The Ride of Their Lives
Dear Hillary and Bernie,
I know you’ve both had your share of problems this week with our fine city’s MTA not “Going Your Way” and I can truly say as a fellow American, Democrat, New Yorker, and most of all, straphanger… I feel for you. I really do. The tireless campaigning, all the verbal volleyball, and of course, being an awesome president… you two have that in the bag. But riding the New York City subway? No one said it was going to be easy.
But you can’t let one anachronism or bad swipe take you down! Like any real New Yorker, you must get right back up and keep swipe, swipe, swiping until that scanner/sensor thingy finally reads the strip on the back of our subway card. Sure, after the second or third swipe, we all think about jumping the turnstile, but who has time for an unscheduled visit downtown to Central Booking when you’re trying to make a yoga class?
Like you, when I first moved to New York City in 1994, the subway was my nemesis. I lived on 74th Street between Second and Third Avenues, where I, along with — I’m guessing — a billion other New Yorkers relied on the 6 train to ferry me into and out of the Upper East Side, which meant, if it was rush hour, standing stranded on a platform teeming with anxious, angry, and annoyed commuters watching train after train speed by, too jam-packed with people to bother stopping.
Inside the claustrophobic, overstuffed cars, the air of malcontent was as suffocating as the lack of personal space. Uncomfortable, unhappy people crammed into a slowly moving closet would have been a generous description. If you dared smile or show “weakness” by being polite you were a pariah, and saying, “excuse me” wasn’t so much a mannered request you step aside as it was the reason given for why the person behind you had just shoved you out of the way.
After a year riding the rails, I’d had enough. Life was too short, I told myself, to feel so miserable from transportation. I swore to myself that with the first pay raise I received, I would say sayonara to the subway. And I did. I may have been living paycheck to paycheck, but after 1995, I never stepped foot inside the subway again.
Until about six months ago.
It started as more or less as a dare. A good friend of mine had been relentlessly teasing me about living two blocks from the F train and working in an office that sat basically on top of it. And frankly, if I was being completely honest with myself, the small fortune I was paying commuting to and from… work (not even tooling around the city having fun), had grown pretty tired.
My first few days on the subway were exactly as I remembered it: awful and horrible. While the rest of New York City had been busy becoming shiny and new the past two decades, the subway seemed to have remained stubbornly the same. Despite being a different subway line altogether, the stairs were just as litter strew, the paint just as chipped, the platform just as dark, the tracks as rodent-ridden, and the train just as crowded as when I’d left the whole mess back in 1995. Like when you haven’t watched some soap opera in a decade, but when you turn it back on, all the same people are doing all the same things.
But I persevered. I figured in all my years traveling around the world, I’d happily and by choice, I might add, experienced A LOT worse, and A LOT more often. And… I’d enjoyed the hell out of all it. This silly F train was tony by comparison, and I only had to endure riding on it for 20 to 55 minutes, depending on “traffic up ahead” and other inexplicable delays.
So ride it I did. Sure there were days in the beginning when I’d walk all the way to the subway, then abort last minute and hop into a taxi right in front of my stop. Or I’d make it down the stairs and onto the platform, but one glance at the ginormous crowd waiting, and I’d immediately hightail it back up to the street and into the gentle, waiting arms of a cab. I just wasn’t subway strong enough yet.
But each week it got a little easier, and eventually I learned the tricks of the trade to minimize aggravation and maximize comfort: where to stand on the platform to board the train first, and when to hang back and board last so I’d be certain to snag my favorite spot next to the door on an always-crowded train.
Now I’m a pro, and in an unexpected twist I never saw coming…I actually love the subway. Yes, the subway subway. The dirty, smelly, moist, loud, too hot or too cold home for rats subway that runs under New York City subway. The subway I so steadfastly avoided riding for the past 22 years, that when I recently told a friend I had taken the subway to meet him, he replied, “How did you know where it was?” subway.
What trepidation I always had riding the train has given way and I’m back to riding the rails like a real New Yorker. If you follow my go-to ways to blend into the crowd, you both can too:
Now I pass my time on the train listening to music. I mean really listening to it. I love music and have it playing in the background from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to sleep at night, but it’s different when listening to music is the focus of what you’re doing. I’m hearing the actual words to songs I’ve listened to (and sang along with) hundreds of times. And, nothing says New Yorker by rights than headsets and the faint sound of music.
Or I learn new words. I love words. I collect words, and used to read the dictionary as a kid. I’ve had vocabulary apps on my phone since there were vocabulary apps to download, but aside from when I’m traveling, I’ve never had time to use them consistently. Now I do. Several days a week, I teach myself new ways to say I’m tired, or this train is gross, and so many more. A stranger looking over my shoulder once asked me where I was from, assuming I was teaching myself English, and in a weird way, I am. And learning new words has got to come in handy with all those speeches — even when keeping on message.
I also spend a ton of time people watching. I love imagining where people are from, what they do for a living, what their voices sound like, how long it takes them to get ready, what they eat for breakfast, what they do in their spare time, what’s important to them, who they’re voting for, and so on. I could amuse myself for hours trying to discern my fellow commuters’ stories. Come to think about it, sounds like you two could do well to get in on this action.
Some days I read, some days I sneak photos, and some days I just try to relax, although that never goes particularly well. But I try. I do that thing they teach you in yoga, where you consciously feel each part of your body then make it relax. You start by focusing on your head and tell it to relax. Then you focus on your mouth and make it relax, then your ears, then your shoulders, then your arms, and so on and so forth, until you make it all the way down to your feet.
Usually out of boredom, I keep forgetting which part of me I’m supposed to be making relax, and therefore find myself to be decidedly unrelaxed, so instead I’ll stare at the adverts hanging in front of me to see if I can find one of every letter in the alphabet. I can now say with a good deal of authority, if either you ever find yourself on Wheel of Fortune, do not choose J, K, X or Z.
Aside from which consonants to avoid, I hope my tips help. After all, we need one of you two New Yorkers to master this presidential thing before November.