Tag Archives: subway

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?

365 days out of water

I’ve finally made it to a whole year out of water. That’s 365* days of living with The Special One, 365 days of working in the United States, and 365 days of thinking “blimey, what just happened to me?!”

So, other than 365 days, what other 365s has the last year held for me?

365 times that I’ve wanted to have an everything bagel for breakfast. I have only given in on 207 of those occasions.

365 pushes and shoves against me on the subway. That’s approximately 1.83 shoves per journey.

365 times when I’ve been forced to ponder why the UK doesn’t have an all-encompassing commitment to the hot dog too.

365 inadvertent steps into dubious standing water.

365 wrong turns by taxi drivers with only a passing knowledge of the streets of the city.

365 sightings of the Empire State Building which have prompted an internal response of “crikey, that’s the Empire State Building.”

365 times I’ve been grateful for a summer that lasts more than 365 minutes.

365 passers-by who have stared at me for not wearing a coat in March.

365 occasions on which I’ve cursed the fact that you have to pay a fee to use an ATM that’s not one of your own bank’s. As well as a fee to your own bank for the privilege.

365 minutes in total sat listening to assorted weirdoes espouse their sanctimonious claptrap on the subway.

365 times I’ve struggled to remember which one’s a nickel and which one’s a dime.

365 times I’ve emerged from a subway station and stood on the street corner for ten minutes trying to work out whether I’m facing north or south.

365 people who’ve attempted to imitate my English accent with a passable impression of Dick van Dyke.

365 occasions on which I’ve used a swear word in the workplace (and 364 on which I’ve been rebuked for it).

365 moments when I’ve thought “I’m sure I’ve seen this in a movie.”

365 times that I’ve had to apologisze for alleged anti-American sentiments.

Thanks for keeping me company over the last year, and to all those who have tipped off friends, colleagues and readers about the blog. I’m 365 times more grateful than I can ever tell you.

* If anybody even thinks about saying it’s a leap year and that I’ve been out of water for 366 days, there’s going to be trouble.

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?

Manners maketh man

They – whoever they may be – say that if you want to find a gentleman, you should head to England. With his impeccable deportment, chivalrous commitment and polite manners, the Englishman is apparently the ultimate charming and debonair male.

In truth, of course, for every Cary Grant (try to claim him if you want my American friends, but we Brits all know him as Archie Leach from Bristol), there’s an ASBO-toting Joey Barton-esque knuckle-grazing idiot for whom being charming means offering his girlfriend a sip of his pint of Stella.

The reality is that – in New York at least – whether it’s holding doors open, offering up seats on the bus or pulling out chairs, most American men seem to have an unerring commitment to etiquette. Of course, I’ve not been introduced to the more lairy members of Alpha Tau Omega (and I’m not planning on inviting them round for a – erm – ‘kegger’ just yet), but it seems to me that Americans are just as polite as their English counterparts.

I just wish that I could say as much for most American women.

Whenever I attempt to get off a subway train and am impeded by an impatient commuter desperate to grab an empty seat, it’s never a bloke who nearly knocks me off my feet rather than waiting for passengers to get off first. When somebody has a heavy steel door held open for them, but fails to look back to make sure that they’re not slamming the door in my (now slightly flattened) face, it tends not to be a guy. And invariably when I’ve been waiting ten minutes to hail a cab in the rain, and have the only vacant taxi in Manhattan stolen from me by somebody who only turned up thirty seconds previously, it’s not a man who sneers as he jumps into the car and speeds off. With the cab powering through an adjacent puddle as it disappears into the distance.

Maybe I’ve just been unlucky? Maybe New York women are taking revenge for years of unacceptable behaviour from Wall Street oafs? Or maybe the females of the city are on a collective mission to send me scuttling back to the UK with the tail between my legs?

Thankfully The Special One hasn’t succumbed to this dastardly plot yet. Although if I put my shoes on the newly-made bed one more time, my luck might start to run out.

Anyway, what do I know about etiquette? After all, I’m the man who seized upon an empty seat on the packed train last night, beating a slowly approaching man to the restful prize. Clearly, the fact that he had dark glasses and a white stick didn’t help him get there any quicker.

Despite immediately and apologetically leaping to my feet to offer him the seat, the man refused to sit down and instead stood for fifteen minutes until another seat became available. While all the rest of the carriage stared at me with the look of contempt specifically reserved for people who would deny a partially-sighted men the seat he so richly deserves.

