The Way of the Tracks

Is the above photo your idea of hell? Mine, too. As someone who is not a fan of large crowds, living in New York and dealing with this scenario regularly is a daily battle of wills. (Some might even say pills.) New York’s subway system was actually designed very well. It really is the most efficient way of getting around town, unless you’re flying down Park Avenue in a cab on a Sunday night at 4am. The trains run fairly on time and smoothly, depending on the number of trains available to each line. I can take the RVG line (the G line is a ghost train – I think I’ve seen it twice – not that anyone particularly wants to ride that one) or the NW. Apparently there’s a joke out there about the NW and that they go No Where? Real funny. Must be Manhattan snobs who came up with that one. There is nothing wrong with Astoria and everything right with it. Lately, some lovely new trains have begun popping up and gracing the tracks – most recently, the N, W and even Q got the glossy, silver train cars with the robot woman announcing the stops. Why the E and F trains have not been replaced yet is a travesty. The E sounds like one of the graboid creatures from the movie Tremors when it brakes. It’s absolutely deafening and your eardrum wants to implode on itself.

Nevertheless, once you learn the system it’s really not too confusing. You eventually memorize which lines take you where and you know where to transfer, etc. The problem is that New York, as you may well know, is an extremely popular city in which to live. With 9 million residents, the subway system must accommodate many of these millions each weekday morning and evening. And you know what? The weekends aren’t any better. MTA’s logic is that it’s the weekend so things are going to be low-key. Not so. Just as many people cram onto the trains, but only because there are fewer trains coming and going. So when one does come along, half your block is trying to get on the same train (see above) because it might be another 20-40 minutes before another comes trundling along. You would think that the crowding would be the worst thing about the subway system. But dear readers, until you ride it yourself and know how to safeguard yourself, having someone’s armpit or ass (or crotch, sometimes….) be right in your face is the least of your worries.

Shall we go through the list?

Unless you haven’t been paying attention for the past dozen decades, germs spread easily and rapidly in confined spaces. As proud germophobes, Americans have to be even more paranoid on the New York City subway than pretty much anywhere else, shy of a truckstop restroom. I specifically say New York City because the Washington, DC subway line is quite lovely. Granted, you’ll be castrated if you have the balls to take a sip or bite of something in the metro system, but it’s a very clean, civilized line. I have not been on the T in Boston but I have been on the Tube and the Metro in Paris and it’s safe to say that New York’s is the filthiest. And for good reason.

Despite any maneuvers on your part to find a “clean” part of the pole to hang onto, your palms are sharing hand grime with millions of other passengers who were doing the same thing. I know. Not all germs remain on hard surfaces but I think we humans test these poles beyond their capacity for letting germs die when there’s someone grabbing every inch of one a solid 12 to 14 hours of the day. God knows where these people’s hands have been. And yet, there are plenty who like to demonstrate for you just how gross it can really get. Let’s start with the sneezers. While your brain can’t help it and you will sneeze wherever your neurological system deems necessary, it is the worst to sneeze on the subway. I witnessed a portly man sneeze violently and wetly into his hand and use that same hand one millisecond later to re-grab the subway pole. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and die. But a little fun fact about me is that I find strangers’ sneezes revolting. Family and friends, I’m usually A-OK. Not so with Allergy Alan or Snotnosed Stanley. If I hear you loudly sneeze (especially many times in a row) and it clearly sounds like you’re exhuming lung flesh and spewing it out into open air, my stomach curdles and I have to suppress my hurl reflex. God, I get queasy thinking about it. Not only must you deal with the aural assault, you then have to deal with the question of what airborne atrocities are invading your air space. If you’re on a crowded Lexington Avenue line heading downtown, you’re screwed. You have no room to wiggle and you must inhale whatever it is that’s floating along.

Today on the V train, a woman got up to exit and left her seat open. I really wanted to sit down. I cautiously placed my (fortunately, covered with pants) butt and legs on the seat, after discovering that she had left a large humidity/sweat stain from sitting there. Is it me or is that gross? Am I just a more severe germophobe? So I sat, hoping that nothing was seeping into my pants – God forbid getting through the cloth barrier to my actual skin. So far we have sneezing and sweat. Sweating also produces B.O. which is outstanding in the summertime, when you can barely keep cool on the trains, even with the air conditioning blasting down on you. Which is worse, breathing in someone’s bad breath or breathing in his/her B.O.? I leave it up to you but they’re both pretty sick.

