Category Archives: Transport

The Subway Barger

If there’s one thing that you can say about New Yorkers, it’s that they have a very real sense of purpose. Once they’ve set their minds on something, there’s nothing that can ever get in the way of them ultimately achieving it. Well, apart from their failed bid for the 2012 Olympics, that is.

This single-mindedness and determination to get what they want (regardless of what anybody else thinks) plays out everywhere in the city. Whether it’s restaurant customers ordering their salad dressing be made in a particular way (despite what the chef recommends on the menu) or taxi drivers taking ridiculously convoluted ‘short cuts’ in an attempt to cut through rush hour traffic, nobody gets in the way of a New Yorker.

And no more so than on the subway. As I’ve already mentioned, all standards of commonly acceptable behaviour are suspended as soon as you swipe your Metro card through the turnstile. From then on in, it’s an every-man-for-himself free-for-all, with only the fittest surviving to make it to their eventual destination.

There are a number of people you have to watch out for on the New York subway, if you value your safety. No doubt everyone has come across Last Minute Lunger, the passenger who waits on the platform until everybody has packed themselves sardine-like into the rush hour carriage, before making his powerful leap into a non-existent space inside the car milliseconds before the doors shut.

Then there’s Enormo-Bag Man, who requires at least one whole doorway of space for his luggage, presumably because he’s on a three month trip to Peru and can’t leave the city without enough matzo ball soup to keep him going throughout his whole time away. One such guy in a fake fur coat made his way on to a train on which I was travelling earlier this week, forcing approximately thirty seven people to seek alternative accommodation for their feet. Turns out he had industrial quantities of fake perfume in his suitcases, which he began hawking round to people he’d skittled over a few minutes earlier. Possibly not the best set-up ever to a sales pitch.

And of course, above all others, there’s the Subway Barger. The Subway Barger gets on at one end of a crowded train, and decides that he (or she, for the Subway Barger is just as often a woman) has got on at completely the wrong end, and needs to make his way down to the carriage furthest away.

From the speed that the Subway Barger travels, I can only assume that there is some kind of explosive device in his or her bag, and that it can only be neutralised by making it to the subway car at the opposite end of the train within a ninety second period. As a result, anybody who doesn’t see the imminent approach of this Carl Lewis of the subterranean transportation world gets suddenly flung out of the way with incredible force – often with the killer bag being used as an impromptu space-creating instrument.

From carriage to carriage, the Subway Barger sees no obstacle too tall or fat that it can’t be rammed out of their path with the use of a stray elbow or a menacing grunt. Sadly, he is also impervious to the death stare – a killer look which has been known to turn queueline jumpers into stone and make small children cry. Despite the incredible efforts of scientists around the world, there is currently no known way to stop the most determined Subway Barger.

But there will be. Trust me, there will be.

All change

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I’d smugly assumed that I was getting used to the subway system, three months into my life as a Brit Out Of Water. I’ve finally managed to get a grip on express trains, and I only get caught in turnstiles once a week on average now. Which is progress, let’s face it.

Today I took the C train home from 14th Street, with the intent of changing onto the F at Jay Street for the short final hop home. The train was emptier than normal as it stutteringly made its way downtown, halting a few minutes longer than normal at every stop. By the time we got to Chambers Street, there was only one fellow passenger left, and even she left in disgust after five minutes of inactivity on the platform.

Suddenly I found myself in glorious isolation, pleasantly alone to consider what I was going to cook for dinner or write on my blog. I even had time to take a photo of the carriage, empty but for a solitary unblemished red apple. I’d never seen an empty carriage before, after all.

It was only after fifteen minutes of waiting that I realised I was actually on an E train that had completed its journey, and was waiting for passengers to get on board for the return trip uptown. By the time I had realised, plenty of passengers had indeed got on board, each one looking at me with that vague mixture of disdain and disgust reserved exclusively for the pathetic trainspotter who has nothing to do but ride the MTA system all day.

