Why I'll never go off the rails

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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.