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Authors: Randy Kennedy


BOOK: Subwayland
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1. Citizens of the Subway

2. Underground Government: Civil Servants and Subway Sheriffs

3. Wildlife

4. Customs, Courting Rituals, Ceremonies and High Culture

5. Helpful Tips for the First-Time Traveler

6. The Day the Trains Stopped




For my mother. And my father, who always loved a good story.


Gratitude for this book is owed to more people than I can possibly mention. First to Jon Landman, whose enthusiasm supplied it with energy. To Janet Krone Kennedy, my wife, for love, support, proofreading and a deep reserve of subway complaints that led to many good columns. To dozens of friends, relatives,
colleagues and other resources of ideas and inspiration, among them Paul, my brother, Ann and Ron Krone, Larry Krone, Erin St. John Kelly, Charles von Simson, Chris Tatti, Regina McLean, Sarah Kershaw, Lynette Holloway, Christine Kay, Wendell Jamieson, Joe Sexton, Gerry Mullany, Patrick LaForge, Jim Dwyer, Eden Ross Lipson, Savannah Walker, Susan Chira, Ethan Friedman, David Pirmann, Richard Abate, Roxanne Robertson and Gene Russianoff. Finally, to many at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit, and the Transport Workers Union, Local 100, including Al O'Leary, Tom Kelly, Paul Fleuranges, Charles Seaton, Deirdre Parker, Ed Watt and John Samuelsen.


Togetherness, circa 1960




“The people are growing to like the Subway method of transit, and the growth of their liking, great and measurable as it is, has only begun.”

—Edward P. Bryan, vice president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, January 1905

A century ago this year, New York City gave birth to a subway, and the subway gave a multitude of gifts in return.

The most practical were the powers of speed and sprawl—just 15 minutes from City Hall to Harlem; just 40 years from the bottom of Brooklyn to the top of the Bronx, with stations scattered like seedcorn in between. Wherever New Yorkers took the subway, the city rode along.

In the process, the subway gave us much more than a way to work and back home. It gave us an object of pride and fascination, fear and loathing. It gave us a permanent topic of conversation and a perfect excuse for being late. It gave poets a new muse and moviemakers a new set. It gave warmth to the cold, a bed to the weary and a captive audience to anyone with a cheap guitar.

But it also gave another gift, much less appreciated and more important, one that changed the city fundamentally and forever: the gift of proximity.

In other words, the subway made us sit together.

And stand together. And, of course, wait and sweat and swear together. If you are reading this while riding a Lexington Avenue express train with someone's shoulder blade pressed into your left eye socket, you will think it is a very bad joke. At this moment, in fact, you are probably longing to live in a place—meaning basically any other place in the country—where most people go places inside the upholstered cocoons of their cars, catching glimpses of their fellow citizens through safety glass at 70 miles an hour.

Yet bitter as it may be, proximity has powerful medicinal qualities. It might not perform miracles. It might not make New Yorkers talk or smile more or even be particularly more personable, but inside hundreds of train cars coursing at any minute above and below the streets, it is nonetheless weaving sturdy threads through the fabric of the city.

Every day, subway riders find themselves inches from people with whom they would not willingly choose to share a long city block. But like schoolchildren in detention, riders form a kind of unspoken bond while forced into each others' company—call it the kinship of the mildly oppressed. The busboy and the bond broker, sitting haunch to haunch, are sitting there for the same reason: The train they are riding is generally the fastest and most efficient way to get where they are going. If it succeeds in this regard or even if it fails them (in fact, especially if it fails), the two share something—surely the only thing they will ever share—until the doors open and they step out.

Statistics show that in the waning years of the 20th century, six out of every 10 people traveling toward the center of Manhattan on an average workday morning traveled there inside a subway car. This is a level of enforced neighborhood not found anywhere else in America, even in Chicago with its El or Boston with its T. And it has done a great deal to make New York—always an odd appendage to the rest of the nation—a true American anomaly, more tolerant and cohesive than a city its size ever had a right to be.

In the first year of the subway's operations, there were firsts of many things now considered inseparable from life in New York City. There were the first complaints about the heat, about the quality of the air, about germs, about noise and about delays (on the first full day of operation, express service failed twice because of electrical problems). There were also the first complaints about crowding, perverts and lousy announcements. (An editorial in the Times put it this way: “If any one form of words is better calculated than another to implant a homicidal impulse in the breast of the average man, it is the formula ‘Step Lively!' which has gained a new vogue through its employment by the trainmen of the Subway system.”)