If you’ve never seen somebody attempt to frame their facial features in such a way as to say “you know, I got on here quite a while ago to make my way uptown, but now I’ve remembered that I left the iron on at my home just down the road so I’d better get back there as soon as possible before my apartment burns down” then you missed a treat today, I can tell you.

Assault! Assault! Assault!

Loathe as I am to have two consecutive posts on the subject of umbrellas, particularly as I’m still recovering from the emotional trauma of walking around the city with an “I *heart* New York” billboard above my head, I couldn’t let something that happened to me this morning pass without comment.

Heading to work on the subway, I was forced to stand all the way into the city for the 67th consecutive morning running (a new record for the F train, and no doubt a proud achievement for Mayor Bloomberg). No real problem in standing though, especially given that I was with The Special One, chatting about some of the big issues that face the world today – such as whether to have chicken or burritos for dinner, or whose turn it would be to clear up the piles of cat vomit that would no doubt have materialized by the time we got home ten hours later.

As I stood hanging on to the metal pole for grim death as we hurtled through station after station, I felt a sharp whack to my arm. Looking to my right, I saw that a grumpy old man, who had been sitting in the window seat nearest to me, had decided to get up to get off the train, and had used his umbrella to thwack the underside of my arm out of his path as he made his way to the door.

Now, maybe I’m just a bit old-fashioned, but I always find that a simple ‘excuse me’ does the trick on occasions like this. Maybe a brief clearing of the throat, or even a slightly terse “do you mind moving your arm”, if you’ve got out of bed the wrong way that morning. But as a general rule, I don’t resort to minor physical violence in any attempt to get off a train, nor do I choose a weapon from about my person to launch a minor attack. (Admittedly I sometimes feel like administering a swift swing of my bag to the family jewels of people playing their iPod at mind-alteringly loud volumes, but we all have our bete-noires.)

I wouldn’t have minded so much if he was racing to get off the train, but a) he was at least 70 and his racing days were long since over, and b) he didn’t even get off the train at the stop in question, instead standing steadfastly ignoring the dagger stares I was giving him from twenty yards away.

Next time he tries it, I’m going to have numchukas at the ready. You might mess with the Brit Out Of Water once, but you don’t try it twice.

Driven to distraction

Having lived in both London and New York, you’d think that there would be nothing that could ever scare me about taxis. After all, black cabs in London contain some of the most offensively opinionated people in the northern hemisphere, while the drivers of yellow cabs in New York have as much geographical knowledge as a three-year-old with vision problems.

But then I hadn’t really taken into account that I might one day end up in Greece.

Put simply, drivers in the Greek Islands take their lives – and the lives of anybody they accept into the back of their beaten-up jalopies – into their own hands every single time they step foot in their car.

Roads in Crete are generally of a better quality than those you might find in New York. And, to be fair, the cars aren’t in bad condition either. But these outward appearances count for nothing when you climb into the car and start on your journey.

When it comes down to it, Cretan drivers regard any taxi ride as a possibility to break the Greek land speed record. Whether you’re going five minutes down the road, or making an hour-long trip to the other side of the island, taxi drivers make it a point of pride to keep an average speed of in excess of 110 kilometres per hour. Given that Crete has high-altitude narrow winding roads that make the closing sequence from The Italian Job look like a quiet Sunday afternoon cruise, that inevitably means clinging on for dear life in every car you step into.

Tradition dictates that slower-moving cars place their right wheels in the hard shoulder to allow faster cars – or taxis, as we call them – to overtake. Sadly the hard shoulder can sometimes be just a dusty stone-laden track centimetres from a three hundred foot ravine – but who cares if Doris and Bert are edged off the road as long as the cab can set a new personal best, eh?!

I’d like to say that Santorini is better, but this tiny island makes Crete look like The Monastery of Saintly Driving in comparison. Most taxis don’t have seatbelts, and those that do generally don’t have anything to clip the belt into. The roads are steeper and more dangerous than anything you’ll find in Gran Turismo 4, and the youngest driver I’ve seen was probably a contemporary of Socrates at school.

Every time we go around a cliff top corner, Soon To Be Wife Who Is Now Actually My Wife (still no idea what to call her – please help) squeezes my hand so hard that I think one or two fingers may drop off. We now long for the occasions on which we get stuck behind hire cars, given that it’s easier to pass cars at the Monaco Grand Prix than it is in Santorini, and hire cars go at least 40kph slower than anything else on the road.

Still, the Greek island speed demons do have some benefits. Having been given far too little time by our hotel to get to Heraklion in Crete on Sunday, our taxi driver told us that it would be tight to get us to the hydrofoil to enable us to travel to Santorini. In the end, having touched 140kph at times and never dipped beneath 80kph, he put us at the port with fifteen minutes to spare. He may have driven safely enough to avoid physical damage, but the mental scars will take much longer to heal.

Lights, cameras, action

Sometimes I really wish I could do that thing where you put a couple of fingers in your mouth and blow, to emit an ear-piercing high-pitched whistle that brings pedestrians to a standstill and forces all cabs within a three mile radius to screech to a halt at the kerbside for you. Sadly, the only whistle I can muster is a jaunty version of Kanye West’s “Stronger”, the like of which provokes sneers from taxi drivers, and has that nice Mr West seeking emergency legal advice.

In the movies, of course, the “power whistle” is not a problem for any leading man. And given that I’m still at that stage of boyish wonder where all of New York is a stage, it somehow seems wrong that I can’t quite manage to hail a cab in the same style as, say, Kiefer Sutherland or Andy Garcia.

As a result, my usual “eager hand in the air” had to suffice as I made way uptown in a taxi from outside the office this evening. The five minute journey to Soon To Be Wife’s place of work did nothing to dispel the notion that New York is one giant movie set. In only thirty three blocks, we drove through two major productions, including one that took up an entire city block between 9th and 10th Avenues. I’ve no idea what they were filming, although I’ll be watching out for glistening white noodle bars in films from now on, given that they seemed to be building one from scratch.

With Sex & The City: The Movie, the second Incredible Hulk film and the new Joel & Ethan Coen flick “Burn After Reading” (starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich) among dozens of movies shooting in the city, New York can lay claim to being more Hollywood than Hollywood itself.

As for TV shows, you can’t move without coming across sets for small screen productions such as “30 Rock” or “Talk To Me”. And don’t get me started on “Law & Order”. With spin offs including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Trial By Jury” emerging every day, it’s a source of constant wonder to me that “Law & Order: Exiled In Brooklyn” isn’t filming in our kitchen even as I write.

The basic fact is that for all Ken Livingstone and Film London talk about supporting movie making in London, it’s all just chat compared to New York’s actions. Much of that is to do with tax breaks and funding, as well as the natural dominance of the American movie-making industry. But at the same time, you’ve got to admit that Londoners haven’t got the experience or patience to put up with the traffic and disruption necessary for everyday filming on a massive scale. It’s that kind of attitude that means London-based movies have to film at 4am if they want to close off a road. “28 Days Later” was probably an extras-heavy rom-com before the attitude of the London filming authorities required a complete rewrite.

Until London gets its act together, I’ll content myself with wandering around the streets looking for opportunities to get myself into the latest blockbuster. Talking of which, did I ever tell you about the time I appeared in Zoolander?

Front row seats

On the way back to the apartment from the airport earlier this week, the taxi I was flying down Atlantic Avenue in pulled up at a set of traffic lights. Alongside us was a black van/people carrier with blacked out windows. Nothing remarkable about it, but for two things:

1. Both the driver and the passenger were watching a DVD on a small screen on the dashboard of the van. I mean, I still find it astonishing when people have built screens into the headrests of their seats so that their kids can watch DVDs in the back. But surely there’s got to be some law against drivers and their fellow front seat passengers kicking back and watching a movie. I wouldn’t mind so much if the movie had had some cultural relevance, but these adults were watching Aladdin…

2. The back panel of the van had two bullet holes in it. Admittedly both holes had been sealed up, but the unmistakable signs of pierced metal were there for all to see. Maybe somebody else had been equally offended at their choice of cinematic experience?

You are (w)here?

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When I first moved to London, I was completely out of my depth. I’d spent the last four years in a pretty provincial university town, and I’d been brought up my whole life in a tiny town in North Wales. Sure, I’d been to the capital for the occasional holiday or day out. But when it came down to it, I could have felt more comfortable having an evening swim in Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool than I did when I got to the big smoke.

Moving to New York is obviously easier. I’m twelve or thirteen years older for a start, and these days one big city is pretty much like any other. But there’s still one thing that confuses the bejeesus out of me – the subway system.

One of the most memorable arguments of my life was a two hour strop-fest about whether or not the map of the Paris Metro system is topographical or not. In New York, the map of the subway is clearly laid on top of a map of the city, but regardless, it’s still just a mass of coloured lines to me.

Four weeks into living here, and I’m still walking three long city blocks between stations rather than working out what the ideal change is, and I don’t know where I need to stand on a train if I want to give myself the quickest possible exit from the station. Hell, I can’t even work out which trains are local and which ones are express.

And don’t even think about suggesting that I get on a bus. I get nervous enough working out how to pay, let alone attempting to guess whether the sodding thing goes anywhere near where I’m heading.

Admittedly, I’ve never been the most geographically astute bloke in the world. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told taxis to turn right when I wanted them to turn left. These days I just get out rather than admit that I’ve made a mistake. As for my map reading, well that’s caused more than a couple of heated debates in hire cars over the last eighteen months, although that could well be something to do with my refusal to give more than three seconds notice of the need to exit the motorfreeway.

All things come with experience though, and soon enough I guess I’ll be drunkenly falling asleep on the last subway train home and waking up somewhere in Far Rockaway. Only then will I truly feel I’ve arrived in the Big Apple.

In sympathy

Getting home this evening can’t have been easy for those of you reading this in the UK’s fair capital city, thanks to a tube strike which has brought nine of the London Underground tube lines to a complete standstill. And given that it’s a 72 hour walkout, it’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park to get to or from work for the next few days. Unless you live near Hampstead or Marble Arch, that is, in which case a walk in the park might actually be the only way you get to work.

It’s a clash over benefits and pensions that has caused the latest eviction of toys from the RMT pram by general secretary Bob Crow, and there’s the threat of another 72-hour walkout at the start of next week if Ken Livingstone and co don’t give the unions the reassurances that they’re looking for. Given that Ken has already called the strike “one of the most purposeless ever called”, there’s clearly plenty of mileage in this one yet. Which is more than can be said for the trains for the next couple of days.

Sadly, tube strikes are just one of those things that Londoners have been forced to get used to over the last twenty years or so. Maybe it’s the spirit of the blitz, but there’s something that allows Londoners to bond together over the difficulties that face them all, such as the IRA bombs and bomb threats in the 80s, the July 7 terrorist attacks, or a week-long Daniel O’Donnell residency at the Royal Albert Hall.

New Yorkers might be OK with Daniel O’Donnell, but they’re not so prepared to put up with a subway strike. In fact there have only been three strikes in the 100+ year history of the system, the last one being a mere two days back in December 2005. Before that, there was an eleven day walkout in 1980, after the Metropolitan Transport Authority responded to the union’s request for a 30% pay rise by offering them 3%. I make the same 30% pay rise request every year, but sadly all my employers to date have crossed the one-man picket line and carried on working, until I finally give up and sheepishly slink back into the office at about 10.15.

But the lack of strikes can be linked directly to the first ever New York subway strike, which came in 1966. The twelve day walkout brought the city to a standstill, and led the following year to the Taylor Law. Section 210 of the Taylor Law not only bans New York state public employees from striking, and compelling them to binding arbitration, it also stipulates that employees who do strike are fined twice their salary for each day they strike.

