New York and the Scary Subway

New York and the Scary Subway

A lot of people are dubious about going underground in New York City. The noise, the shadows, the strange cinder- and uncleaned-bathroom-scented winds… the other people, whom you can see walking through–but maybe not… That romantic show back in the 80s, was it? probably gave a few dewy-eyed types an unwholesome urge to explore, and maybe some others, a deep desire never ever to go below the sidewalks. I don’t doubt there is a world, an unofficial population living there. In fact, it has been documented. Lowest rents there are, though the neighborhood can be rough.

There is a t-shirt: I Rode The New York Subway System and Survived!

I, however, love the New York subways!

They are spooky, but I first met them as a child, with my hand held firmly by a Grown-up, so I knew I didn’t have to be afraid: that was the habit I developed, and have kept.

The Subway is dark and dirty in many places, and there is always the thrill of the edge of the platform, and the murderous third rail always right there… Perhaps it is an urban myth, but I can easily imagine it is not, about the guy who, in the quiet of an empty station, relieved himself–I can imagine a deliberate, though sadly uneducated thought passing through his mind: Wonder if I can hit that big fat rail over there… And he could. Electricity travels fast along a saline solution. End of story.


In the late 50s, some of the cars had cane seats. The windows were like school-bus windows, and passengers could open or close them at will. In the first car, there was a little booth with the driver locked in behind a solid door, and the front door had a window, so you could stand there, watching the rush of the tunnel lit only by the train’s own headlight, until it was lost in the bright station platform lights… Later, they were black, functional, ugly cars, and still later, they were gleaming shining streamlined steel–that soon was overwritten with spray paint graffiti and gang tags. In some towns, that would just be a mess, but New York is a city of superior efforts in all fields, and the tags on the trains there constituted an outlaw, and truly underground art-form.

Some trains went up and through the street, up onto a bridgework of rails–though we still called it the Subway… some called that part just The Elevated. The El.

The oldest, deepest tunnels are round rather than angular, and their walls are tiled in white tiles, with the station names in black tiles. The last station north, or nearly if it isn’t the last, at Fort Tryon Park, where The Cloisters museum is, is so deep that you have to take an elevator out.

Whatever else they are, or have in them, the old, smelly, noisy, spooky New York Subway system has magic in it.

When I was in my 30s, traveling alone, I had occasion to descend to the old, deep tunnels, the round, tiled tunnels. I passed through Grand Central Station’s solid warm glamour, down through narrow, low corridors full of others in a rush to not-miss trains, past the two nuns who are always in a certain spot asking alms… the noise, the smell, the hustle and bustle… and there was music in the air. Not ratchety loud music, or howling horn music: it was a classical violin concerto I was hearing, and it grew as I descended deeper and deeper into the tunnels.

A young musician was standing in the lowest tunnel, playing as if no one were there, and the music reveled in the tiled acoustics! I let two of my trains go by, listening to the magic, and only reluctantly got on the third.

And that is how I remember the New York Subways.

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