public transit systems in existence.It runs 24 hours a day every day; it is the largest rapid transit system in the world, with over 460 stations open; it serves all five boroughs, covers over eight hundred miles of track. It delivers over 6 million rides each day. It is as much a part of New York City as anything is. It consists of (or at least it did) the IND, the BMT and the IRT lines (who can tell me what they stand for?) and in the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies, it was a ride in more ways than one. Graffiti as an art form, and it is one, had it’s greatest canvas deep underground, and vestiges of it still can be found but you have to look really hard now, as it, like all things there, has been cleaned up.
But then, well it was quite an experience. I remember straw seats on cars left over from the turn of the century, soon to be replaced with hard, uncomfortable (but easily cleaned)plastic. I remember overhead ceiling fans before the cars were air-conditioned, and like all ceiling fans, they worked great when the car had twenty people in it and you were standing directly below one, but they couldn’t accommodate the nearly two hundred people normally crammed into a car. Taking a subway ride in the summer time, in the days before air conditioning, made you lovingly think of the end of your ride and the quickest time it would take to get to a shower. At rush hour, you were wedged in, pressed up against your fellow New Yorkers, not all of whom practiced the same level of hygiene you did. Plainly said, it stunk. Your hand would slide down the metal handles you grasped to keep you from falling into the person seated beneath you, the sweat making it hard to get a good hold. If you tried to read a newspaper, the pages would soon darken as you hand dampened the Sports section. And God Forbid if some asshole farted or burped. You wanted to throw up, except most times someone had beaten you to it. I always pitied the poor young girls that would have to put up with some fat jerk pressed against them as if they were intimate partners. It was inhuman and degrading. But most times, it got you where you had to go.
Until it didn’t. And then on one of those wonderful rides during rush hour when you had to get to work, the train would stop, the lights would go out and the fans or air conditioning would cease. Silence. Except for the burps, farts and groans of the passengers. Over the intercom some Conductor would start to speak except it was nothing that resembled English, not because he couldn’t speak the language, but because the system was so bad, all you heard was static and incoherent babble. You expected they were telling you something about the problem they were encountering, but who knew? He could have been giving you the score of last night’s Yankee game for all you could tell. Eventually the train would start again, and eventually you would make it to work, an hour or so late and have to explain why. But the good thing was, everyone, your boss included, understood and never gave you grief. We were all at the mercy of the New York City Transit Authority, and they made sure you never forgot it.
There were the stupid times, when the idiot you were sitting next to fell asleep and leaned over on you, snoring. There were the scary times when coming home late one night you shared the car with one other totally fucked up guy would who say to no one in particular “I feel like killing someone tonight” and you would make the next stop, no matter where it was, your stop, and you waited for another train. Or the times you yourself fell asleep coming home from some party late at night and woke up at the end of the line in Brooklyn or the Bronx somewhere.
I remember one time Les and I were coming home to Brooklyn from a night out in Manhattan as a powerful snow storm hit the city. No worries, as the subway was way more reliable than the streets when it came to getting around. The train left Manhattan, exited the tunnel and began an ascent up a steep track but the snow and ice was too much for it. We would almost get to the crest and then the lights would dim as the train slowly slid back down the track to the tunnel we had just exited. The Engineer, being a determined fellow tried more than three times and each time, we slid back down to where we started. The Conductor, a fellow with a sense of humor, which was always welcome,came through the cars calming people, making sure no one was panicking at the inability of the train to get us home. He was a tall lanky black man who happened to be in our car when once again we slowly slid backwards. Looking at me he said with a smile:
“Aint it funny? You watch those war movies where the train is getting through bombs and machine gun fire and the track is blowing up and they make it through ok….and here we can’t get to Brooklyn.”
He made my night. I laughed and laughed at the absurdity of the picture he had just painted. And he laughed too, as much a prisoner as we were. Eventually of course they called a crew to clear the tracks and we made it home way later than we thought. By the time we got home, we were sober and as we walked back the half block from the station to our apartment, we talked about the ride and what an unexpected bit of drama it had been.
Just another encounter to file in the: “Only in New York” folder, one that I never tire of adding to.