Updated: 10.14.00

The New York City subway system is a fascinating, wonderful and ever-changing place. It is home to wanderers, lunatics, musicians, rats, preachers, a railroad and stray cats. Smells include urine, concrete, hot metal, the thousands of Homo Commutus who pass through, and food of all types, to name a few.

The New York Subway is one of the many things that makes New York unique. Unlike other cities, folks from all walks of life will, at some point, rub elbows in the subway. The homeless guy walking car to car begging before being jumped by Giuliani's Goons and the CEO who needs to get from Madison Square to Grand Central in the minimal amount of time at rush hour - both will be on the subway. Unlike LA, where you commute sealed into your car and never even have to see people not of your social class (because the freeways are either elevated or sunken), or Chicago where commuting by car works, in general, New York forces that twice-daily dance of avoidance and intimacy that is called straphanging. Recently, the New York Subway joined the twentieth century by providing the Metrocard. This handy-dandy little piece of molested oaktag can take you from heaven to hell and back again, all in a wondrous linear creature called the El (Note: Chicago's transit system is in fact called 'the El', presumably because so much of it is above-ground). Soon, they hope to join the twenty-first century with a new type of subway car.

You can watch and hear music. You can explore. You can watch the people, or the other people. Sit, stand, squat, lie, laze, claim the space as your own.

Tucker mouse, the protagonist of George Selden's immortal The Cricket in Times Square books, lived in the Times Square shuttle station, just across from a Nedick's lunch counter. If you go there now, you can actually see a large section of discolored floor where Nedick's stood; look across the platform and you can see the drainpipe that Tucker lived in. Along with Harry the Cat. And, naturally, Chester.

UPDATE: A sad day. Tucker's Drainpipe is no more. The wall of the Shuttle station was shortened in order to add a new exit point, and it appears that the drainpipe is gone. I noticed this passing through recently, and was forced to stand for a moment, silent, respectfully mourning this loss of a small piece of Higher New York.

This system is one of the largest in the world. It has more than 720 miles of track. It has more types of rolling stock than you can shake a stick at, built at different times for different lines; of different sizes, shapes and colors. There are museums devoted to it; bodies of writing that depend on it, and an entire Big Apple-sized economy that couldn't survive without it.

And despite the best efforts of certain neo-fascists, it's still just dangerous enough to keep your blood moving if you're in it late at night.

"Don't travel on the subway!" I was warned, over and over again in New York. "Stay away from the subway, late at night!"

But it was all those years ago and I was young and indestructable, and too broke to take taxis. So I always travelled underground. I remembered the sensible advice: wait by the ticket booth, then get on the most crowded carriage. and I thought nothing of it.

So late one summer night I was coming home from a night of dancing in some forgotten club, all dressed up, with peacock feathers sprouting from a turban, lipstick a dark red smear, half lost from talking, black clothes sticky from night air. And I waited and waited, fanning myself with a folded flyer, then hopped into the carriage that was pretty much bursting with people. I grabbed the pole and looked around.

Oh my.

I was the only woman in the train carriage. I was the only one who was not a young hispanic male with a coloured bandana and a denim or leather jacket. All my nasty fears and impossible prejudices came flooding to my paling face. I looked steadily around and tried to work out how long till the next station. One guy near me regarded me carefully, then looked over at his mates. there was a flickering of soft speech, and I stiffened my all english upper lip.

He nodded at me, and started to count, "one...two...three.."

"Oh god, this is it," I thought, "I'm too young to die."

And then they all started to sing.

They sang, "who's that girl" and laughed themselves silly.
Very sweetly, they offered me an escort home, because they were worried I was travelling alone, at night, on the subway. Because the New York subway is a dangerous place.

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