NYC Subway Centennial
December 9, 2003 2:06 PM   Subscribe

New York's Subway turns 100 years old in 2004. All of us NYers have at least one subway story... what's yours? A few historical links here, here and here.
posted by adamms222 (22 comments total)
The last time I was on a New York subway was on the way to the Brooklyn Bridge with my brother, some close friends and all of us suited and tuxedoed for his wedding out on the first landing.

We made a good looking group and one of my favorite pics from the day is all of us in the subway station awaiting the train but we're all in different locations and looking off in different directions.
posted by fenriq at 2:13 PM on December 9, 2003

I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that Boston's subway is older. And has TROLLEYS!

(admit it-- you want to ride on a trolley.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:18 PM on December 9, 2003

"Life Below"
excellent NY subway photography by Christophe Agou
posted by matteo at 2:19 PM on December 9, 2003

This is an incredible feat... To think that New York in 1900 had a population almost twice my city's today (Houston)... and managed to install a working subway network during the dawn of the electric age...

I wish I have been able to make it to New York... (I have made it as far as DC... oh well...) and had a chance to see this magnificant system up close and personal. You New Yorkers probably don't think much of it since it has been there for just about all of your natural lives... or I could be wrong... perhaps the average New Yorker knows how lucky they are to have had functional mass transit... well... for most of your natural lives.
posted by LoopSouth at 2:27 PM on December 9, 2003

(admit it-- you want to ride on a trolley.)

Not this morning you didn't (#@%$&# D-Line)
posted by jalexei at 2:34 PM on December 9, 2003

Last time I was in NY, I admit, I couldn't figure out how to get where I was going by subway...I gave up and took a cab. :)
posted by dejah420 at 2:37 PM on December 9, 2003

sorry, all my best subway stories aren't fit for a public forum ; >

The subway is appreciated even tho we complain all of the time about it, and it's too expensive--it's really only when I go away and there either isn't one, or it doesn't run all night that I am thankful (the new cars on the 6 are cool too).
posted by amberglow at 2:41 PM on December 9, 2003

oh, yeah, Agou's subway prints were hung all over the walls of Peter Parker's apartment in the Spiderman movie

posted by matteo at 2:50 PM on December 9, 2003

Being a bridge and tunnel New Yorker (people who go into Manhattan for the day) I never had troubles with subways, but sometimes signs got confusing as to what was closed due to maintence and when, etc. My most recent story was standing on the platform when the wrong train came by, so we waited, but then the conductor stuck his head out and yelled in a typical bronx accent 'yo! there's no A-train today' We happily got on and then transferred to the A farther south. See, and everyone says no one's nice in NYC.
posted by stryder at 2:50 PM on December 9, 2003

Abandoned NY Subway Stations
posted by anastasiav at 2:55 PM on December 9, 2003

Without the subway, New York City wouldn't be the mega-size bastion of sin and moral blight it became. ;)

Thinking of and building a mass transit system that early in the game was a near-genius-level gamble. The works of Robert Moses ultimately pale in comparison.
posted by attackthetaxi at 2:57 PM on December 9, 2003

I don't live in NYC, but I have three stories (two of them mine):

1. I left my sweater on a train, managed to do some quick thinking, took an express train to catch up with the train (and my sweater). That was pretty cool.

2. On New Year's two years ago, I was so drunk, I fell asleep (while sitting on the john) in a LIRR car. I nearly missed my stop, which would have been disasterous, as my friends were the ones who knew where we were going. I've not yet been able to live this one down.

3. A married couple I know met on the subway. They rode on the same car for seven years -- always eyeing each other, but never saying anything. One day, as the woman was riding, she heard an elderly woman behind her ask someone for directions. A man replied to elderly woman, and she knew without looking that it was him -- the man she'd been eyeing for seven years. Her heart pounded -- he was so close to her. She didn't turn around.

When she got off at her stop, there was the typical rush hour clamor, and she frantically looked for him. She spun around, and there he was. He was standing there, waiting for her. They introduced themselves, and he asked if he could take her to lunch. It's a good thing their introduction happened when it did -- he was slated to move a week later, and would no longer be taking the same train. Anyway, the couple is happily married now!
posted by jennak at 3:00 PM on December 9, 2003

When I was in NY, I made it my goal to use the subway, because I love the concept of public transit, and admire the system that NYC has.

I got turned around on more than one occassion, thinking uptown should have been going one direction when in fact it was going the other. I think it was because I went uptown, then needed to go downtown, and went in different entrances. After I figured that out, I was just fine.

