Category Archives: Transport

London’s dirty secret

I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s a common perception among the global community that Americans are pretty direct. And that’s no bad thing. For example, I’d say that most Americans are pretty intolerant of poor service, and aren’t afraid to make their dissatisfaction known. As a sweeping generalisation, Americans aren’t known for delivering bad news with a spoonful of sugar, either. It’s the kind of directness that allows utility companies to tell you that there’s going to be a ten day wait for your gas/electricity/phone to be restored, and then remind you in the same breath that prices are rising by 25% next week.

The British are more of a nation of shrinking violets. Clearly, the natives of India wouldn’t necessarily have agreed during the years of colonial expansionism, but the British are essentially more reserved. Or “emotionally retarded,” as some more unkind American commentators would probably describe it.

As I’ve detailed in entries before, most Americans would need an ever-present translator to understand the difference between what a Brit says and what he or she actually means. “It’s fine” generally means “I hate it but I don’t want to cause a scene”. “We should do this again” translates as “It’ll be a cold night in hell before I agree to go for dinner with you again.” And “it’s a really interesting color” is roughly equivalent to “who in the love of all that is righteous and holy would have a urine yellow sofa?”

However, one area in which Britain isn’t shy and retiring is its approach to communicating issues of public safety in and around the transport system. Having taken the train to London on Monday, I was confronted outside the station by an advertising campaign to warn people of the dangers of ignoring the barriers at level crossings. Let’s just say that this thing doesn’t pull its punches. Unsurprisingly, having read an advert demonstrating the eight points on the line where they found the person who jumped a barrier, I wasn’t quite so in the mood for my morning bacon buttysandwich.

Over the next three days, my tube journeys to and from meetings were delayed three times by “passenger action” somewhere in the London Underground system. “Passenger action” is the oft-heard euphemism for somebody jumping into the path of a fast moving train in an attempt to kill themselves.

Except transport bosses have decided that this phrase is not – excuse the pun – hard hitting enough, as they now consistently say that there are delays on the system due to “a person under a train” at a particular station. Talk about not pulling punches. At least with “passenger action” you can naively convince yourself that it’s a result of a teenager pulling the emergency cord, but with “person under a train” all you see are the flailing arms of the ‘victim’ and the horror of the helpless driver. And with three ‘jumpers’ in three days, clearly the credit crunch is taking its toll in London.

In New York, subway suicides are almost never ever mentioned, swept under the carpet like those bits of fluff and cat hair that you can’t be bothered to vacuum. In many ways it’s the public transport equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and saying “La la la la la la” when you don’t want to hear something.

Strangely though, it seems like New York probably has the right approach. With 1.5 billion users of the subway system every year, there were only 26 subway suicides last year; London has a third less commuters every year, and twice as many suicides. If you ever needed a macabre demonstration of the power of advertising, you just found it.

The pipes of peace

I’ve said it before, but New York is a city packed full of people who just don’t know when to stop. As the old Chinese proverb says, “Start argument with New Yorker on Tuesday, kiss goodbye to weekend.” And if a New Yorker fails at something, expect them to keep trying until they’ve finally achieved it. Or at least until they’ve died trying.

The lack of limits extends to the workplace too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the New York branch of Workaholics Anonymous resembles HarrodsMacy’s on the first day of the January sales. I know plenty of people who spend more time at their offices than at home, and it can’t just be because of the way that that woman in accounts/man in the postmail room looks at them.

The fact is that New Yorkers play hard, but work much harder. It’s probably the only city in America where employees complain about getting ten days off work per year because it’s twice as many as they ever intend to take. Some people wonder how the city supports so many fast food outlets, but frankly if it wasn’t for lawyers and architects ordering in chicken parmigiana at 10pm, half of the Italian places in New York would close down.

