The romance of the subway


I remember the very first time I rode the subway. I was just a little boy, and my mother insisted that my father take me to work with him. The most exciting part of the day was the subway ride.

I grew up in Staten Island, and the trip to Manhattan involved an above ground train (called the Staten Island Rapid Transit), the Staten Island Ferry, and finally a subway ride.

There's something special about trains in general. Ayn Rand wrote the thousand page book Atlas Shrugged about a railroad executive running a railroad. But the subway is even more special. Traveling in a tube underneath the city seems like something out of science fiction, yet at the same Subways are deeply rooted in the past. New York City's IRT line first opened for business 100 years ago in 1904.

The subway assaults all of the senses. There are loud rumbling noises, and high pitched squeaking when the train turns or stops. The shaking and the vibrations thrust you in all directions, making it a real effort to hang onto the strap. You watch the walls rush past as the train races through the tunnels. There's even the subway smell. Not the smell of other people's body odor nor the homeless person's urine (although these smells are an unfortunate part of the experience), but the smell of the rails, the smell of dust burning from the touch of the friction heated subway wheels. The New York City subways have a special smell that's not duplicated on Amtrak nor even in Washington DC's Metro system.

When I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I got to take the subway everyday. There were a lot of us who loved the subway. There were two routes from the Staten Island Ferry to Stuyvesant High School (which was then located at 15th Street and 1st Avenue). There was the bus, which went directly to the school, and there was the subway, which wasn't quite as direct because you had to transfer from the RR train to the LL train at Union Square. Nevertheless, we all preferred taking the subway. The excitement of moving underground won out over the direct above ground route through slow moving city traffic.

We were all quite adept at moving through the subway cars. That's a joy that they seem to be trying to put a stop to. Our safety obsessed society is worried that people will get hurt walking between cars. But before they had air conditioning on the subways, keeping the doors between cars open was how they got the air to circulate. It was that and the big overhead fans. The modern air conditioned subways are more comfortable in the summer, but they lack the exciting retro look of the big fans.

It was also really fun when we got to ride on one of the really ancient cars that were still in use at the time. Everyone was awed whenever that happens. "Wow, this is a cool subway car," we would all say to each other. It's a little known fact that teenagers love subways.

Unlike the sad and lonely commute faced by suburbanites, sitting all alone in their SUV while stuck in a big traffic jam, the urban dweller on the subway gets to share a communal experience with his fellow humans and partake of the great diversity that the city has to offer.

The people living in suburbia really don't know what they're missing not having any subways around. They've convinced themselves that that subways suck, that they're hot and crowded and dirty and so much less convenient than driving to Price Club in a big SUV. But there's something magical about the subways that makes up for all the bad stuff. It's the romance of the subway.