Posts Tagged ‘Subway


Naming Rights

AT&T StationSEPTA just changed the name of one of its subway stations to AT&T. It’s not the End Times, but it is a little odd.

It makes sense that AT&T would want this. They provide cell service underground, which is pretty cool. They have a huge marketing budget. So, give them ad space down there. Give them sponsorship of a station, a logo on every sign and next to the station’s dot on the map, tiles that match the logo or the CEO’s grandmother’s favorite colors. Whatever. But changing the name of the station is just weird.

Stations are normally named after the streets they are located at or landmarks nearby because it makes sense for them to have some connection to the city they serve. Even if it were named after a corporation that had some kind of roots in Philadelphia — Aramark or Comcast or Sunoco — that would make more sense than AT&T.

Imagine using it in conversation: “I need to get off at AT&T.” “Transfer to a bus at AT&T.”

Conceivably, any number of stations could be called AT&T. How confusing would that be?

It’s different for something like a regional train station. Call that anything you want, it doesn’t matter. For all any traveler cares, 30th street station is just “Philadelphia.” Penn Station is “New York.” South Station is “Boston” and Union Station is “Chicago.” Their precise locations and names are less important.

But within a city, on a transit map, which is essential for intracity navigation, we need names that make sense. A geographical connection between the subway map and the geography it represents is kind of important. Or should we just give up on any sense of utility for SEPTA maps.

Of course this will continue. Advertisers need to work harder and be more clever if they are going to get to us. (AT&T’s best advertisement is the service it provides underground, not a logo on a map.) But I hope we can limit it in a way that makes sense.


Fish and Slips

NYC subway fish artHere is a piece of subway art that’s had me distracted and bothered for some time now.

As you can see, it depicts a subway car as a zeppelin-cum-flying fish.

The fish, transporting all kinds of bizarre characters, floats gracefully above some version of New York City. There’s a knight, a couple of aliens, a guy playing the saxophone, a woman in a red dress with a giant lizard on a leash, a boy and a girl making out, a painter, a couple of punk rockers, a ballet dancer, a guy reading the newspaper, and a business man falling out an open door.

I’ve seen every one of those characters on the subway before. Almost. OK, so substitute a soldier for the knight, and a couple of clowns in full make-up instead of aliens. Plus, anything goes on Halloween. And it wasn’t a woman with a lizard, but I did once see a man pull a lizard out from his pant leg and try to get some teenage girls to play with it, eventually by tossing it at one of them. (That’s not a euphemism. I am talking about a reptile. It bounced off the girl and landed on its back on the floor.)

I know this is supposed to be a representation of the width and breadth of humanity that depends on New York City public transportation. (Oh, look at those characters. Isn’t New York a wacky place? Aren’t we crazy? We love us! And there’s an echo of Atomic Age futurism and industrial hope. But there’s something about that businessman that bothers me.

Forget about what it might mean, e.g., the recent failures of American finance, artistic hostility toward briefcases. I’m talking about the execution of the cartoon itself. It’s very stylistic. The artist was clearly careful in his or her choices, holding to certain ideas of perspective and geometry: the mechanical shine to the fish, the shapes of the buildings and bridges, the boats on the river.

NYC subway fish picture close-upBut look at the businessman’s arm.

Continue reading ‘Fish and Slips’


Vox Popular

Improvement of public transit is always exciting for me, especially when it happens in Queens as well as the other boroughs. It’s not just having shiny new stuff. It’s the evidence that we’re making progress, growing up, that thrills.

So the semi-electric buses run more green. The subway cars have clean blue seats and windows free of etched tags and doodles. Some subway stops have new tilework on the floors and walls.

But by far the best improvement is the voice I hear on the new E trains running express in and out of Queens. She tells us each stop we’ve arrived at and what to do next. And she is kinda hot.

“This is … Queens Plaza. Transfer is available to the R … and … V train.”