Given the level of commitment to work, the buskerstreet musician on the L platform at 14th Street/Union Square is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Masquerading as a guitar twiddling, pan pipe blowing Peruvian, Manuel Pugo (I’ve occasionally had the misfortune to get up close, and have seen his CDs) is the antithesis of a New Yorker. Despite the fact that his music is blasting out every morning (generally covers of much loved classics such as ‘The Sound Of Silence’), I have yet to see him blow his pan pipes in anger, or give more than an occasional strum. It’s almost as if he’s on doctor’s orders not to perform for more than three minutes a day, for fear that further exertion will cause him to spontaneously combust.

He mimes along quite happily, and occasionally gives a muted yelp into the microphone. But mostly he talks to commuters, and gives me the kind of look that says “you’ve been coming to this platform for six months now and you’ve not put money in my guitar case once.”

Clearly I give him a withering stare in return. If he hasn’t managed to work it out yet, the aforementioned look roughly translates as “pick up your sodding instrument and use it, and I might consider giving you some cash.”

I think my money’s perfectly safe, sadly.

Wherever I lay my hat

Everybody has a place where they feel most comfortable. A place that’s as soothing and becalming as your presence in the womb itself, providing you with a moment of sanity away from the world around you. An oasis of blessed relief, which at any given point would be the place you would instantly choose to be teleported. If it weren’t for the fact that teleporting isn’t actually currently humanly possible, obviously.

For some people, that place can be utterly specific. A particular table at a quaint little restaurant off the beaten track in a French market town, maybe. Or drunkenly falling comatose in the car park behind the Dog & Bucket in Trowbridge after one Smirnoff Ice too many. You know the kind of thing.

For others, the vision is a little less precise. Inhaling the unmistakable odour of the first mown grass of spring. Holding a loved one’s hand as you trudge through newly fallen snow. Or gazing wistfully over the Virginian plains as eagles and kestrels soar overhead. To be honest, I’m not particularly sure that Virginia has plains, let alone eagles and kestrels, but I think you know what I mean.

As for me, it’s gazing out over a vast expanse of water. Preferably with The Special One beside me. Only then do I feel calm and at one with the world. With the sea infront of me, a feeling hits me that makes me know that there truly is no place on earth I’d rather be.

For a remarkable number of New Yorkers, it seems, the place that gives them the same sensation is “the exact position that would cause maximum annoyance to commuters”. Whether it’s on the third step up a long staircase on the subway, or in the doorway to an office building, some residents of the city find a curious zen descend upon them at the moment of maximum inconvenience. A zen that roots them to the spot, oblivious to the muffled effing and blinding of all those around them. And only when everybody has taken a long detour/bodycharged/crawled under their legs to get past does reality re-emerge to allow the (now thoroughly relaxed) person to go on their way.

Still, I’m not going to forgive the woman on the N train who ran ten yards and practically wrestled me to the ground in order to get a seat that had suddenly become available right next to me. I wouldn’t have minded, but for the fact that I wasn’t even trying to sit in it in the first place, and was simply trying to make space for the seat’s current occupant to vacate it.

Everybody has their place, and who can deny them that? This person was just lucky that her place wasn’t her local A&EER, given the dagger looks I shot her for the rest of the journey.

Where’s the sea when you need it most, eh?

All is not what it seems

As you’ll see from the counter over on the right, I’ve now been a Brit Out Of Water for 400 days. During that time, I’ve penned a little under 250 posts. Which means, inevitably, that there have been just over 150 days when I haven’t posted at all. Now, on most of those days I was probably, you know, having a life. But on some of the others, if I was being truly honest, I probably just couldn’t think of something to blog about.

The problem is, of course, that the more you’re away from your home, the more you get used to your adopted city. Fortunately, New York is still strange enough to keep me in stories for at least another 400 days, but I do have to pay even closer attention these days just to make sure that I don’t miss any of the ridiculousness of it all.

Caring as dearly as I do about you, my loyal reader, I now find myself walking around the city with my eyes darting everywhere just in case I can see the start of a potential blog posting kicking off in my vicinity. Sometimes I’ve changed my route to work, having witnessed something unusual going on in the distance. Sure, it generally turns out to be a New Yorker walking more than six blocks without using a form of motorised transport, but at least I’m trying.

