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Posts Tagged ‘subway’

When you’re a New Yorker, you get used to subway disruptions. There’s always track work, or signal work, or a police investigation, or station renovations that lead to the express running local, or the local running express, or lines being rerouted. It can be frustrating, but we accept these disruptions as a way of life in a city with one of the largest, and one of the oldest, subway systems in the world, especially since they usually don’t occur during rush hour.

On this day, there were a level of disruptions unlike any I’d ever witnessed. Walking into the Rockefeller Center subway station, one of the busiest in the city, I was greeted by a constant stream of announcements over the public address system that were never ending. Not only were the World Trade Center, & the surrounding area, a financial hub, but it was also a subway hub; several lines ran in or near the area. And, the Twin Towers attacked & reduced to rubble, mass chaos ensued on the subway, just like it did elsewhere.

I was in my third month working for the New York City bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. I was their sports reporter, which meant I mostly did research & arranged for interviews & accommodations for my direct supervisor, a sportswriter for the paper who, unlike me, was fluent in Japanese. I also got to cover a handful of events myself. Of course, it didn’t matter what subject you reported on today; everyone in media were focused on the World Trade Center. That morning, arriving minutes after the first plane hit, & minutes before the second plane hit, I did everything from converting the heights of the world’s tallest buildings from feet to meters to making phone calls to airports & hospitals (I was greeted by a busy signal every single time). Both my mom & dad called to check on me; I told them I was okay, & I didn’t know when I’d be leaving work.

I think it was early in the afternoon when I was told to take a call from David who, like me, was an American reporter for the paper not too far removed from college. We had different direct supervisors, but similar responsibilities. David lived near the World Trade Center &, on his way to work, realized something was happening. Being the smart reporter he is, David decided to remain on the scene rather than go to the office, calling in with live updates, taking pictures with his 35-millimeter camera & interviewing people on the scene. He had a roll of film he wanted to get to the office; but with the authorities closing off most of Lower Manhattan, he didn’t want to make his way north & risk losing his spot embedded in one of the most significant stories in history. Which is why I was told to take his call. There was a teenage boy David was going to use as his film messenger. I was to go as far south as I could, call David with my location, & this impromptu messenger would bring the film to me. Hopefully. David said he was going to give him $40.

After navigating the subway dysfunction, I got off at West 4th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, one of my favorite neighborhoods. My mom started taking me to The Village as a child. I had plenty of meals at the Pizzeria Uno across the street from the subway entrance. I did a lot of homework at the library a few blocks north which, at one time, had a bookstore across the street, where my mom once took me so she could meet author Terry McMillan, who had just come out with a book called Waiting to Exhale. When I emerged aboveground, I was expecting to see the usual bustle of pedestrians shuffling along the sidewalks & cars speeding along Avenue of the Americas. However, I was greeted by silence. Only emergency vehicles were allowed south of 14th Street, so there were no cars on the street, which was filled with people. Few were walking briskly to their destination; instead, almost everyone was looking south, where two plumes of smoke were plainly visible on this clear & sunny day. It was as quiet as I’ve ever heard The Village. There were looks of shock, & occasional sounds of sniffling. It was my first look at the destruction on something other than a television screen, so I stood there too, mesmerized not just by the smoke, but also by the unusual silence. This isn’t a bad dream, I thought. This is really happening.

I made my way through the crowd & resumed my voyage south, which I realized was fruitless; there were barricades everywhere &, unless you could prove you were a resident of the blocked off area, no one was allowed through. David had given me few details about his location, but I knew he was west, so I headed in that direction until I got to the appropriately named West Street, the last street before the Hudson River. I noticed a shuttered strip club at one corner, so I stood there, since I figured it would be an easily identifiable landmark. I called David. The kid bringing me the film was named Peter, or Michael, or something else just as common, David told me. He described the kid’s appearance, & what he was wearing. David said he was on his way. Hopefully.

I stood there for about an hour before someone matching the description David passed along spotted me. He handed me the film. I shook his hand, & thanked him. I asked him if he needed anything, not sure what I could help him with. He was fine, he said. On my walk back to the subway station, I called David, & told him that his messenger had showed. I never did see the pictures, which was fine by me.

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When you grow up in a place you love and then move away – like I have – whenever you return home, you always look for something that proves you still belong, that you and your hometown still have a connection and that neither you nor your hometown has changed as much as both probably have.

For me, it’s The MetroCard Swipe.

In order to pass through a turnstile and into the vast New York City subway system, you need to purchase – and then swipe – a MetroCard, a razor-thin piece of plastic the same size as a credit card. But, it’s not as simple as a swipe; you have to swipe the MetroCard properly. Swipe the card too quickly or too slowly and the turnstile won’t read your card at all or you’ll get the dreaded “SWIPE CARD AGAIN AT THIS TURNSTYLE” message in green letters on the turnstile’s small LED screen. And, in the city that never sleeps and never sits still, you don’t want to waste precious seconds trying to get that LED screen to read “GO.” I was in high school when the MetroCard replaced tokens in the New York City subway system in the mid 1990s, and I quickly mastered The MetroCard Swipe. And, regardless of how long I’ve been away from my beloved city of origin, I’m still able to effortlessly swipe my MetroCard at the turnstile, the muscle memory and dexterity ingrained in my wrist, thumb and forefinger for eternity.

