New York City, NY
This melting pot of a city has a melting pot of a transportation system. No two stations of the New York subway system are alike. Each stop reflects its neighborhood, through mosaics, statues, graffiti and type of passenger. Some stations are clean and prissy, others gnarled and rusted. Tunnels twist like rabbit warrens. Construction is unending. Trash, advertisements, and performance artists are ubiquitous. The large station hubs (Union Square, Times Square) collect many trains, jumble them up, and send you hurtling off in all directions to look for your connecting line.
The passengers, like the station stops, are anything and everything. Tourists with frosted hair and fake designer bags congregate at Canal Street and Times Square. Men in designer suits overload the train early each morning down by Wall Street. In Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, hipsters in cigarette pants, retro Chuck Berry glasses and fanciful hairdos are so cool, they don’t have to look to know where they get off. In the outer boroughs, passenger demographics shift according to neighborhood; you can become a minority within just a few subway stops. Homeless men stretch across rows of seats, swaddled in plastic bags and dirty blankets, fending off passengers with their smell. Buskers, everything from barbershop quartets to mariachi bands to high school boys selling fund-raising candy, ply their wares from car to car.
All the New York subway trains are tall, thin and made of rattling silver metal. The interiors sport bright plastic seats, but leave enough room to pack in passengers like sardines. If you get a car alone, usually late at night or at the very front or back of a train, there’s enough space to use the silver poles as monkey bars, or to practice your exotic dancing. New, more high-tech cars, with shinier metal and brighter paint, now blink station names and subway lines at you from electronic displays. Even the subway cars take part in the quintessential New York quest for self-improvement and distinction, no matter what the cost.
All work and no play characterize the metro system of our nation’s capitol. Unlike New York City’s subway, which has been a patchwork work-in-progress since the turn of the twentieth century, Washington, D.C.’s metro system was constructed in the 1970s, all at once. As a result, all the stations and all the trains look exactly the same, barring the names on the station signs and a token piece of art or two. The grey concrete vaulted ceilings are high, majestic, and methodical. The cars are white and clean, with runner carpets and lots of cushioned seating.
The system brims with amenities and helpful hints. Electric signs on the platform flash the color and arrival time of the next four or five trains. Rows of red lights blink on the sides of the tracks when a train approaches. A friendly female voice instructs you periodically on the proper procedures for dealing with suspicious packages. Still, for all these niceties, the metro is unforgiving. If the train doors close on your clothing, bag or body part, they won’t open again like elevator doors. You’re clamped in until the next station stop. (The friendly female voice tells you that, too.)
DC’s passengers fall into broad categories, all of which share a propensity for unfortunate fashion choices. Government employees tromping to work pair gym sneakers or flip flops with tailored business suits. Battalions of tourists deck themselves out in matching neon shirts and tend to shout instructions down the car. Although the homeless population seems larger, or at least more visible, in DC than in New York, you won’t find any buskers or beggars below ground. Busking, along with eating and drinking, is prohibited in the metros, and the rules are strictly enforced.
Remember to keep your metro card after you swipe into a station (you’ll need it to swipe out as well), and to keep it away from your cell phone (the card will demagnetize.) But the most important rule of all? Stand right, walk left. God help you if you stand on the wrong side of the escalator in this town.
Boston’s subway system feels like an old wharf. The T is weather-worn, battle-scarred, beaten by the sea and salt air for decades. The walls are a rough stucco, the paint peeling. The metro tunnels are dark and dank, intermittently lit by bare orange bulbs, revealing scattered pipes, gears and coils of ropes. A mothball smell permeates the air, in keeping with the centuries of history which Boston boasts.
In a unique move, Boston’s subway cars vary by location. Traditional long caravans of cars wind and shudder underground, while a funny-looking caboose of two short cars connected by an accordion seal ferries passengers jerkily to their stops above ground. Plastic seats, like those in New York, are not numerous; carpeting, like that in DC, makes the car feel homey. Large windows and full glass doors let you watch the world glide by. No matter how antique the system may feel, it’s certainly not going anywhere; the rechargeable CharlieCards are good until 2019.
The T’s passengers have neither the fierce individual styles of New York City, nor the staid work ethic of DC. The riders are of one mold here: easy-going, unpretentious and New England sensible. They are a people comfortable in their own skins, strong in their convictions, whether political (left-wing) or religious (Boston Red Sox.) Intellectuals with messenger bags and glasses abound. More focused on school than style, shaggy-haired boys and girls sport buttons and logo shirts for political causes and anarchic bands. Conversations vacillate between peaceful calm and a lively murmur, punctuated by the rattling of the tracks below you. As you descend the train, consider yourself lucky that the T no longer charges a five cent surcharge for going above ground; and say a prayer for old Charlie, namesake of the CharlieCard, who wasn’t as lucky.