Perhaps I’m just embracing my (New York) feminine side?

Speed bumps

Everything goes so fast in New York. An official city decree in 1967 removed three seconds from every New York minute, meaning that the pace of life is actually 5% quicker than anywhere else in the world (and around 500% quicker than Newark Airport in New Jersey, where every minute spent feels like an eternity). Whether you’re ordering food or having a chat in the corridor, everything seems to be done at breakneck speed. Either that or everybody’s desperate to be in my presence for as little time as possible.

It’s not as if everything in London is slow either. Compared to my upbringing in sleepy Chester (and even sleepier North Wales), London was a veritable Formula OneNASCAR race. After all, even the lunchtime sandwiches are pre-packaged that morning to ensure that you don’t even have to wait for your cheese and pickle sarnie to be made. But nothing can really prepare you for the look of contempt you get from someone in New York if you dare to dawdle over an important life choice. Such as whether to have brown rice or white rice, for instance.

The pace of life in New York means that impatience is an overriding characteristic of a large number of residents of the city. The car horn must be more utiliszed in this city than most places on earth, with a quick blast being all it takes to ensure that drivers get to their eventual destination approximately 0.5 seconds before they would otherwise have done. Such impatience even affects The Special One, who could walk into an empty Starbucks and still be annoyed that the ‘barista’ had the audacity to blink before taking her order.

The need for speed translates onto the subway, as well. Don’t get me wrong, waiting for a train can be more painful than having your wisdom teeth extracted with only a non-alcoholic beer for anaesthetic. But once you’re on an express train, you get the distinct impression that the driver has just remembered that he’s left the iron on at home, and his favourite TV show is about to start. In particular, the run from Union Square to Canal Street on the N train is vaguely reminiscent of Marty McFly’s De Lorean-powered race against time on the streets of Hill Valley. Certainly, I’ve never been at the back of the train, but I assume that fire tracks are left in our wake.

Of course, the problem when you’re a 6ft 2 bloke with about as much balance as a gin-soaked flamingo, standing on a train that’s racing around the bumps and bends of the transport system can be dangerous. Not so much for myself, but for those standing in the immediate vicinity of my size elevens.

Sadly, there’s a dainty open-toe shoe-wearing young lady in the New York metropolitan area who’s almost certainly walking with a pronounced limp this morning.

‘Sorry’ may seem to be the hardest word, but it’s definitely never felt quite so inadequate.

Aroma therapy

Even though New York subway carriagescars are probably twice the size of their London equivalents, don’t be confused into thinking that there’s plenty more room for commuters to be carried home in comfort. Most trains are packed to the gills, and the rails are placed too far apart to avoid being thrown headlong down the length of the car whenever the train comes to a sudden halt.

A relatively empty carriage is rarer than a quiet night in with Britney Spears, and its arrival in a station can lead to a stampede worse than the opening of any department store sale. Just the dream of a seat to call your own for the rest of the journey home is enough to turn grown men into jibbering fools.

Sadly, there’s always a catch when it comes to the empty carriage. And today, that catch came in the form of urine.

Pretty much every thirteenth train you get on in New York smells of urine. Usually it’s just a passing homeless guy who has wandered into your nasal radius, allowing you to step out of harms way with relatively little effort. No such luck today though. I walked the entire length of the carriage in a bid to get away from a smell that I can only describe as two parts multi-storey car parkparking garage stairwell and one part abandoned alleyway behind a popular bar. The unique pungent aroma still lingers in my nostrils even now I’m sitting at home enjoying a glass of wine.

Even in ‘the carriage of pee’ though, there’s always a statutory minimum of six people who manage to sit through the olfactory terrorism as if nothing was wrong. Such is the strength of the odour that there’s only three possible explanations for their ability to withstand it. Maybe they’ve just got no sense of smell, like my old chemistry teacher Mr Mellor who lost his ability to detect aromas after accidentally sniffing too much ammonia during an experiment? Or perhaps they’re the cause of the urine smell in the first place, although it seems a little far-fetched to believe that six people could have conspired to produce the smell.

My favourite explanation is that all six people have got thirteen-year-old children in their lives. After all, if you can walk into a young teen’s bedroom and not drop dead instantly, anything else seems like a walk in a particularly nice smelling park.