Tonight while heading home from work, I was standing on the N train back into the murky depths of Brooklyn, standing all the way from Union Square. While I clung on to a metal pole for grim death as the train attempted to throw me around like a pathetic rag doll, an elfin young lady sat down serenely on the chair next to me.

Serene, that is, but for the fact that she spent the next few stops consuming a chocolate brownie with the eagerness and grim determination of someone who hadn’t seen food for, say, three weeks.

It took her so long to eat the aforementioned brownie simply because it appeared to have fallen apart in the paper wrapper in which it was encased. Duly, Miss Elfin dipped her fingers into the bag with metronomic regularity, scooping up crumbs and plunging them into her ever chomping mouth. After about ten minutes, she extracted the paper wrapper from the bag in which it was contained, turned into a makeshift chute, and shovelled the last remaining crumbs down her gullet. And with that complete, she did the same with the outer paper bag, just in case there were a few molecules that she’d missed.

Throughout the whole thing, I could feel myself getting progressively – and inexplicably – more irate about the whole thing. Maybe it was the fact that she was an astonishingly noisy eater, or maybe it was because it was taking her forever to eat something that would have lasted perhaps 3.72 seconds in my custody. But as my anger rose, I was at least calmed by the fact that I would be able to pen a blog about eating on the tube, turning this anonymous character into an example of all that is bad about self-involved commuters.

Next thing I know, the man sat a few seats down from her quietly reading his John Grisham novel falls asleep (to be fair, his books can be a bit samey) and his bookmark drops to the floor. Miss Elfin, her chocolate brownie now firmly a thing of the past, quickly steps up, bends down, picks up the fallen bookmark, and quietly places it back into the book without even waking the man from his slumbers.

Hardly the actions of a superhero, but a happy ending nonetheless, and a good example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its flour-and-chocolate based confection eating cover. But I was gutted. After all, there was my bitter posting ripped from my grasp. Much more of this good citizenry, and I won’t have a blog to speak of.

Come on New York, pull your act together. Enough of this ‘being nice’ – you’ve got a reputation to keep up, you know.

Trains cost…and right here’s where you start paying

Everybody likes to get something for nothing. Whether it’s the complete stranger walking up to you outside a cinemamovie theatreer and offering you tickets that they can no longer use, or a snack company giving away sample products on the streets, there’s no greater bargain than ‘free’.

But like a junkie desperate for just one more fix, the joy of the occasional complimentary Mars bar sends some people into a desperate downward cycle to get everything for free. Whether it’s a few illicit music downloads or a pad of Post-It notes from the office, no ill-gotten cost saving is too small for the true freeloader.

I don’t have categorical proof, but I bet Buster Edwards and the rest of the Great Train Robbers pinched a pint of milk or two off Mrs Miggins’ doorstep when they were mere nippers. And if Jesse James worked as an intern in Corporate America today, I’d say there’s a fair chance you’d need to pay closer-than-normal attention to your paper clip supplies in the stationery cupboard. The acorn of today is the oak tree of tomorrow. Actually the acorn of today is still an acorn tomorrow, but I think you take my point.

Most freeloading I can deal with. That’s not surprising given that I work in the entertainment industry, the whole foundations of which would fall apart if it weren’t for the phrases ‘guestlist’ and ‘plus one’. But sometimes, the something-for-nothing brigade really just get my goat. Especially when they’re breaking The Rules.

The Special One often tires of my unwillingness to break The Rules. She’ll happily get up on a plane when the seatbelt signs are illuminated, or smuggle food into the movies, leaving me to harrumph quietly in the corner. She thinks her refusal to play the game makes her a maverick. I tried to point out that mavericks don’t read the Pottery Barn catalogue, but she was too busy plotting her next coup d’etat to listen.

In any case, I’ve got no problem with rule breaking. It’s just that if I’ve got to pay for a product or service, it’s pretty galling to see somebody next to me taking the same thing for free. Particularly when it comes to public transport.