It’s the way she says “transfer is available” that catches my attention. It rolls off her tongue like candle wax gaining momentum as it runs down the length of a taber. It’s a little richer, more throaty, more lusty, than the station announcement. It all runs together in one suggestive vocal gesture.


It’s like she’s waiting for you after work after a few cigarettes. The ice tinkles in her second, slightly stronger, gin and tonic. She’s given up the pretense of waiting for you before she starts her evening. She hitches one leg up across the other knee and leans back. Her lacquered fingertips dangle. She tempts you to switch trains. Go on.


You know you want to do it. Get off the express. Take your time through the city. Do it … slow…

But those R trains are still using an intercom. The seats are an ugly orange. And it just wouldn’t be the same.


Four Readers

Native New Yorkers are like unicorns. Everybody who lives there seems to be from somewhere else. And everybody comes together on the subway.

I am sitting among three people with books open on their laps. To my left, it looks like this woman is reading something in Chinese, if time spent strolling through the Lower East Side has given me any foundation.

To my right, an older gentleman is reading something in English, and beyond him, someone is reading in Russian, at a guess.

I can see a woman across the aisle with what looks like a Hebrew holy book of some sort. The worn, cornerless pages looked either well-loved or tortured; I couldn’t decide. The lettering on the cover had faded into dark brown of the book’s leathery skin.

Sometimes I wonder how we all understand each other. I think maybe we never really do.


Rat Race to Nowhere

It is morning rush hour, and commuters are coursing through the hallways and platforms like blood-borne pathogens heading for the heart.

A train pulls into the station, its wheels squealing loudly, distinctly. It’s one of the old E trains. A mass of people begins to push through the open doorway before passengers have time to exit. Swimming upstream, the passengers are able to eventually push their way through to freedom.

A guy a couple of people in front of me enters the crowded train and stops in the doorway. He wants to be close to the exit to give himself the greater advantage when he reaches his stop, whenever that may be. There’s nearly room for two abreast to pass through the doorway, and for all he cares, people can just slide past him. It’s not technically a problem, right? Until a second person decides stop in the doorway for the same reason.

I have room to avoid him, but I bump my arm against him and graze him purposefully with my bag. It helps calm me to imagine him dropping and scratching his iPod or getting a smudge on his clothes from leaning against the door.

By and by, we approach my stop. Others, too, are exiting here. I can tell when people ostentatiously begin to stir around me. Several move toward the door. Someone gently nudges me from the side. Maybe it’s an accident; maybe she wants me to move. I take a step closer to the door. I’m getting out here, too. Hold your damn horses. We’re all in a hurry, lady, but don’t you worry. We’ll all get off this train, I promise you.

The doors slide open, and I feel the woman trying to get around me to my left. She is smaller than me, and I can see her black hair as her head comes out around my upper arm. I take a half step to the left, hold my left arm out a little further from my body, and she pushes against me harder. I push harder back, but not enough to stop her. It’s not worth making a fuss. I just want to clarify my existence, hoping I’ll embarrass her for the unnecessary contact. She makes it through the doors before me.

I glare at her as she awkwardly dashes toward the stairs in her uncomfortable shoes, hoping she’ll turn around to see the rude creep who was tying to keep her from getting off the train. Really I’m laughing to myself. We’ll see how far she gets. I continue at a calm pace behind her and dozens of others.

She never does look back, but it delights me to see her swallowed up in a crowd of frantic commuters whose hurry is equal to or greater than hers. In the end, her reward is to be no more than two people ahead of me on the stairs.

On the landing we all veer right to take the escalator to the next level down. There’s a short fence jutting out from the escalator entrance meant to corral us and prevent people from jumping in line in front of others. The desire is for order and forced politeness, and the majority of us is willing to comply. We round the far end of the corral, but two guys slip in through the gap between the far end of the fence and the handrail conveyor belt. They end up right in front of me, craining their necks to find a way past the people in front of them.

