Why I'll never go off the rails

Share

I get odd looks, especially from visitors, when I say I love the New York Subway.

I get odd looks, especially from visitors, when I say I love the New York Subway. Plunge into the labyrinth that is the 14th Street station, for instance, with its iron landings and stairways, the roar of passing trains and, in summer, its overwhelming heat, and you might feel you have entered an urban Hades. Rats scurry on the tracks, never quite touching the electrified rail, and passengers push and shove in rush hour.

I know the Subway - don't out yourself by calling it the Tube or the Underground - can seem scary. Really, it's not. The graffiti has mostly been scrubbed away. Ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani shooed out most of the muggers and murderers. The stations are improving too. Artists have laid mosaics in the tiled walls of the platforms and there are sculptures in some stations of critters friendlier than rats, such as rabbits and frogs.

So you are coming here for the skyline and the shops, and they are not best appreciated from the hard plastic seat of a train rattling beneath ground. And it's true that this city's Subway map is about as easy to understand as an Uzbek income-tax form. But travelling is cheap - $2 to anywhere - it runs 24 hours a day, carrying 4.5 million passengers a day over 772 miles. And, at least on days when it's not raining hard, it's reliable too.

We have all had our bad experiences riding New York's darkened rails. Even after being here for years, there are days when I am briefly baffled by its complexity. I head north when I want to go south. I take an express when I need a local. Or I find myself heading for a station that is only one stop during rush hour. I have been robbed, if only once, and squished almost to the point of suffocation.

Worst of all was a ride one evening from Battery Park back up to Midtown. I was seated and lost in thought when something clammy brushed the skin on my neck. I casually turned around and there, sitting right beside me, was a giant albino python coiled around the shoulders of my neighbour. If I tell you that snakes are about my only phobia in this world you will fully understand why I jumped up from seat, yelping like a child.

Animals are not allowed on the trains, at least not in theory. Recently I have been practising my own form of pet terrorism. Tired of paying for taxis, I have taken to stuffing my overweight pug into an airline bag and smuggling him on to the Subway. No one seems bothered - and certainly not scared - if he inconveniently pushes his head out to survey the scene. Or just to breathe. Mostly, he attracts just smiles.

Take the Subway if only because this year marks its 100th birthday. On 27 October 1904, New Yorkers found new horizons with a line that ran from City Hall all the way to 145th Street in Harlem. The opening of the line, and of others that quickly followed, prompted the dispersal of new immigrants from crammed southern Manhattan to all corners of the metropolis.

Learn some of its history. Of Smelly Kelley, whose job as inspector of strange odours led to him to the burial site of a circus elephant. Or look for the hooks still visible in the ceiling of the 168th Street station where chandeliers once hung.

Above all, take the Subway because, in a single train carriage, you will spy all the characters that make up this grand city. The dame from the Upper East Side who hopes no one she knows will see she is skimping on taxi fares. The construction worker, with white dust on his boots, browsing the Daily News of his neighbour. The bum on an all-day trip to escape the cold, slumped comatose with drool on his chin.

And there will be urban dramas all around you. Recent immigrants will pass by as they try to earn their keep by hawking electronic gadgets made in Taiwan. Mexican buskers will serenade you. Amateur comics will seek to part you with your small change by mimicking the chimes that sound when the carriage doors close. I have seen babies feeding on breasts and, once, a grandmother thwacking a cowering man with a huge green umbrella.

Finally there is an élite class of Subway passenger with secrets I have yet to learn. Like which carriage on the Number 6 line after midnight attracts randy singles looking for trysts. Or which set of doors, when they open at your station, will set you down precisely at the exit. What I will never know is why the only times the train breaks down between stations is when I am in the greatest of hurries.

Say hello to Señor Bloomberg

Someone else on the Subway each day is Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He knows that favouring mass transit for his commute over the traditional black limo is politically smart. And we learn he is doing something else that may endear him to voters in next year's mayoral election. He is learning Spanish.

In 1989, whites made up 56 per cent of voters in this city, but their numbers had slipped to 52 per cent by 2001. In 2005, the white majority may have become the white minority for the first time in New York's history. Which community is growing fastest to tip the ethnic scales so quickly? The answer is Hispanics, who will shortly make up nearly a quarter of the Big Apple's population.

Getting directions when you are lost on the D Line is only getting more difficult therefore - unless you have been taking Spanish lessons too. Hasta la vista.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: The sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital