Ten things you can learn about New York City from the subway

Newton’s little-known fourth law of motion states that all city dwellers shall complain about the transport system that gets them to work in the morning. Londoners have more reason than most to moan, with a Northern Line that resembles Calcutta on a bad day, and weekend engineering work that means any trip from Leicester Square to Covent Garden has to go via Cardiff.

But when it comes down to it, underground systems are a microcosm of the city above, and if you ask me, there’s plenty we can learn about the city above by taking a look at the teeming humanity below. Just one week on the subway in New York is enough to glean some valuable lessons about New York and its itinerant population:

1. New Yorkers have an attention span that is only marginally longer than the average gnat. As a result, the majority of the city’s residents believe that there is a danger of spontaneous combustion unless they are constantly stimulated. People used to prepare for their work day by reading a newspaper; now they watch Gossip Girl on their iPod.

2. The majority of New Yorkers take up at least 47% more space than they think they do. As a result, most commuters never believe that a train is full, even after seeing documented evidence that Norris McWhirter and his fellow Guinness Book of World Records cronies have declared the train the current holder of the award for most people crammed into a confined space in a subterranean environment.

3. Most New Yorkers are hard of hearing, and have to play music at volumes only previously heard in military noise torture tests, in camps that make the Guantanamo Bay experience seem like a day out in Disneyland.

4. At least one third of all the city’s residents are homeless, and are forced to carry around all their worldly possessions in rucksacksbackpacks the size of, say, Mongolia.

5. Aggravated bodily harm is not illegal once you are thirty feet underground. If you need to use an umbrella, a fist or a good old fashioned honest-to-goodness shoulder barge to get past people, that is perfectly acceptable. If you leave your victim cowering on the floor, all the better.

6. The credit crunch means that a lot of people can no longer afford paper. All notes have to be scratched onto the subway windows as a result.

7. 95% of New York men have never seen a pregnant woman. At least that’s why I assume no-one ever seems to give up their seat when they see a gestating female clinging grimly onto a subway pole. It’s either that, or every New York man has had their fingers burned offering their seat to a woman who turned out to be less pregnant, more a big fan of cakes.

8. In Salem, they identified witches by the onset of mysterious convulsions; in New York, the outsiders are the people you see on the subway who aren’t wearing a coat manufactured by The North Face. If you are not wearing a black coat at the very least, you will be chased out of town by men brandishing pitchforks. North Face-branded pitchforks, obviously.

9. The lack of public toilets in New York was made possible by the 1932 Subway Conveniences Act, which stated that at least one subway carriagecar on every train will be required to stink of piss. Any train found to be lacking such a stench is forced to find a homeless guy with a collection of four thousand shopping bags (none of which contain soap) and place him in a carriage as a deterrent to commuters.

10. From the age of 2, all New Yorkers are trained to seek out vacant subway seats by smell alone. It is physically impossible to beat a seasoned New Yorker to a seat, even if you are given a 10 yard start. And your opponent is on crutches.

Still, these sardine cans get me to work, so I can’t really complain. I mean, obviously I will complain. But until someone coughs up for a personal chauffeur for me, it looks like I’m stuck with it so I may as well make the most of it. Now, where’s my umbrella?

13 thoughts on “Ten things you can learn about New York City from the subway

  1. Brooklyn

    I thought the sandwich chain was a transplant from Germany, where it was called “Unterseeboot” because it also sold donuts called “Admirals,” and “Submarine” was rejected as name better suited to a seafood restaurant chain.

  2. jinksy

    Don’t know which makes me feel most thankful – the fact that I don’t have to go to work now, or the fact that I live in UK anyway!

  3. Silverback

    Having experienced the London version recently, thankfully for only a few days, I can say, hand on dodgy heart, that I’m very glad that I’m retired, live in the ‘burbs and can walk to the countryside in 10 mins….above ground too.

  4. NFAH

    Whenever I go to London I’m glad I don’t live there, and it sounds like I’d be equally glad to be in not NYC. Although years riding the Washington, DC Metro did not have this level of “personality” associated. Must be a uniquely NYC thing.

  5. gabi

    Watching ‘Gossip Girl’ on their iPods? Have you been following me home on Tuesday nights?

    You forget #11…

    11. All New Yorkers are unwilling auditionees for a hybrid of ‘Survivor’/’Amazing Race’ on weekends just trying to get from Point A to Point B on a magical network of schizophrenic trains that change identities mid-route dropping you off god-knows-where, because you didn’t hear the announcement (which was an indecipherable series of screeching squawks anyway), because you were too busy watching ‘Gossip Girl’ on your iPod.

  6. amelie

    Been awhile since I commented! But this made me laugh so hard… I definitely do not miss the New York City subway… although the Parisians aren’t much better. We have fold-down seats, and those sitting on them are supposed to stand when the car gets too full, but there are some who would rather have their fellow passengers sitting on their laps than give up their precious “strapontin.”

  7. Brooklyn

    I was going to say something about having to wait until the ’60’s for air conditioning in the NYC subways, but after doing minimal reseach, I found that air conditioned subway cars are the exception.

    Neither the London Tubes, the Paris Metro, nor the Moscow Subway have air conditioned subway cars.

    Even if NYC gets hotter than all of these cities, standing cheek to jowl on them in mid-August cannot be fun, as NY’rs are reminded when they unknowingly step into a car whose air conditioned has failed, because they failed to notice that the car is virtually empty (some prefer to sit in the heat than stand in the (relative) cool), but the two adjacent cars are more filled than usual.

    So, to be fair, with all its faults, lets give the NYS subway system a “well done” for system wide air conditioned NYC subway cars/

  8. Dylan

    Brooklyn – the weird thing is that London tube platforms are not too hot in summer, but the trains are unbearable. Here in NYC, the platforms are hotter than the flaming bowels of hell, and the train is a blessed relief from the pain of summer. The problem with the London system is that it is so far below ground that they haven’t managed to find a way to create air conditioning that works – I believe there was once a hundred thousand pound prize on offer to anyone who could come up with a solution, but it passed unclaimed.

    Amelie – the Paris system is pretty good in my opinion, although I once had a huge (drunken, feisty) argument with The Best Man about whether the Paris map was topological or topographical. Almost ended the friendship. I think the fact that we had just watched our football team disgrace themselves at the Stade de France was more the root cause, to be honest.

    Gabi – rest assured that you were the inspiration for that line. And don’t get me started on announcements. There’s another blog post in that somewhere.

    NFAH – the DC system (I appreciate that I am starting to sound like a train spotter now) excites me beyond all measure – it’s like you’ve entered what I imagined the space age to look like when I was 5.

    Silverback – I’m sure you’re not missing Florida right now either, given the rain that they’ve got!

    Jinksy – maybe you should just stand up squashed in a corner of your home and get somebody to jolt you around every ten seconds for an hour. Then you too could feel like the rest of the city dwellers!

  9. Brooklyn

    The hot NYC platforms represent a Newtonian version of the principle that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The subway car AC units produce heat outside while cooling the inside,and the heat remains trapped underground,adding to the accumulated heat of the subways normal operation, NYC Summer temps of 80’s to 90’s F, and the body heat of millions of sweating riders.

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