In London, the fare evader generally takes one of two forms. There’s The Athlete, who looks at the ticket barrier in the same eager-to-jump kind of way that Colin Jackson or Ed Moses used to look at hurdles on a sports track. If you see somebody travelling on a tube train casually carrying around a pole vault pole, you can pretty much be sure that they’re just planning to do a runner when they get off at Edgware Road. Well, either that or they’re Sergei Bubka, obviously.

And then there’s The Close Companion. It may initially seem that The Close Companion is attracted to you by your irresistible scent or ability to pull off that ‘just stepped out of a hedge’ look. But don’t be fooled, he’s just trying to get through the ticket barrier in the same 2.8 seconds as you. By the time you realise what’s happened, you’re either flat on the floor or you’re being sworn at by a scrawny man with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles.

Here in New York, the fare evader takes on a completely different guise. Sure, there’s the occasional student jumping the barrier, or the otherwise well-to-do person who forgot their Metrocard and hasn’t got time – or more likely, the inclination – to go home for it. But when it comes down to it, the ultimate New York fare evader is The Parent Of A Six Year Old.

Apparently travel on the subway is free until you reach the height of 44 inches. But given that there’s no Alton TowersSix Flags style height measurement by the turnstiles into the subway, it’s difficult to prove who is or isn’t entitled to travel for nothing.

The ridiculousness of the whole thing reached new heights this morning when a kid who was practically as tall as me was prompted to duck the barriers by his mum. Such was his size, he practically had to slither sniper-style to get underneath. It was like watching Shaquille O’Neal’s mother forcing him to duck under the turnstile on a shopping trip to the Big Apple.

With the desire for free stuff so strong among New Yorkers, most parents seem to shove any child they can lay their hands on under the turnstile paddles in an attempt to beat the system. Don’t even think of crouching down to tie your shoelaces near the entrance to the subway – you’ll be mistaken for little Johnny and thrust under the barriers before you can say Harry Potter.

The campaign for the abolition of taxi talking starts here

Getting into a cab in New York is generally like entering a little yellow bubble. Sure, there might be a slightly musky smell from the previous passenger, or the driver’s lunchtime burger/kebab/sag paneer, but on the whole drivers keep themselves to themselves. Most drivers are too engrossed in impenetrable conversations with various family members, and don’t bother giving you a second glance after they’ve found out where you’re going. There might be a small exchange between the two of you when you realise that they’ve taken you to Central Park West rather than Brooklyn, but other than that you can largely enjoy your journey in relative peace.

The same can’t be said about a black cab journey in London, or indeed most places in the UK. Clearly there are some drivers who keep quiet, only speaking to ask their passengers questions such as “is that bloke going to throw up?” But there’s a sizeable proportion for whom the period of time between passengers is a temporary break in an otherwise non-stop all-day conversation. I say “conversation”, but really what I mean is a “bitter and marginally aggressive diatribe against anything and everything that moves”.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to listen as a driver railed against governments, immigrants, teachers, parents, young people, Asians, the disabled, upper class prats and the police.

A faked phone call will get you out of listening to some of it. But eventually you just have to submit to the drivel, and hope that you don’t hit heavy traffic.

Taking a cab with The Best Man, The Beancounter and Sickly Child this weekend, we encountered the chattiest can driver in the world. Within a matter of minutes, he’d told us that his daughter was a top model (and showed us a picture), that he had accused his now son-in-law of being gay, and that he and his sons were all handy with their fists and would batter anybody who crossed them (or his daughter). That was shortly before he tried to marry off Sickly Child to one of his punch-happy boys, obviously. Oh, and that during the 60s he had been George Best’s driver who had once failed to persuade a drunken George to get out of bed to go and play for Manchester United.

We were only in the taxi for fifteen minutes, but by the time we got out of the car we were exhausted.

It’s enough to make you pine for the dubious odours of a yellow cab.

