The NYC Subway as a Microcosm for Life

The New York City subway is a marvel. Nothing better epitomizes NYC to me than the train.

But the NYC subway is a diamond in the rough. Because if you rely solely on your senses and a superficial impression of what you can see, smell and feel, the NYC subway is, well, kind of disgusting. It’s 10-15 degrees hotter than the outdoor temperature in the summer. It often smells like urine. The rats are easy to spot scurrying along the tracks, weaving in and out of piles of garbage.

The beauty of the subway is on the train.

For at least the 20-40-60+ minutes it takes everyone to get to work/school/play, the NYC subway is a mixing bowl of diversity unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. While NYC is as susceptible to gentrification as any other major metropolitan area, Manhattan is small/dense enough that those gentrified areas are less siloed geographically than other major cities. So while everyone may not live and work in the same areas, they often have to commute through the same areas to get to their eventual destinations.

As a result the subways offer an interesting cross-section of the city. They are a microcosm of what it’s like to live here.

There’s no way to predict the “type” of person you’ll be sitting next to on the train. They’re as likely to be a banker to a homeless person to a tourist to a mom and kids. A goth to a nerd to a model to an aspiring actor, reading a script as they mumble to nobody in particular.

And for the duration of that short subway ride, everyone is forced to intimately coexist. Nobody is forced to like each other or engage with anyone, but they are forced to sit next to each other. And while simply sitting next to someone different than you on a daily basis may sound like a trivial, mundane, inconsequential thing, I assure you it’s not. It’s daily exercise in tolerance, acceptance and progressive thinking.

A lot of America could use a daily ride on the NYC subway.

And then there are moments on the train that remind me that this city isn’t as callous and humanless as it once appeared to me as an outsider. The urban high school kid, hip hop blasting from his headphones, giving up his seat for the elderly woman across the train. The little kid standing on the seat next to his father, loudly asking daddy over and over again if they’re almost there.

There’s a hustle and bustle here, absolutely. And everyone is in a rush to get somewhere. But the train doesn’t travel any faster or less crowded if you’re rich or poor. The platform isn’t any less brutal in the summer if you live in an Upper East Side penthouse or a housing project in the Bronx. For those minutes on the train, everyone is equal. Everyone is just trying to get somewhere.

Hard-Earned Tips/Observations

  1. The least busy cars are the first and last car, with the first car less packed than the last car. The downsides of being in the first car are that you may have to walk farther once you get to your destination to leave the station and if someone jumps on the tracks you're going to feel it first. I still prefer it.
  2. The least busy section of an individual train is standing in between the seats, away from the doors. It's also the area with best AC coverage. The downside is that if a train is super packed it might be harder to get out, but I prefer that to standing face-to-armpit.
  3. The monthly/weekly pass is worth it financially if you commute at least twice a day. So, for most people, it's very worth it.
  4. The C train sucks. It's infrequent and often late. I heard the G train in Brooklyn is worse.
  5. If you've been waiting for 8-9+ minutes and it's at a time where the platform is relatively crowded, the next train will be VERY crowded. Think of all the platforms down the line similarly full of people. If you're on a line that tells you when the next train is coming (1/2/3, 4/5/6) you're better off waiting for the next (after the incoming) train if the delay isn't significant. I learned this the hard way after going 75 blocks in the summer, face-to-armpit. When my mom was visiting. Yikes.
  6. If a car on a relatively packed train is empty, there's a reason. Either (1) the AC is broken so it's a sauna or (2) there's a smell/object that's keeping everyone out of that car. If it looks too good to be true, it is. Avoid the empty train car.
  7. In light of #6, try to go to a train car at least 2 away from the empty car. Reason being everyone who encounters the empty car will try to jump to immediately adjacent cars.
  8. Give up your seat to people who look like they need it. The elderly, pregnant, injured, people with small children, etc.