From New York to Moscow, the existence of an underground railway lends that city a special character, even greatness. In this fading summer of London tube strikes, we tell stories of journeys and encounters made in the bowels of the earth. Photographs by Marco Pesaresi
Saturday 31 August 1996
Jennifer Belle rides the New York subway As soon as I get on the subway I start fantasising. The only thing that can bring me out of it is the touch of another person. The worst thing that could happen on the subway is having someone's hot arm pressed into mine. I also don't like to be assaulted by other people's reading material. I am forced to stop thinking my own thoughts and read stories in The New Yorker or religious pamphlets over their shoulders.
Now I had two empty seats on both sides of me and I was fantasising about my book getting published. I pictured it in its tenth edition, with its red velveteen cover. A woman sitting across from me was involved in a paperback.
I stared at her face. When I stare at a person on the subway their face attaches itself to mine. I become them from the neck up. I know what it is like to have buck teeth or a scar on my cheek or acne. I know what it feels like to have a beard. If I want to shake off what it is like to look like them, I have to look at someone else or at myself in the reflection of the metal doors.
The woman's face was long and thin, and she had a long and thin smile. My own lips started thinning out, and my cheekbones started to rise. She was the most attractive person on the train. I like to hold a beauty contest when I first get on the subway and choose the best-looking woman and man and then imagine them meeting and getting married, etc. I usually exclude myself from the competition, but not always.
The book the woman was reading had a judge's gavel on the cover. I had a character of a judge in the book I was writing. She was really enjoying herself, turning the pages intensely. It fit so well with my fantasy. I'm on the subway, my book is published, the woman across from me is reading my book and laughing out loud, missing her stop.
I stood up and walked shakily over to her, grasping the pole between us. "Would you like me to sign that?" I asked.
"What?" she said.
"I wrote the book you're reading. I can sign it for you if you like. I'm the author." I fished around in my bag for a pen. I was trying to decide what the inscription should say. Best Wishes, or Warmest Best Wishes, or, Nice Riding the Number 2 With You...
She looked at me strangely. She looked at the front cover of the book and then the back. She held it up to me. There was a photograph of a handsome grey-haired man and a golden retriever. There was a long list of all the other books the man with the dog has written.
A wonderful life
Peter Popham dosses down in Tokyo Everyone knows about the pushers on Tokyo's trains, the men in blue uniforms and white gloves, straining like prop forwards to pack the cars as full as they can get, but the same experience of compression and claustrophobia carries on once one has escaped from the train into the station. And Shinjuku Station, the busiest in Japan and probably the world, where every day two to three million people stream between the seven lines that conjoin here, is the worst of the lot.
Three miles west of Tokyo's historic centre, Shinjuku is a strange, schizoid quarter of town: sleek, randomly dotted skyscrapers in the west, an extravagantly seedy, brassy, sleepless quarter to the east. In between, sits the station: a labyrinthine megastructure containing all the railway lines, as well as department stores, dozens of restaurants and coffee shops and bars, miniature police stations, a bus station and, most bafflingly, the tunnels and underground passageways that connect all these things. Miles of them.
Shinjuku Station teems; it doesn't stop. And because, as a westerner, you can't read the signs, and you always get lost. Your feet start to ache. The same scenery comes round twice, three times - the same broad, harshly-lit passageway, the same sober, tight-packed crowds intent on their destination - and that's when Japan panic starts to simmer in your stomach. The fear that you will never get out. That you may be condemned to be a disorientated, alien blob, bobbing among these crowds for ever.
Shinjuku Station changed for me the day I realised that, while millions were constantly moving through it, some people actually lived in the place. Tokyo has its tramps like any city, and a disproportionate number of them had found warm, private, unvisited corners in which to set up within the bowels of Shinjuku Station.
Tokyo's tramps are not beggars but parasites. So much good stuff is thrown away in this rich city that a little scavenging furnishes most of their needs. Because they don't beg, their dissociation from straight Tokyo is extreme: there is neither prostration nor insolence, only a sense of the straight and the dropped-out occupying different dimensions. The scrubbed and suited working masses teem through; the tramps squat to one side in a circle, drinking cheap sake and chewing date-expired cuttlefish, in a world of their own.
It was at one of these drinking parties that I met Yoshi. I was looking for someone who could tell me what it was like to live in the station. Yoshi was the first one I met who was kind enough to oblige. He was short and thin, and walked with a heavy limp. One eye was half closed, due to an infection. He wore a dirty blue baseball cap pulled over one ear. He slept in a cardboard box, but at 8am he clambered out of it, folded it up and deposited it in a coin locker. Then he took the subway to the building site where he worked as a carpenter.