It isn’t coincidental I equate my MetroCard swiping skills with being a New Yorker. After all, nothing embodies New York City like its subway system: It’s not always clean or efficient; nothing about it fits together perfectly but, the more time you spend in it, the more it makes sense; it can be crowded and loud; it’s available 24 hours a day; it’s effective and gets you where you need to go. Moreover, the New York City subway system and I have been joined at the hip for as long as I can remember.

I learned to read and became interested in geography thanks to the subway. I would spend hours poring over the subway map, following routes with my index finger, making note of the late-night and rush-hour service changes and fantasizing about the lines I’d never been on. When I was three, my dad took me to the Bronx Zoo and, when asked about the trip afterwards by my grandmother, I told her more about the subway lines we took to get there than I did about the animals I saw. One of my happiest days as a five-year-old was when my dad took me on the J train for the first time; he made the mistake of telling me we’d take the J days before we actually took it, which led to me pestering him to no end about the trip (I wish I remembered more about that J train voyage, since we got on at Sutphin Boulevard on a now-demolished section of the line). One Christmas, my parents got me a train set made up of wooden tracks and wooden cars that connected with magnets and I used that set to create my own subway system in my bedroom, complete with a map and stations built out of Legos or Construx (one station even had an airport, my Fisher Price plane sitting on a runway built above the tracks). My grammar school composition books were filled with drawings of subway cars I’d seen, complete with their roller signs, which indicated the route’s first and last stops. I would stare in awe at subway conductors as they opened and closed the doors and announced the stops, my aspirations of becoming a conductor lasting well into my pre-teen years. Needless to say, I was a subway junkie.

Nothing made me feel more grown up than when I turned 13 and my parents allowed me to regularly ride the subway without being accompanied by an adult; the subway went from being a fantasy world to a world I needed to conquer. After all, there are certain things seemingly every grown New Yorker knows and understands about the subway and I felt compelled to learn those things posthaste. I quickly figured out how to stand on a moving train without holding onto a pole or leaning against the doors. I learned how to position myself on a crowded train by the doors on the side of the subway car that opened less frequently; the doors are the most comfortable place to stand –  unless you’re on the side of the car on which the doors are constantly opening, which means you have to continually dodge people getting on and off. When the D train would pull into my home station in the Bronx, I knew to stand in front of the third set of doors in the second car from the front, since those doors would open right in front of the staircase I needed to ascend to exit the station.

In 12th grade, I got a part-time job at a public relations firm in Midtown Manhattan that required a 20-minute ride on the 4 train after school. Those 20 minute rides quickly turned into naptime. I would secure a seat right next to one of the doors – that way, I could lean on the metal separating the seat from the door, rather than dozing off and falling onto the person next to me. Leaning onto your neighbor while napping on the subway is the best way to get an elbow jammed into your ribs or a shoulder rammed into your temple. Then, I would wrap one of my knapsack straps around my right forearm, lest my backpack become a sitting duck for one of New York City’s ubiquitous muggers, and doze off. Not once did I miss my stop or get attacked. You know you’re a New Yorker when you’re comfortable enough to doze off on the subway and you don’t get robbed or miss your stop while your nap is in progress.

I have a memory or recollection of some sort associated with at least a third of the New York City subway’s 468 stations – an estimate that may be on the conservative side. My father and I saw Ghostbusters at a theater that was a short walk from 71st-Continental Avenues. There was the time I was coming home late from a party and almost fell asleep standing up while leaning against one of the beams near the edge of the platform at Broadway-Lafayette Street. My first kiss came at 81st Street-Museum of Natural History before my girlfriend hopped onto a waiting C train. I used to get off the subway with that same girlfriend at 125th Street and walk her home, a walk that became longer late at night, when the station exit closest to her apartment building was closed. I accidently went up a down escalator at 34th Street Herald Square while trying to chase down the D train (I made it up the escalator successfully and caught the train). A guy once challenged me to a fight at West 4th Street because he thought I was staring at his girlfriend (I had to resist the urge to tell him his girlfriend wasn’t pretty enough for me to stare at). The long subway ride to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand a few blocks from Coney Island Stillwell Avenue is well worth it.

In my wallet, in the same compartment as my driver’s license, is a MetroCard. It’s been there for a while, so it’s slightly faded; I doubt there’s any money left on it. But, it’s there to remind me of home, to remind me of all my subway memories. I don’t remember the last time I swiped that card, but I’m sure it was perfect.

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