The idea is to stand to the right so people can pass on the left. But there are so many people at this time of day, no one is standing to the side. We are all walking down the escalator, and everyone’s progress is slow. The guys try to press past the others, but to no avail.

At the landing, they take off like broncos and meet further resistance when they reach the final set of stairs down to the platform. Again, I end up right behind them.

When my connecting train approaches, I see there are a couple of open seats in the car nearest me. I don’t imagine I’ll be lucky enough to get one of them, but I figure we’ll see what happens. It’s a little like roulette, whether the train stops with a door right in front of you or six feet to your left or right.

This time, I’m one of the first to board. I have a shot at a seat. Someone in front of me is milling about confusedly, and I can’t get by. A woman approaches the seat, and just as she turns to sit, a younger woman wearing all white literally runs up behind her and steals the seat in one swift motion. If the older woman hadn’t noticed, she might have sat on her.

The woman in white glances up for a second. The other woman turns on her adversary and raises her voice for us all to hear. “Oh, I see. You need that seat? Go ahead. There you go, honey. It’s all yours!” Her friend tugs at her arm to discourage her from saying more.

The seat stealer looks at her quietly, blankly and then stares into the space between herself and the floor.

I am filled with something like hatred for her. I want someone else to speak up and say something. I keep my eyes on her for several stops. I wonder if she’s avoiding eye contact with everyone on the train.

After a few stops, the irate woman now long gone, a space opens up next to the woman in white, just a little too small for a person to fit into. But before long another woman turns to present her back side to the row of seated passengers and, without so much as an “excuse me,” wriggles herself into the tight space. She can’t even sit back all the way. This new woman is an obnoxious cow, but I briefly I feel some schadenfreude over the woman in white’s obvious discomfort.

Leaning forward with her oversize purse on her lap, she fumbles with a magazine or newspaper and holds it out in front of her. Forgeting her surroundings, she allows the straps of her bag to flop down to both sides, hitting her neighbors in the face and chest before landing limply in their laps.

It is obviously annoying to the strangers. Every move she makes causes her purse straps to rub against them, but neither of them makes any move to stop it. My allegiance begins to change. Could it be that I have some sympathy for the woman in white? The purse lady is actually worse than she is.

I long for a confrontation. Why do we take such pains to avoid talking to fellow passengers? To avoid touching them? Why do I never make any confrontation?

My exit comes before either of theirs. I never get to see how it ends. But it never really does end. The players in these little scenes of denial only change. They never quit.


I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fabio

One idea of male physical perfection is the romance novel cover model. It’s the swashbuckling hero, stripped to the waist, wrapping himself around a fair damsel, her frills and ribbons swirling up around him, licking his bronzed, hairless torso. It’s the tamed savage, all leather straps, shells and feathers, towering magnificently over his prize, one ham-sized hand firmly grasping her arm, the other gently touching her chin as she, on her knees, reaches desperately up toward him, her hair a wind-swept tangle nearly as long as his.

There’s enough there to excite the dreams of a young boy for years into his adolescence — whether he wants to be the hero … or to receive the hero’s ill-fated, undying desire. It was rivaled only by the box-cover underwear models lining the rows of men’s department store intimate apparel aisles. (I never wore the stuff. I always had the simple Fruit of the Loom numbers. Instead of the triumphantly muscled gods of Calvin Klein and Jockey, I had a few guys in fruit fetish wear.)

It was enough to take Fabio all the way to the top of a margarine ad empire.

Recently this dream has been playing out on the walls of the New York subway. In all their half-naked, air-brushed glory, Hollywood hotties Eddie Cibrian, Jerry O’Connell, Ivan Sergei and Jason Lewis are doing their best to out-Fabio each other, tenderly grasping their respective leading ladies, in a collection of posters for a series of Lifetime movies based on novels by Nora Roberts.

The 2009 Nora Roberts Collection

I don’t know anything about her or her work, but the art direction of the posters tells me all I really want to know.

