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NOVEMBER 16, 2011 5:26AM

I run for trains: my love/hate relationship with the NYC MTA

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The way I see it New Yorkers can be divided into two categories: those willing to thrust limbs and appendages (umbrellas, briefcases, backpacks, shopping bags) into closing subway doors to pry them open, and those who are not. I am of the former category. My determination not to miss a train that can be seen waiting on the platform with open doors has few rivals. The fact that my chances of catching it may be slim to none doesn’t deter me one whit. Perhaps, after all, it is the thrill of the chase. 

Last Thursday morning really took the cake. My son and I left the apartment on the late side and went off in our respective directions, him to school and I, well, to school, since I’m a teacher. I rushed down the street, around the corner and up 8th Avenue, past the main Post Office and down the stairs to the A train, right across the street from Penn Station. As soon as I got to the bottom of the stairs I felt it—the uptown A train was stopped at the platform. New Yorkers have a sixth sense for these things. I tore past the MetroCard vending machines and up the next set of stairs. Indeed, the A train sat waiting. I blasted up the left side of the stairs with my fairly heavy backpack on and tripped, practically flinging myself upon the railing. A guy on the right side—the correct side of the stairs for going up—said, “Are you all right, miss? Be careful.”

“I know. It’s not worth it,” I replied, looking up and seeing the train still there. “But I can get that train,” I said, and ran the rest of the way up to the platform. The doors were all closed. The platform was cleared. Except for one lady’s bag that was stuck in the last set of doors in the last car, leaving about a three-inch gap between them. That’s right. I crossed my hands and thrust them through the gap. The lady pulled her bag out and the train doors closed on my wrists. Now here’s the time to envision how I stood in front of the train, arms out in front of me, as if handcuffed by the doors. The people inside the train were looking at me; I was looking at them. Not for one moment did I feel fear. I felt as defiant as I would had I been wrongfully arrested. “They better open the door,” I said. “Someone better open the door”—not clear whom I was talking to.

It took longer than I’ve seen on multitudinous similar occasions for the doors to open. Two minutes, three minutes, I swear. I imagined the people inside waited in hushed silence. I was looking at them without seeing them. The doors eventually opened partway with that little ding, ding. I pulled my hands out and tried only momentarily to shove myself into the train and then gave up. I saw that same guy from the staircase looking at me. “Are you all right?” he said. He looked genuinely concerned.

“I’m crazy this morning,” I replied. I felt a little crazy at that moment. A split second later I realized how nice-looking the guy was. I should have asked him out, I thought. About a minute later another train came. Yeah, so, being handcuffed by the train, veritably arrested by the MTA, had been quite unnecessary. But that’s not even the point. As with all dysfunctional relationships each action takes on über-significant meaning when viewed through the prism of life’s great scoreboard. Maybe I lost this one. Maybe I didn’t.

I love the MTA. I may or may not have a closer relationship with the subway than most New Yorkers. I marvel at the convenience of the trains. I’ve been in New York for over 16 years now and I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I can walk out of my house, step down a few stairs and go anywhere in the city I want. That’s right, maybe only a transplanted Midwesterner could feel this way, but I hope I retain that feeling of glory till the day I die. I love the vicissitudes of the subway ride, the way the drivers announcing the stops make the train their own. The other day I was told to “have an inspiring morning” by a driver who must have been practicing meditation up there in his little control booth. Equally I love the ones who warn riders—with contained violence in their voices—to stop holding the doors so the train can move out of the station. A poetic cacophony of moods and rhythm, an ever-changing mise-en-scène, a world, a community that shifts at every stop.

I hate the MTA. I curse their outdatedness and the way they destroy my life. Why on the day I’m late for my job do the doors of the A across the platform close just as I’m getting off the E to transfer? Why does it take so interminably long for another A to come at 42nd? Why does the D stop underground and sit in the dark when I’m already late to go pick up my son? Why is there always train traffic ahead at 59th Street when you’re just almost there? I’ve cursed and blamed the MTA for everything that’s gone wrong in my life when I’ve had a bad day. When I first started my teaching job and I was dropping my son off at school and transferring from the C to the A to the D to get up to the Bronx without a shaved minute to spare, things really got extreme. I remember waiting on the platform at 145th for the D or the B to show up and envisioning going to the central office of the MTA and throwing a tizzy that would send me to Bellevue or wreaking havoc and destruction in some similar way.