In the first year, the system was hobbled by the first transit strike and the first power failure. Trains were delayed for the first time by a water-main break, a fire, a stray dog. The first subway worker was killed by a train. The first passenger was crushed to death between the train and the platform. The first person was struck and killed by a speeding train (an unfortunate resident of the Bronx named Leidschnudel Dreispul). The first fatal crash of two subway trains also occurred (it was at the 23rd Street station; William H. Curran, a 17-year-old law clerk, died afterward).

The first movie was made in the subway (a documentary for August Belmont, the system's chief financier) and the first play was written about the subway (the plot concerned a scheme in which unsatisfied husbands killed their wives by throwing them onto the tracks).

The first bar named for the subway was in operation (the Subway Tavern at Bleecker and Broome). New Yorkers took the subway for the first time to a ball game (the New York Highlanders, later to become the Yankees, beat the Washington Senators, 5 to 3, at American League Park in Washington Heights on April 22, 1905). New Yorkers also took their first trip by subway to the first New Year's celebration in Times Square (before 1904, the biggest crowds usually gathered near Trinity Church).

Finally, the first known proposal of marriage in the subway was made and accepted. (William Darbeau, firefighter, popped the question to Miss Helen Dodd, newsgirl, at Bleecker Street. She said she had to check with her mother first.)

Over the last two and a half years, while writing a weekly column about the subway, I have ridden it from one end to the other more times than I can remember. I have been to almost all of its 468 stations. I've spent nights aboard it. I've interrupted readers to ask them what they were reading, and I've wakened nappers to ask them what they were dreaming. I've walked along the tracks, waded through the waters, savored the smells and once—though I was sworn never to reveal where or when—I climbed into a motorman's cab and drove a train. In the course of my reporting, I've also ridden in close proximity with many of the subway's most interesting riders, including the mayor of New York City, a South American magician and a group of mangy pigeons from Far Rockaway.

For a newspaper reporter, it is a beat that is very hard to beat. About what other single subject could one write and include (albeit sometimes unwisely, because of bad deadline pressure) mention of Dante, Dr. Seuss, “West Side Story,” Arthur Miller, Jennifer Holliday, the city of Bombay, the width of a bass boat, Michaelangelo, Mount Everest, Mount Rushmore, Ethel Merman, Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali, Tito Puente, Terry Southern and Count von Count from “Sesame Street”?

After spending so much time in the subway, I can tell you that a funny thing happens when you lock millions of people together underground in oblong metal rooms for a certain period of time. It creates a place that is much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, it generates a society unto itself, with its own citizenry, government, flora and fauna, customs, myths, taboos, tragedies and secret histories.

Tourists and occasional visitors have always described it that way, as a strange and slightly perilous place they explored while in New York City. But even veteran riders regard it as essentially foreign territory. We wonder why things work the way they do in the subway. We talk of the bizarre ways people behave there. We tell of the guy we saw there with the python draped around his neck. (Someone we tell will have seen him, too.) We tell horror stories and funny stories and sob stories that are better because they originated there. Why is it that a bad saxophone player sounds a little more talented playing on a crowded platform? Why is it that the Chinese violinist I heard at Times Square one July day playing “Jingle Bells” got more laughs there than he would have on the street above? It is because the subway, while inseparable from the city, is also a world apart from it. For that reason, I've tried to arrange the following columns as a travelogue, the notes of an explorer within his own city, unequal parts sociology, anthropology, zoology, theology and biology, with a little pathology thrown in for good measure.

As I write this, I am taking notes again, on a Q express train bound from downtown Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. Technically, I am not exploring this time. I am just going to work, the way I always go—Union Street to DeKalb to Canal to Union Square to 34th Street to that great cauldron called Times Square. In the middle of this trip is my favorite part—the Manhattan Bridge—the homely, hardworking sister of the Brooklyn, which I can see out the left window on this summer day, resplendent but subwayless, as my train levitates over the East River and threads itself into the city. I am in the second car from the front, my usual berth because it puts me out in Times Square at the foot of a staircase that forms part of a carefully planned escape route from that overcrowded station, a route I've taken so many times it often surprises me not to see my footprints worn into the floor.

BOOK: Subwayland
13.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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