05 June 2008

Notes from Underground

New Yorkers are famous the world over for (no way to put this more politely) refusing to take bullshit from anyone. We are a tough people, hardened by years of living next to, under and on top of one another, and even the most genteel Manhattan society matron can and will cuss like a Brooklyn longshoreman when the advertised item is not in stock, when another New Yorker has the effrontery to seize the taxicab she was hailing, or when she’s cut off while crossing the street (“I’m walkin’ here, asshole!”). We put up with too much in life already, and you, poor outlander, could not survive a single day in our shoes. We will not tolerate any further disrespect, inconvenience, or discomfort.

That, at least, is the reputation. We are proud of it. Not content to let others spread our fame, we are first to brag of it. O, woe! Woe to ye who come to New York with hearts full of guff, attitude, lip, disrespect, malarkey, garbage, baloney, bunkum, sass or crap! We do not take any of it. We will have none of it. And, by the way, we don’t make change.

In my heart, I am still a New Yorker. But I cannot uphold this preposterous fiction any longer. Contrary to our reputation, New Yorkers take plenty of bullshit. We take it slavishly, masochistically, without complaining. We take the worst of it — the most unendurable construct known to the mind of man. We take it without complaining. We take it forth, and we take it back. And we take it every day.

It is our subway.

I forget just how bad the New York City subway system is, until I return to it. I am hard-pressed to understand how I survived it for 21 years. Surely it was not always this bad. And by “bad,” I mean: noisy, dank, murky, malodorous, crowded, sticky, malfunctioning, and dangerous. It is in bad repair at all times, and it is famously prone to inexplicable delays. Even if explanations were offered, you could not understand them, because they would be pronounced by a conductor who speaks no known language, over a public-address system that garbles the voice and cannot be heard over the ambient din.

That the subway remains the best way to get around town is a cruel accident of fate, and a reminder of just how bad things are above ground.

Take as an example the case of the station at Columbus Circle. When I moved to France, nearly four years ago, a major reconstruction was underway. It has not been completed. To describe the process is to exhaust one’s supply of literary references: the circles of Dante’s Hell, the diabolic ritual of Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht, the tortures of Torquemada cannot do justice to the Columbus Circle station. The platforms were torn up, in an exercise requiring that almost every light bulb be removed; welding machines went into operation that smelled even worse than the pervasive aroma of human excrement. You could not breathe there. You did not want to. Passengers awaiting trains were shoved and squeezed onto narrow shelves, and then channeled into even narrower corridors toward exits that are, for the most part, blocked off. You told yourself to be patient, that eventually the work would be finished — hell, even the remodeling of the 72nd Street station was finished, eventually.

And yet, to my astonishment, the Columbus Circle station is still under construction. I could find no indication that the project was any nearer to completion, although its scope has expanded, and now the platforms for the 1 train are as badly torn up as those for the A, B, C, and D trains.

I’d have taken a picture to show you, but these days anyone taking a photograph in the subway is automatically presumed to be a terrorist.

And let us not talk about the “service changes” that used to be justified as urgent and temporary (often in response to the damages incurred during the 9/11 attack), but are now a regular fact of life. They mean that the train you want will not be running on the track where you expect it, will not stop at the station where you need it, and will be running at intervals much longer than you can afford. In short, on weekends it is impossible to get from one place to another.

New Yorkers may grouse from time to time about the subway, yet they do not ever take action, the way people would do in any other city on earth. In France, entire governments have been toppled with less provocation, and yet New Yorkers do not march on the offices of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to demand better service and improved conditions.

Of course, one reason the Paris Métro is nicer than the New York subway is that the Parisians close down the Métro between 1:00 and 5:00 in the morning, the better to clean, repair, and maintain cars, tracks, and stations. No such option is possible in New York, because New Yorkers work and play at all hours and require 24-hour service. Paris is not “the city that never sleeps,” and it does not pretend to be. But Parisian Métro cars run quietly, and Métro stations are brighter, more spacious, and better designed, with separate corridors for passengers going toward the platform and passengers going toward the exit. (In New York, passengers must constantly waltz or fight, rumba or rumble, with passengers going another direction.)

Even in the United States, it’s easy to find better subway service. Andy Weems used to act out the differences between the New York subway (in which the dialogue was unprintable) and the gorgeous Washington Metro (“Is this seat taken?” “Are you through with the sports section?”) — even Boston’s “T” is more efficient and attractive.

And yet New Yorkers slog on, taking the worst kind of bullshit, without any demand, nor even any hope of change.

UPDATE: The intrepid Feldstein sends the above photo of a New York subway station. Of course no trip to the subway could be complete without spotting a few dozen rats, and Feldstein found the ones scurrying there along the wall to be a particularly worthwhile subject for his camera.