I wish more cities had systems like it, and maybe even systems that would interconnect to each other, much like the subway system connects to Amtrak.
posted by benjh at 3:06 PM on December 9, 2003

My lame story: I was squashed on an uptown train at 42nd street after school, bitching quite loudly to my friends that "I hate this fucking city - I'm probably being pickpocketed as we speak..." I got off the train a few stops later to find that, of course, I was being pickpocketed as we spoke. Never saw my wallet again. I still hate that fucking city.
posted by tristeza at 3:15 PM on December 9, 2003

Here are my two favorite subway stories: one is disgusting, the other beautiful.

Witnessed by an acquaintance: a man was sitting in one of the seats near the end of the train car, masturbating. Those particular seats face a blank area of wall, not other seats. As the next stop is announced, the masturbating guy kind of snaps out of it--the next stop is his. Quickly, he finishes his business (directly onto said wall), packs everything up and leaves. Immediately a woman in a fur coat walks into the train. Before my acquaintance could say "Look out! That wall is covered in cu--" the woman leaned back to enjoy the ride.

Published in Metropolitan Diary in the Times: a woman, after exiting the subway car onto the platform, realized she only had one of her gloves. She turned around and looked back into the car to see her other glove on the seat. As the "stand clear of the closing doors" announcement came over the PA system, she realized she'd never have enough time to get back in for her glove. So she threw her other glove in, just as the doors were closing. Better for someone else to have two gloves than for her to have only one.

I love this city.
posted by notclosed at 4:14 PM on December 9, 2003

I think my favorite crazy was the guy that sat there and berated... oh, that's all of the crazies.

One story that stands out:

This one time, myself and my girlfriend were returning to our apartment in Brooklyn on the F* Train. It was about 2 or 3 am on a Saturday, everyone was drunk out of their minds (we were starting to sober up by that time), and the train was packed full. All of a sudden, probably around Delancey or East Broadway, we started smelling smoke; we looked over and saw this guy, slumping over and hanging from the bar, smoking. People started getting angry and telling him to put it out, and his friend (they were Russian) started protesting "But diz iz America! Iz Democracy! He can do wot he want!" Being the firestarter I am, I yelled back "Um, no, it's a constitutional republic." I'm a bastard. By about York Street, people started yelling, and a couple of young hood-looking guys got into a brawl with the Russians. Whenever they were pulled apart, they'd get back into it. Finally the train stopped at Bergen Street and waited there. Eventually we just got off and walked home (we lived at the next stop anyway). God I love Brooklyn.

*You know what they say about the F train... if you have to take it, you're fucked.
posted by The Michael The at 8:19 PM on December 9, 2003

Sorry, notclosed, I can't decide which of your stories is more beautiful.
posted by nicwolff at 8:36 PM on December 9, 2003

So many moments to choose from. But my favorite recent one:

I'm on the 7 train from Queens to Manhattan, probably around the part where we go under the East River. (It's called the Steinway tunnel, for us geeks.) It's early afternoon, and the car I'm on is fairly empty ... me and about six other people. At the far end of the car are two guys, about 40-ish, t-shirts, jeans, slightly scraggly hair. One has a small ponytail; the other is wearing some sort of "patriotic" t-shirt with a montage of George W. Bush, a menacing eagle, a billowing American flag, etc. You know the type.

Ponytail Guy suddenly points at the other guy's t-shirt and says, "That guy's an asshole." Meaning W. Okay. T-shirt Guy spouts something back, and soon they're arguing loudly, and perhaps a bit drunkly, about politics and Iraq and the WTC. I try not to pay too much attention. We stop at Grand Central, let off some people, get a few more.

We start moving again, and they're still at it. Suddenly T-shirt Guy starts SINGING, at the top his lungs and very off-key, "God Bless America." Oh yes. And then Ponytail Guy joins in -- "THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS, AND THE VALLEEEEEEYS" -- but when they both get to the "God bless America" part, Ponytail Guy sings "God FUCK America" at the same time T-shirt Guy is shouting "BLESS." Their veins are bulging, they're in each other's faces, and they WON'T STOP. They even go to the next verse!

At this point it's my station, 5th Avenue, and I roll off the train and finally feel like I can burst into laughter. Even as the doors close behind me and the train rolls onto Times Square, I can still hear them.
posted by lisa g at 9:51 PM on December 9, 2003

Sonnet: O City, City

To live between terms, to live where death
Has his loud picture in the subway ride,
Being amid six million souls, their breath
An empty song suppressed on every side,
Where the sliding auto's catastrophe
Is a gust past the curb, where numb and high
The office building rises to its tyranny,
Is our anguished diminution until we die.