After work, he ate fried liver and leeks with steamed rice in one of the cheap eateries around the station, then sat around getting zonked with his friends. As one of the elite among tramps, he saw it as his duty to help out those more crazed or befuddled than himself. A friend in a supermarket would slip him old lunch trays; once, I saw him stagger into the station with a teetering pile of the things, which he shared out among the unfortunate.
The most extraordinary thing about Yoshi was that he lived in the station by choice. Out in the suburbs, he had a real home with a wife and two sons, both going through university. But Yoshi liked to drink and gamble at the horse races, and one day, when he had blown his pay packet on bets, he simply couldn't bear the thought of going home to be scolded. So he slept in the station instead. After a week or two, this became his settled habit. Once or twice a year, he paid a visit to his home, to check up on his family. But he always returned to his box in the station, his fragile perch amidst the churning machinery of the city. London calling
Ian Jack recalls a life-changing journey I think it was the London tube that introduced me to the idea of modernity. The year would be 1950 and I would be five. We were living in Lancaster then, and came south by train for a holiday with my grandparents and my aunt, who lived with them. My grandparents were not modern; they were Scottish and Victorian. Lancashire was not modern; my father tended the steam-driven mechanisms of cotton spinning mills. The way we had come to London was not modern; a Wakes Week special hauled by a locomotive with its name - Irresistible - lettered on a curved brass plate.
Of course, none of this way of living seemed old to me at the time. It was the way things were, then and for some time after. Nor, at that age, could I discriminate between the new and the different. Perhaps the tube seemed new to me only because it was different. No smart red trains burrowing under Lancashire, no escalators apart from those in Lewis's, Manchester, no black people, or none that I had seen.
Our destination was Osterley. We must have gone by the Circle Line from Euston to South Kensington and then changed to the Piccadilly. Somewhere (Earl's Court? Hammersmith?), a black man got in and sat opposite me. He was smartly dressed in a hat, suit and tie - whenever I see pictures of pre-Mandela African leaders, such as Dr Hastings Banda or Robert Mugabe, I think of this man. I stared at him. He smiled at me. I imagine that my father smiled back - it's what parents usually do. If they had talked instead of smiled, the conversation would have gone something like:
"Sorry, he's only staring because he's never seen anyone like you before."
"Yes, yes, I know. I must seem strange to him."
My grandfather met us at Osterley and helped carry the cases. We walked along the Great West Road and past a new footbridge - built so that pedestrians could walk above the Austins and Morrises puttering up and down the dual carriageway. I had never seen a footbridge across a road before - roads were then still half-owned by pedestrians and cyclists - nor a factory like the one in the distance that made Gillette razorblades. Lancashire factories had grime and tall chimneys. This one had a tower and a clock and looked like a cinema.
Today, I know that what I saw was the 1930s. The smooth lines of Osterley station and the Gillette factory, the Great West Road and its ribbon development of semi-detacheds, the Piccadilly's extension to Hounslow - they all had come from that time, when London expanded and the rest of the country stayed moored in the slump. I understood nothing of that then, but as I grew older and overheard people speaking of "modern" things - meaning smart and up-to-the-minute radiograms and three-piece suites - my mind would fill with pictures culled from that day and my first journey on the London Underground. Sub continent
Tim McGirk on Calcutta's not-so-black hole "The Calcutta traffic is like Hinduism, with its thousands of gods and beliefs. Everybody follows their own way on the streets," sighed Sumir Lal, a newspaper editor at The Telegraph, when I explained that it had taken me two hours to cross Calcutta during the monsoon.
Every street corner was flooded. It was a log jam of rickshaws, cars, buses and ox carts, and there was no perceptible movement other than drivers banging on their horns and people with their trousers rolled up, wading gingerly through the muck. I waded carefully, too; every year, a pedestrian or two drowns in Calcutta, sucked into submerged manholes whose covers have been stolen.
Late for another appointment, I entered the dark mouth of the Calcutta Metro, fearing that if these scenes of chaos on the city surface were anything to go by, then what lay beneath was bound to be hell. But I found myself in the Esplanade station, which was lined in white stone, with wide, high-roofed opalescent chambers. I could hear piped music. At the ticket windows, I was stunned to find people had formed tidy queues. It is unlike any other Indian rail station, in that respect. The maximum fare is five rupees (about eight pence).
The Bengalis pride themselves on being the most cultured of all Indians, and the metro is testimony to this. Not one but two stations are named after Bengal's poet-icon, Rabindranath Tagore. Once you enter the box- like train, which whooshes along every 13 minutes or so, the first thing you notice are the works of art hanging in each car. At another station, Tollygunj, sketches of the city's monuments and old colonial homes were hanging from the platform walls. The exhibits had been inaugurated, improbably, by the honourable minister of state for coal.
