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Ralph Gardner Jr: Learning To Navigate The Subway Again

New York City subway tunnel
Gwen Norton

New York City’s subway system is one of its undersung glories. Yes, that subway system. It may not be Earth’s most aesthetically pleasing environment but when the trains are running smoothly – I realize that’s a big “if” – there’s no speedier way to get from one part of town to another. Drop into the subway on the Upper East or West Side and you can be on Wall Street, at the lower tip of Manhattan, twenty minutes later.

Getting from Times Square to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn can take even less time. But there’s something else I appreciated anew this week as I ventured into the subway for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a magnificent experiment in peaceful coexistence. The horror stories make headlines. But if you’re wondering whether it’s still possible for us to get along in an increasingly divided society the answer is yes and it lies several yards under ground.

When you return someplace familiar after a long absence – I realize how fortunate I am to have been able to work remotely during the past year, and in nature no less – you tend to see things with fresh eyes. I didn’t realize how rusty I’d be at negotiating public transit until I descended the steps to the subway at 77th Street and Lexington Avenue and heard a recorded announcement heralding the arrival of the uptown local train.

I was confused. I was on my way downtown, descending the steps to the downtown train. But was the entrance to both the uptown and downtown trains one and the same? After coming to my senses I realized you caught the uptown train across the street. Nuance isn’t the New York City Transit public address system’s forte; sometimes it’s completely incomprehensible. In this case the announcement of the arriving uptown train had simply carried across the platform.

But more noticeable was my body’s reaction as I slid my Metrocard through the turnstile. I felt it stiffen as if I was going onto war footing. That probably says more about me, my irrational fear and my skeptical view of human nature than any drama that might await me either on the platform or the train. But as a native New Yorker I have learned always to case my surroundings, including my fellow commuters. In an excess of caution I also tend to hug the wall as the train is clamoring into the station.

Like an Olympic sprinter I’m always ready to rush to the typically less crowded front or rear cars of the train to raise the odds of securing a seat. My wife hates to take the subway with me for that reason. She regards my anxiety as unwarranted. I see her point. But the difference between standing and sitting, hopefully accompanied by some good reading material to expedite the ride and help you avoid making eye contact with fellow passengers – unfortunately one must sometimes sacrifice sociability to avoid conflict – is night and day, purgatory and paradise.

My destination was Paragon, the sporting goods store in Union Square, eight stops away. I was heading there to buy tennis balls because I know they’re a deal at Paragon. Did I really need new tennis balls on a dour, rainy day? Not instantly. Could I have ordered them online, probably even cheaper? Undoubtedly. But I was mostly looking for an excuse to return to the subway to get my feet -- proverbially not literally -- wet again.

The trains seemed less crowded than normal – even for midday – and the stations cleaner than I remembered them. I assume that’s because ridership tumbled during the pandemic and also because the MTA has devoted millions to disinfecting their trains and stations. Also, everyone seemed to be wearing a mask and doing their best to socially distance. The days when we sat and stood shoulder to shoulder seemed like the distant past.

The trip was uneventful and after I scored eight cans of balls I retraced my steps uptown, getting off at 33rd Street to visit a favorite Korean restaurant for lunch. Their menu was much pared down and the place, usually bustling at that hour, almost empty. The city still has a ways to go before it gets back to normal.

When I emerged from the subway at 77th street into a steady rain a disaster that I feared might unfold did. It had nothing to do with the subway. The bottom of my overstuffed bag of tennis balls, wet from the rain, failed and eight cans started rolling around the pavement. I managed to find pockets for many of them and clutched the rest in my arms. I was grateful I’d bought only eight cans rather than the ten I originally planned to purchase.

At that moment a customer emerged from a pizzeria in front of the accident site. “The bag broke, huh?” he said with a commiserating laugh. It was one of those supportive interactions with strangers that remind you why great cities are irreplaceable.  

The subway, too. It got me most of the way home without a hiccup. The rest was up to me.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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