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How I stopped worrying and learned to love the subway

Riders of the Lexington Avenue subway
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Riders of the Lexington Avenue local

As a lifelong New Yorker I have mixed feelings about riding the subway. You’d have to be a fool not to. Don’t misunderstand me. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has invested lots of money and raised its game in recent years. Some of its stations and hubs – such as the Q line that now runs down Second Avenue, the Fulton Street complex redesigned in the wake of 9/11, and the extension of the 7 line to include the new 34th Street – Hudson Yards station (contemporary art sprinkled all over the place) might almost be described as splendid.

Yet that’s not the image the mind conjures when one thinks of the New York City subway system, especially these days with crime underground soaring. It’s one cloaked in dingy light, garbage-strewn tracks for the delectation of its resident rat population, and some riders in serious need of social services. Add to that shootings and innocent victims being tossed onto the tracks and common sense suggests commuters who can, might want to find alternate modes of transportation, such as walking or taking a bike.

Juggling those hazards was part of my calculus this week when I had to travel from the Upper East Side to Greenwich Village and back again after dinner with a friend. It was too far to walk, and I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to flirting with a heart attack than jumping into a cab and then sitting in stalled traffic while the meter clicks away. I know I’m cheap but assuming a certain amount of risk is better than spending fifteen or twenty bucks to go nowhere.

I should probably also acknowledge that I can pick and choose when I ride the subways. Friends and family members who don’t have that luxury, whether traveling at rush hour or late at night, report that conditions have gotten decidedly more threatening despite the increased numbers of cops on trains and subway platforms.

Also, as a native New Yorker – I seem to recall that I may have already shared that information – I’m under no illusions that even in the best of times, whenever that was, the subway was a romp through fields of daffodils. It was always an exercise in hazard mitigation.

My father used to say that during World War II – my hunch is that he didn’t come up with the illustration – the only thing that prevented him from getting closer to the ground during combat were the buttons on his uniform.

I could say much the same thing when it comes to preventing a psychopath from tossing me onto the tracks. For starters, I’m hyper vigilant about my surroundings, whether waiting for the train or while on board. The only that prevents me from hugging the station wall any tighter as a train approaches the station is that its hard to get a grip on white subway tiles. I believe I’ve also perfected the technique of reading on the train with one eye on the text, the other trained on fellow riders to gauge their threat potential.

In other words, when I boarded the train Tuesday evening I was prepared for the worst. Fortunately, the worst, or even the mildly annoying, never materialized. That’s the other side of the subway token. If the trains are running smoothly -- admittedly a big, conditional if – there’s no faster way to get around town. The subway system is also a successful exercise in democracy, with people of every possible stripe coming together in relative harmony. The only thing they ask is to reach their destination in peace and without unreasonable delay.

The main complaint I had about my trip is that I found it hard to connect to the Internet during most of my voyage from 86th Street to Astor Place. I was more concerned about the return trip around 10 pm. There was a time when I might have hailed a cab. But again, why spend twenty bucks or more when the senior citizen fare is a buck thirty-five and gets you home in probably half the time. It’s also more environmentally responsible. And you’re doing your infinitesimal part to fulfill the social contract.

It occurred to me after 9/11, when fleeing the city seemed the sensible thing to do, that what makes New York sing isn’t just its skyscrapers, restaurants, or Broadway shows. It’s the cross-pollination that occurs subliminally when you share the streets and subways with millions of others quietly going about their lives.

I boarded the Lexington Avenue local at Union Square without incident -- neither coming nor going did I have to wait more than two minutes for the train – and was home in twenty minutes door to door. If there was any annoyance it was only that I had to walk the dog once I got home. The streets seemed safe enough, though.

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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