New York’s 50mph strip show

I’m on a new diet, which I like to call the Subway Diet. No, I don’t mean that I’m eating nothing but dubious meats (all made from turkey, regardless of what they outwardly claim to be) on footlong bread rolls. It might have worked for Jared Fogle, but the idea of eating Subway sandwiches twice a day for a year is enough to send me galloping into the arms of the nearest deep fat fryer.

Instead, this diet involves no change to your eating patterns whatsoever. No counting of calories, no avoiding carbohydrates, and no high protein milkshakes. Infact, all you need is one New York subterranean transit system and an oppressively hot summer. Add in an extended delay on a platform as you wait for a train to arrive, and you’ll be losing pound after pound in sweat before you know it. Just watch that weight drip off!

By the end of their journey, most passengers – myself very much included – look like they’ve just spent two hours in the wave pool at Rhyl Sun CentreHurricane Harbor. Sure, the carriages themselves are relatively cool, but there’s an ancient New York City by-law which decrees that at least one of the ten or so carriages on every train has to have broken air-conditioning. You might get a seat, but travelling in the transportational equivalent of a Turkish bath wouldn’t make it onto anyone’s list of 50 Things To Do Before You Die.

The heat on the platforms, coupled with the fact that trains are as regular as Halley’s Comet, means that people have started taking extra clothes with them to change into once they’ve arrived at work. I say “once they get to work”, but in reality, most people seem to wait until just before they reach their final stop and then whip out that new shirt or blouse to replace their sodden travel kit.

Essentially, New York has turned its subway trains into high speed changing rooms. With clothes hanging from metal rails, and commuters laden down with outfits for every occasion, it’s only a matter of time before they start installing mirrors in every carriage or ask how many items you’re taking onto the train before you board.

Help me if you can

I was back in the commuting saddle today, scuttling into the city with the rest of the ants. After a week in the sun, I don’t mind admitting that the experience was particularly painful. Almost as painful as a torturous opening sentence that mixes metaphors containing horses and insects, I’d imagine. I’ll get the hang of this blogging thing soon, I promise.

Heading home after a long day at the office, I was approached by a clearly nervous middle-aged American woman who managed to stutter out that she wanted to ask me a question. Embarrassingly, the New Yorker in me instantly became suspicious, and put my hand in my back pocket to check that she didn’t have an eight year old niece who was about to relieve me of the burdensome weight of my wallet and give it to a friendly Russian money launderer for safe keeping.

As it was, the woman was just a newcomer to the city who wanted to know which platform she had to use to get the L train from 8th Avenue to 3rd Avenue. I’d seen her from a distance as I entered the subway system, and she had clearly spent a short time attempting to make eye contact with someone in a bid to find out the information she needed. As anybody who has spent any length of time in New York will know, making eye contact was officially outlawed in 1961. I’d already watched her approach one young man, but I assume that she had misinterpreted his attempt to get a piece of subway grit out of his eye as a gesture of friendship and solidarity and was forced to come up to me instead.

It’s tragic that some ‘outsiders’ (of which I’m most definitely still one) feel unable to ask their fellow man for directions, for fear that they might get bad-mouthed or – worse still – ignored. And it’s even more tragic that I was suspicious enough of her motives to ponder what fate was going to befall me. New Yorkers may “want to be a part of it”, but that’s one characteristic I could well do without.

You will, however, be pleased to know that I successfully managed to direct her to the correct L train platform. Admittedly there are only two platforms, and all trains from both platforms went to her destination, but it’s the thought that counts.

Don’t stop me now

It’s good to be back in New York, although the sweltering heat and humid atmosphere means that I have as much desire to be outside as an agoraphobic slug who has been told that the only way for him to get back inside his garden shed is to slither through an industrial-size outdoor salt store.

The heat does nothing for people’s temper as they make their way around the city. Simple missions such as walking up the stairs from the subway to the exit are turned into Indiana Jones-style fights to the finish, as sweat-soaked crazies kick and punch their way to the top. And that’s just the women.