The films themselves are probably decent, perfunctory, uncomplicated TV movies. But the candy-colored posters are ridiculous caricatures. And the assault of all four of them taken together, which is how they appear in the subway, makes the whole thing look a little like a joke. On the Web site, we learn further that erstwhile hot mamas such as Cybil Shepard and Faye Dunaway also co-star. Could it get any gayer? It’s like accidental high camp.

But this is “television for women,” after all. The images above are all arms and chest. Not a single nipple shows. And no gay soft-core porn, however accidental, would be caught dead without a couple of Susan B. Anthonys peeking through.


Better Left Unsaid

His shirt read: “Camp Howell Red Team.” Must have been some sort of sleepaway camp souvenir. How many softball games and tugs-of-war must have sweated through that thing? My first thought, after noting the appreciably tight fit, was, “Huh… what a coincidence that the shirt is also red.”

For a second or two too long, it did not occur to me that this was not a coincidence.

Oh, what good fortune that I was alone! Or I might have been tempted to point out my clever observation to someone. Funny how grateful one can be for not saying some things out loud. I’ve managed to pass myself off as a half-way intelligent person more times than I care to recall by simple virtue of keeping my mouth shut.


Bright as a New Penny

The E train home from Midtown tonight was new, like the N or the L. It was disorienting to hear the calm, cogent voice of the prerecorded station announcements. (It was distracting to be able to understand the voice at all.) It’s the female voice of the N train, not the male voice of the 4/5/6. And I swear that train traveled faster and smoother than the old model.

The seats are blue and clean. The video monitor shows the bright blue “E” circle. The LED display clearly shows the next stops. The windows are not all scratched up. The floor is already scuffed … but I’ll let that pass.


Stopping Traffic

There’s no one more popular in New York than the woman who can’t be bothered to have her Metrocard ready when entering the subway station, but who stands in front of the turnstile desperately plumbing the depths of her oversize purse, her arm plunged up to the elbow.

Her wallet, when she finds it, will be overstuffed and as easy to extract items from as the mouth of the reptile whose skin was used in its manufacture.

When she swipes her card through the reader, the LED will display INSUFFICIENT FUNDS, and she will sigh, roll her eyes, and push her purse strap up her shoulder. She won’t notice the hordes of commuters she has forced to stream around until she steps for a second into another frantic turnstile lane, bumping someone’s arm and startling herself into the realization that other people exist.

Then she’ll turn on her heels and impatiently push her way past to the Metrocard vending machine, where she will spend a good 45 seconds to a minute searching for her credit card.


The Crazies

He stepped into the subway car and announced in full voice, “I never met a woman who wasn’t a government agent.”

And then I turned up my iPod. He continued to rant, but I could only see his lips move. Then I looked down. Don’t make eye contact.

I am thankful for the little blessings in life, such as the ability to tune out this stuff. But I am also grateful for the ability to tune it back in on demand. If memory serves, I recognized this guy as the same one who once declared that lesbians like to eat fish. I wondered at the time what might have given him such expert status. Clearly he has issues with women of all stripes. I clicked PAUSE.

Apparently it was a short story he had to tell. The next thing I heard him say was just a recap. “I never met a woman who wasn’t a government agent.” And, thank sweet Jesus, I was able to turn the music back on.

Sometimes you can avoid these visitations. As the subway is rolling to a stop at the platform, you see one empty car among a dozen jam-packed cars. Too good to be true? Yes. Don’t enter it. Usually a homeless person is sleeping inside under a pile of coats and blankets, and the odor of months-unwashed clothing, rancid breath, festering human tissue and, very likely, near-death illness is enough to keep the car clear.

A subway car suddenly overtaken by a noisy class of teenage girls on a school field trip is also enough to send one running in the other direction. I have even left a car to avoid an aggressive panhandler. (He threw someone’s change out the door at a stop, because he felt disrespected.) But sometimes you are too tired to move and you just close your eyes, turn up the volume, and hope it will end.

the untallied hours