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

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings Coordinator / Office Support Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This London Bridge based estate...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Advisor - Print

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based just north of York, this ...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The message displayed on the monitor of a Piraeus Bank ATM in Athens. The Bank of Greece has recommended imposing restrictions on bank withdrawals  

Get off your high horses, lefties – Big Government, not 'austerity', has brought Greece to its knees

Kristian Niemietz
A church in South Carolina burns after a fire breaks out on June 30, 2015  

America knows who has been burning black churches, but it refuses to say

Robert Lee Mitchell III
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map