Yeah. I realized I was going down the wrong path at that point and tried to pull back. My relationship with the MTA was getting a little too personal. I tried to think of a cloud instead of destruction. My son, after all, learned the alphabet from the trains. For entertainment when he was young we just used to ride a certain line that he would choose that day. We didn’t even have to end up anywhere. Okay, NYC MTA, I love you. But I hate you sometimes, too.


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Absolutely brilliant. I think so many of us city-dwellers end up having a complex relationship with our respective subway/underground/Metro system. The way you describe what you love about the Subway was magical. I also love how you capture the sense of rushing and irrational urgency - I feel the same way, quite often, in the more low-key Metro here in Paris. Though I"m not one of those people who will put anything between the closing doors of a train. I'm so glad you're all right!

As for the cute guy who asked about you - maybe you should check the "Missed Connections" ads on Craigslist for a few days. Or post one yourself. You never know....
MWG, thanks for your interesting story on your experience with the MTA. More often than not, residents of the metro area have something to say about the MTA along with the associated rail lines like the LIRR and MetroNorth. I have heard a number of people who don't use the MTA at any time during the year complain about the mandatory payroll taxes they must pay to the MTA.

A few years ago a news report surfaced that the MTA had about 400 staffers working in their PR department alone and I had to wonder what 400 people could possibly be doing in that capacity when I'd be hard pressed to find even a privately owned PR firm in the city with that many employees.

In the country north of the city, I have witnessed how the MTA Police occasionally stop drivers at MetroNorth grade crossings to check for expired registrations, etc.--something the local police are totally capable of doing by themselves. It smacked of raising revenue for the city at the expense of the local municipalities.

On the plus side, I certainly find the rides better today than 35 years ago when both the subways and rail lines had really old equipment that broke down a lot. Those were the days when ConRail was in charge of the railroads north of the city and didn't spend any money on improvements that I was aware of. The MTA took over the the rail lines and added electrified third rails, brand new rail cars, and new station platforms that really turned around the situation. The same could be said for the new cars that were added to the city's subway system--replacing the old subway cars that were covered in layers of graffiti and had their share of break downs.
Wow, do I love this piece! Being a native NYer, I completely relate. I love (and hate) trains. Now that I live in CT, I will still ride the MTA instead of driving if it's remotely convenient, even just to go a town or two over. But when I lived in NYC, trying to get from point a to point b as fast as possible was my favorite game. Like if I had to go from Astor Place to 59th Street, I could take the 6 to Union Square and switch to the 4/5 to go express the rest of the way...blah blah blah. And what a great observation about the drivers! I can't decide what I like best--when they get creatively surly or when they're clearly on some sort of mood-elevating drugs. Great post!
I love this. Thank you for lighting a fire under my ass to finish up that piece about my love/hate relationship with the New Orleans RTA...which seems to be the opposite of NYC's system in every way. Except for the breakdowns. And the surly/crazy conductors.
I love this. Thank you for lighting a fire under my ass to finish up that piece about my love/hate relationship with the New Orleans RTA...which seems to be the opposite of NYC's system in every way. Except for the breakdowns. And the surly/crazy conductors.
Great post. I love the NYC subway and all of its foibles. The surly drivers, the happy drivers, the odd people and the ordinary people on the trains, the dirt, the grim, the graffiti on billboards, the "wet paint" signs that stay in place for months, the rats on the tracks...well, maybe not the rats. Like Leeandra, you may have just inspired me to write about my attempt to stop a closing subway door.
well as a sane man who lives in a city without metro
action, and yet happily taking advantage
of the buses when tis raining,
i say bravo.

hades is the underground.
a test for sanity
at least in myth,

and a consignment to a circle of hellish yuck.

urgency+ committment&purpose
brings fullest temporal life.
improving the immortal spirit behind this.
which is fed and grows and that
is the pt of life.
its a one of the unique article i have ever read.
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