postcard FROM NEW YORK

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CITY SIDEWALKS - The faces of passers-by glow with the emotion of the season, lights shine red and white, and the familiar tune rings out everywhere. The tune is of cars honking, the lights are the headlights and tail-lights of immobile queues of backed- up cars. And the emotion? Chiefly one of suddenly remembered December rage. It's Christmas in New York, and once again Manhattanites find themselves pausing to confront the sobering, awe-inspiring truth that is so easy to forget at other times: this city's subway system is a nightmare.

Let us overlook the fact that there is no way to get to three of New York's four major airports by subway, and that to get to JFK - the one that is, nominally, reachable - you need the navigational skills of Magellan. Let us also gloss over the fact that anyone who is not a trigonometry whiz might find it hard to travel successfully between any two points (one scratchy announcement overheard this month on an F train instructed passengers to: "Take the B Train to Stillwell Avenue, where you may switch to the N and R line at 34th Street, where you can catch a D train making, all local stops to Queensbridge." Question: If x = Bx D and y = N - R, how can you get to Queensbridge from the F in time for tea? Answer: you can't.)

The subway in New York, while remaining technically "open" all night, never stops shutting down. Never quite on, never quite off, the Manhattan subway is like a deadbeat divorced dad; something that one relies upon grudgingly, knowing through experience that it won't come, though hoping all the while that it might since there is no alternative; New Yorkers don't have cars. Every expedition is a cliffhanger: will the train come on time? Will it come at all? Will it be rerouted? Will it stall? When the inevitable disappointment / debacle happens, seven or eight times a day, there is no redress but to give a kick to the departing train, taking care not to tumble into the rat-and-hops smelling tracks. One can't even graffiti one's resentment on the train walls any more; someone at the transit authority invented a mark-proof steel surface.

There are those who surmise that December's slew of festive diversions - three parties and / or charity balls a night (minimum) until January - was invented by city planners about the time the automobile came into vogue, in order to keep New Yorkers so hungover that, by January, they would wake up, Alka-Seltzered into consciousness for the first time in weeks, and think the recent horrors had just been a bad dream. That is why the subway never gets overhauled; by New Year, no one can remember what it was they wanted to tell City Hall so urgently back in December.