The coal minister is a communist, as are all of West Bengal's elected officials, and they appreciate a good laugh. The lane where the British and American consulates are found was re-named Ho Chi Minh Street. In the metro, Bengali babus - or bureaucrats - have allowed Tom & Jerry cartoons to be broadcast on the platform television monitors.
Anyone riding the Calcutta Metro learns to master a simple gesture: it's a sideways waggle of palm, meaning "move over because I want to squeeze, impossibly, into the three inches of available space next to you on the bench".
I watched this waggle in action while trying to ride from Tollygunj station over to the Esplanade. Five of us were seated comfortably on the bench inside the train when a plump matron came up and did the palm waggle. We scrunched, and she wriggled in. Then, along came another passenger who wedged himself down, followed by another, until a total of eight of us were fused together into a flesh sculpture.
For anyone coming from the London tube, where accidental contact with strangers is as welcome as a leper's kiss, riding the Calcutta Metro can be a startling experience. It's like sinking into a steaming bath of humniaty. You end up with someone else's arms draped around you, your thighs compressed together and everybody reading your copy of The Telegraph.
Ever since the Metro opened in 1984, it has eased Calcutta's infernal congestion. Over 200,000 passengers ride the metro every day, from Tollygunj, through the middle of the city. The line has recently been extended northwards towards Dum Dum airport, adding an extra seven stops. This cheered Calcuttans immensely. The city's avenues had been disembowelled for years, with electrical wiring, sewage pipes hacked open and exposed. The thousands of workers hired for this pharonic-sized project lived in tin shacks on the cliff- edge of deep, malarial pits gouged in the middle of Calcutta's most crowded intersections.
But now passengers complain that the extended metro line has stretched resources too far. Service is faltering. Trains no longer run as smoothly on schedule, and there is a limit as to how long you can stare at an art student's earnest painting.
Often, Bengali radicalism makes everything worse. Once, the train at Tollygunj simply did not leave. After an hour's wait, I unglued myself from the other passengers on the bench and gave up, leaving the station. It seems that somewhere down the line, passengers had grown so outraged by an impertinence of the metro staff that a mob barricaded the station master into his office for several hours. It is called gherao-ing, and it might prove a satisfying tactic the next time London Underground employees threaten to go on strike.
Jonathan Glancey makes a new friend in Berlin It was only when the Wall came down that I began to explore West Berlin. The morning I went to see the Olympic stadium began at Alexanderplatz, the heroic square commissioned by Erich Honecker. I rode the S3 west, aiming to change at Zoologischer Garten ("Zoo") for the U2 and Olympia Stadion. This took longer than planned as the S-Bahn (which is above ground, as opposed to the U-Bahn, which is mostly underground) spans elevated tracks, criss-crossing the River Spree and the Hohenzollern Canal, and weaves an eye-boggling route through Berlin's greatest monuments.
That morning, I went backwards and forwards from Alexanderplatz to Zoo not once, or even twice, but a third time. Which is when Ernst, a trim man in his seventies, addressed me from the other side of the green leather- cloth bench.
"You like riding the train?"
Up to a point.
"I ride this section, too, every day. The view is good, yes?"
"Are you planning to ride another line?"
U2. Olympia Stadion.
"Then I will be your guide."
Which he was. I still don't know whether Ernst was telling the truth or not, but he claimed to have swum for the Fatherland in the 1936 Olympics, for which the 78,000-seater Olympia Stadion and its handsome metro station were built. Mind you, I know he served on the Russian Front a few years later (he had photographs and medals to prove it): the combination of the Ukranian climate and the passage of 45 years had lined his gaunt face with a network of lines that made the Berlin underground map look simplistic.
So we rode out to the lime-green blip, strolling from there through the leafy park that leads from the station to the stupendous stadium Werner March. We climbed the bell-tower and gazed Fuhrer-like across the mighty Grecian arena, the open-air amphitheatre in the woods nearby, and, of course, the Olympic pool.
Ernst encouraged me to take a dip: the pool is open to the public. And so we swam - he, strongly for a slender septuagenarian, me in a manner that might, with a powerful tail-wind, capture the bronze in the free- style doggy-paddle (under sevens). The diving platforms, where Leni Riefenstahl had directed her cameras, were fortunately geschlossen and verboten. If we could have climbed them, we would have seen U2 trains winding back to Zoo and Alexanderplatz.
We shook hands and said goodbye, Ernst in his best "I-was-in Basingstoke- before-the-war" English, me in my comic-book "for-you-Tommy-the-war-is- over" German, and took U-Bahn trains in opposite directions.
I have been back to Olympia Stadion since (it still makes my head swim), and ridden the U2 and S3, hoping to encounter my Olympic guide again. With no luck. Ernst, I imagine, has caught the final U-Bahn train home
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