Earlier today, I saw a cyclist who had clearly determined that the worst possible thing that he could do in this weather would be to stand still. Of course, given the number of pedestrians and traffic lights in the city, that’s pretty much an impossible task. Not unless you take your life into your own hands.

Or in this case, take a whistle into your mouth.

Paying no particular heed for traffic lights, and a healthy disregard for the public, this cyclist simply put a small silver whistle between his lips, blasted out as shrill a note as he could possibly manage, and trusted in his ability to put the pedal to the metal to do the rest. I watched him for about a block and a half as he peeped and parped his way across the city at high speed to avoid slowing down, unsuspecting pedestrians scattering in his path as he frightened the living bejeesus out of anyone within a twenty yard radius.

And you wonder why some people accuse New Yorkers of impatience?

Unless I’m doing him a disservice. Perhaps he had a medical emergency, or he’d realised that he’d left the oven on? Or maybe he had Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in his panniers, and he was having to keep up a constant 50mph for fear of untold damage to his spokes and handlebars?

With New York, you just never know.

Keeping your distance

Back in my rock’n’roll days (now such a distant memory that they appear to be in black and white with no sound), I spent far too much time at aftershow parties for bands I didn’t like, with my good friend Mr MacBottom (don’t ask). One exception though was a post-gig party for Mansun, the band from my hometown of Chester who could only be described as “prog-rock”. I say could only be described as prog-rock, but to be honest some people might have called them “the poor man’s Pink Floyd”, “pop genius all too often punctuated by rambling guitar solos” or “tiresome indie rock”. But not me. I loved them.

I think the band were, in reality, vainglorious arts students who liked the sound of their own music a little bit too much, but that didn’t stop me going to their aftershow upstairs at London’s Kilburn National. After all, where there was free booze, you’d find this still-impoverished recent student. To be fair, nothing much has changed.

Excessive quantities of cheap cooking lager later, and this Brit Then In Water had to make the first of several pitstops at the toilet. Or ‘the facilities’, as I believe I have to call it here. I’ve spent all my life thinking that a facility is an ability to do something, or maybe a hospital. Move three and a half thousand miles and you suddenly discover that it’s something you take a leak in.

As is standard procedure in an empty toilet, I made for the urinal furthest from the door, and began the laborious Heineken-removal process. Within ten seconds, another man entered and – again following the textbook to the absolute letter – he positioned himself at the urinal furthest away from me. Eventually we both looked over at each other at the exact same point, grunted an ‘alright?’ in mutual recognition of the fact that thirteen gallons of beer takes a long time to get rid of, and then carried on as normal.

The fact that the other bloke was Andrew Lincoln (Mark from ‘Love Actually’ to my American readership, but inextricably Egg from ‘This Life’ to most Brits) is neither here nor there. The fact is that in Britain there are very clear unwritten guidelines on personal space that are carefully adhered to by most members of the population. Nobody gets too close to anyone else, a principle which probably explains the stiff upper lip if it’s applied equally to emotions.

I’d always thought that it was all different in the US, with everybody in each other’s face given even half a chance. But recently on the subway, I’ve seen that the same social norms apply even here.

I get on the L train in Manhattan at the end of the line, meaning the train is often empty when I board. This allows me to sit wedged up at the end of one of the rows of sets that run the length of my section of the carriage. Largely without fail, the next person to enter my section will sit on the opposite side of the carriage, and at the opposite end of the row of seats, so that we are diagonally separated by the greatest possible distance. Passenger 3 will sit on the same side as me but at the other end. And Passenger 4 will sit immediately opposite me. All four of us are perfectly spaced. If this had happened just once, I’d put it down to coincidence. But it’s happened so often, I’m starting to believe that I’ve missed a compulsory class on subway seat positioning. The author of ‘Urinal Etiquette: A Textbook Explanation’ couldn’t have organiszed it any better himself.

Ironically, most New York subway trains smell of urine. Maybe people are taking the philosophy a little too literally?