While the Taylor Law does help unions in some ways (allowing public employees the right to organise and elect union reps, and defining boundaries for employers in negotiations and agreements the unions), it’s a tough piece of legislation that effectively nips striking in the bud and denies the right to peaceful and effective protest. It’s almost impossible to imagine it happening in the UK, where even the fire services are allowed to register their unhappiness by striking.

That said, one result of the Taylor Law being in force for the 2005 strike was not only a fine of $2.5m for the union, but also ten days in prison for the union leader Roger Toussaint. No matter how much you’re inconvenienced by the tube strike in London this week, a fine of more than a million pounds seems excessively harsh and punitive.

But ten days in prison for Bob Crow? Now there’s something that would put the smile back on to the faces of Londoners.

Mind the chat

Anybody who’s taken the tube in London will know that for every twenty train drivers who make boring anodyne announcements, there’s one who will play to his captive audience with a witty running commentary to keep the journey entertaining. Back in the days of catching the Northern line to Camden Town, there was a regular driver who would regale us with stories of all the fun that we could all be having if only we were overground. And there’s always one driver who will decide that attempts at humour are the best way to deflect people’s attention from the fact that everybody’s been stuck in a tunnel for thirty five minutes.

Here in New York, most of the announcements on both the platforms and the trains are unintelligible. Not because of the person doing the talking, but because the sound system is so bad that even a simple phrase such as “all the trains are f**ked, you’re going to have to walk home” is rendered impossible to hear by the average citizen.

The only time I have been able to hear the announcements in the last two weeks coincided with a driver whose brand of chat was more surreal than stand-up, with one line particularly standing out:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this used to be my favourite stop – it’s Second Avenue.”

Does anybody really have a favourite subway stop? What’s his favourite stop now? And more importantly, what did Second Avenue do to make our driver foresake it??

Top gun

Look, I’m essentially a vistor here, and as such, I’m in no position to lecture America about its fixation with guns. If I was going to lecture, say, I might mention that firearms were used to commit 10,105 homicides in the USA in 2005, compared to around 46 in the UK. And that this is hardly surprising, given that the latest statistics show that 36.5% of US households happily admit that they have a gun in the building.

But like I say, I’m in no position to lecture the gun-toting citizens of the land of the free.

In a country where such a large proportion of the population have access to firearms, it’s hardly surprising that the police carry guns. And I’m fine with that. What I’m less fine about is the sight that befell me earlier today when I walked into the subway station to catch my train home.

A short distance from the ticket barriers, the NYPD’s finest were carrying out a routine check of the bags of random strangers – nothing wrong in that, given the July 7 bombings in London a couple of years ago. And all types of people were being checked, from big city lawyers to startled tourists, with no seeming bias towards a particular race or creed.

But standing a few yards infront of the inspection was one policeman – the kind of career cop who has been hitting the doughnuts a little hard recently, and as a result has beads of sweat streaming down his face after even the slightest exertion. Like breathing, for example.

I can only assume that Mayor Bloomberg himself had walked up to this bloke a few minutes earlier, and told him that Osama Bin Laden had just been spotted buying dewberry lotion in the Body Shop on the street above the cop’s head, and that they were expecting him to wander down to get on the V train within the next five minutes. It’s the only explanation for the fact that the officer’s hand was poised centimetres above his gun, his hand shaking and quivering, and his eyes wide with anticipation and fear. If anybody had accidentally popped a balloon within a 500 metre radius, we could have had a bloodbath akin to the final scene from ‘Heat’ on our hands.

After a suspicious look at my bag, our nervous hero decided I didn’t pose a threat to national security, and let me pass without popping a cap in my ass (as I believe they say round these parts). Hopefully he made it through the rest of rush hour without further incident, and he’s at home now watching ‘CSI: Miami’, and dreaming of what might have been.

The whole sorry incident wouldn’t have happened if Horatio Caine had been there, I can tell you.