Whence, if ever, shall come the actuality
Of a voice speaking the mind's knowing,
The sunlight bright on the green windowshade,
And the self articulate, affectionate, and flowing,
Ease, warmth, light, the utter showing,
When in the white bed all things are made.

Copyright © 1959 by Delmore Schwartz.

posted by matteo at 3:41 AM on December 10, 2003

...where numb and high
The office building rises to its tyranny...

Boy, you can sure tell poets who came of age between the wars. Hart Crane, Allen Tate, Delmore Schwartz, this could be from any of those guys. (On the other hand, I suspect "the actuality/ Of a voice speaking the mind's knowing" could only be Schwartz.)

Subway stories... You can always tell the out-of-towners when a crowded train pulls into a station and, as people struggle to cram on, the squawkbox says "There is another train right behind this one"; they're the ones who stand back (or, worse, get off) and trustingly wait for the less crowded train sure to follow. When it shows up twenty minutes later, they've been baptized into the Society of Cynical Subway Riders.

My personal benchmark for being a real New Yorker was knowing my way around the immense Times Square station without having to think twice about which way to go. Took me a couple of years, and I was very proud when I realized I'd made it. (Another benchmark was always knowing which direction Broadway was in, which took about as long.)

In my first years in NYC, when I was young and spent a lot of time in bars, I hadn't quite gauged the all-important beer/time/bladder ratio, and once got on an uptown subway (probably from some East Village dive) and realized as the train pulled into the West Fourth St. station that I absolutely had to piss within the next 60 seconds or so. Fortunately, the station is so constructed that between the lower-level BMT trains and the upper-level IND ones there is a mezzanine, deserted except for people hurrying up and down the stairways. I dashed up to it, located a suitably obscure corner, and whizzed away. After that I learned to time my visits to bar restrooms better.

Best subway entertainer: a magician who used to get on, open up his box of tricks, somehow attract everyone's attention without uttering a word, do something amazing, bow, and collect the applause and money of delighted passengers. Worst: the guy who played "Martian music" in the '80s. He'd get on with a sax and honk and screech as badly as he could until he collected enough change to have mercy and move to the next car. (He could play perfectly well when he wanted to; if he got a particularly good take or was just feeling generous, he'd play a nice tune before leaving.)

The most annoying station used to be the 72nd St. stop on the Broadway line, where you couldn't switch between the uptown and downtown lines and the stairs were dangerously narrow, but they've done a pretty good job of remodeling it.
posted by languagehat at 9:09 AM on December 10, 2003

The last time I rode an NYC subway was the day that I:
1.) Found a $100 bill in the courtyard outside my apartment building.
2.) Caught the heel of my show in a sidewalk grate and was actually assisted by a passing stranger.
3.) Met Joel Gray (and his then unknown daughter, Jennifer) on the street and got the world's most charming autograph from him.
4.) Was hired for my first professional job.
5.) Closed on the purchase of my first home and
6.) Got married.

Seeing as how I couldn't possibly top the experiences of that day, I've used busses and taxis in the city ever since.
posted by Dreama at 2:23 PM on December 10, 2003

Favorite people on the subway, or at least people I see every so often:

The magician that languagehat describes (I see him on the 6 every now and then, and once on the N), who operates out of a shopping cart shrouded in that holographic vinyl sheeting;

Blind Accordionist Guy on the N/W trains;

Nose Picking Guy. Whenever I work a certain shift at work, he is ALWAYS opposite me when I get on at the end of the line in Queens. He picks his nose all the way from Ditmars Boulevard to 34th Street (can one HAVE that many boogers in one's nose?), where we both get off. I stride down 34th toward my office, and he's usually on my heels the whole way, until I go into my office building in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden. I sometimes see him on the way home. (I don't make a point of watching him pick his nose, preferring to bury my head in the New Yorker, but I'll see movement out of the corner of my eye, involuntarily glance up, and there he is digging away);

The frustrated radio announcer on the N who always intones: "Queeeeeeeeens-BOR-oh Pal-aza! Last stop in the BOR-ough of Qu-eens. Next stop, Lexington Avenue, shopping capital of the world!";

The guy I saw on the A train once who boarded carrying a surfboard and one of those helium Mylar balloons. He got off at the next stop, and no one batted an eye;

People who move on the subway. I saw a couple muscling a bookcase onto a train that must have been seven feet tall. Once again, no one batted an eye.
posted by Vidiot at 9:25 PM on December 10, 2003

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