Let’s talk about the dancers, musicians and beggars. You’re either forced to listen to someone preach evangelical horrors at the top of their lungs, watch a dance troupe (that invariably includes some poor 5 to 10 year-old child) swing from the poles and clap their hands and sing, or listen to mariachi music (hats included!) as someone walks up and down the “aisle” with a cap or a cup out, hoping you’ll donate some money. I make it a rule to never ever pull out my wallet on the subway but people definitely give up food and money depending on how convincing the person is or if the show is decent. I won’t even get into the disabled people, because it’s just really sad. Since I don’t pull out my wallet I just make it a point to be really interested in my iPod as the person with no limbs rolls his way down the car, citing a list of all his ailments, besides the glaringly obvious.

It wouldn’t be a Zoe post if I didn’t have a side note: The guy who sits outside my subway stop for work every morning is very small – short legs or whatever his thing is. I haven’t paid much attention to his disability since it’s not overly obvious (or maybe I’ve been too scared to look). But he sits there listening to headphones and texting on his cell phone with a cup sitting out in front of him. That makes me even less inclined to give money. What am I paying for? You look all right to me, sir. I’m just saying. I donated money ONE time in the subway on the platform on the Upper East Side, because this lovely, elderly gentleman was playing his accordian to some beautiful songs. It reminded me of my time in Paris and I got nostalgic and donated a buck.

Back to the main issue. Then there are the homeless people that sleep on the benches. I have gotten excited to see an empty car come down the tracks, only to stop right in front of me. I think, “This is my lucky day! I can sit and enjoy the ride!” Then I walked in and found that nobody was in the car because John Q. Homeless was sleeping on the bench with his cart of collected items sitting in front of him. The smell of old urine and body odor knocked me on my ass. Everybody who walks in, especially the latecomers who just make it into the car before the doors close, groan loudly and sometimes people even curse quite colorfully before moving to another car. If the homeless person is not asleep, sometimes s/he’s awake to entertain you with stories, accuse you of something, stare blankly at you without blinking or in this one case I heard about, rub one out.

Yes, you read that correctly. An old roommate’s boyfriend told me a story about how he was on the subway once, and a homeless man reached into his pants and proceeded to masturbate (at least he didn’t expose himself, but still….). When he finished, he exited at the next stop (I couldn’t really say “got off” now, could I?) and as he did, he patted a girl on the shoulder and said, “Thanks.”


Folks, I can’t make this stuff up. Another friend of mine was on an extremely crowded train heading home and she happened to be standing next to a man who was seated. He had a newspaper over his lap but she was at such an angle that she witnessed him stroking himself (junk outside the pants) underneath the paper. She got a bit queasy and was able to move to the other side of the car. I wish I were done.

Littering, vomiting, graffiti, people making out like they’re in a hotel room, raging drunken behavior….it all exists on New York’s fine transportation system. You have officially been initiated when some random stranger curses you out. S/he could be homeless or not, but most of the time, s/he’s just crazy. I had one guy stare at me from the corner of my eye, just waiting for me to do something. When I looked up at the subway ad across from me, he pounced on me verbally, raining things down upon me about how no I can’t suck him off and then on and on about the white race (he was an African-American guy) and something about terrorism. There was a lot going on. I even saw him AGAIN a month or two later but I made sure to keep my eyes averted and I thanked sweet baby Jesus we didn’t get off at the same stop.

Everyone has a seat!

Everyone has a seat!

So if you have not visited this fair city, you’re in for a real treat. Most tourists have the fortune to be oblivious, and they need to be. We can spot them a mile away. They talk way too loudly, are always looking at a map and/or wearing white walking sneakers no matter how dressy or preppy their outfit is. Sometimes a visor is part of the ensemble, or perhaps a tourist guide. But I chuckle with glee inside when I am in the same car as a gaggle of tourists and one of the aforementioned disasters boards the train. They are then reminded that while it has much improved, it’s still New York and it’s gonna bitchslap you in the face to rudely welcome you. The rules of the tracks have not changed. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can find two dollars to buy a Metro card and assail you in a variety of ways. You will be touched, perhaps quite literally, and irrevocably altered.

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