Some say New York is actually two cities, one that stands tall above the ground and the other that lurks beneath the surface. In my recent experience, it is quite literally so! The Big Apple’s rapid transit network aka Subway (what we Indians call metro rail) is indeed a city in itself, with a distinct diaspora, and a unique flavor. Three months back, on the same trip that took me to the Ellis Island, I had the opportunity to visit NYC for a few days and, we literally spent a considerable amount of time exploring the city beneath, at times against our plan! Here’s the story of how we got lost in the New York Subway
About the NYC subway
NYC subway is one of the oldest subways in the world, launched in 1904! Some of those original lines are still in operation. It is the largest (and longest) transit system in the world with 472 functioning stations stretching over 236 miles and, no wonder, one of the most complicated. On an average, they host 5.5 million rides* every single weekday!
The distinct characteristic
For people like me who have dreamed of visiting the Statue of Liberty while staring at the image on our home wall calendars (they don’t even exist these days!), NYC is the ultimate glam destination. After all, this is the city where SJP (Sarah Jessica Parker) crossed roads wearing designer labels and high heels. The city were F.R.I.E.N.D.S live and little Macaulay gets lost behind giant Christmas trees. NYC is a lot like a film set to me: Sky-high buildings, large crossroads, people zipping around in all directions: the ultimate glamour quotient of human civilization. It is hard for someone who has grown up aspiring to reach the dizzying heights of the city’s visage to imagine the gloomy, almost anti-thetical reality of NYC’s Underground.
As I descended down the stairs of the discreet subway entrances, especially the older stations, I was welcomed with the vintage tube light, train sounds, and a grubby look and feel in stark contrast to the city above. I saw artists sitting in the stations, playing their instruments, lost in their own world. Most stations had multiple levels, multiple entrances, and exits. Depending on the entrance and the level you might end up reaching a completely different destination than what you had in mind.
Our subway experience
We had booked a place in Brooklyn and were dependent on the subway for all city commute. I had with me a baby stroller and associated articles that tourist mothers usually carry begrudgingly. There went my glamour quotient. While we were going downtown, it was fairly straightforward, with limited entrance options. However coming back to Brooklyn was not as easy.
This actually happened
We had strolled around the city for about 8 hours. After trying out dinner at the famed Halal guys stall near 6th avenue, we decided to call it a day at about 10 pm and head back to our place. We had a planned early morning the next day. My friend who had been to NYC before, and resides in the US, looked up her google maps. From where we were, it showed a walking distance of 400 meters to the subway entrance and a direct train ride back to our destination. Easy!
Mistake 1: As we started walking, we realized there is a better elevator entrance. Why not use the elevator instead of carrying the stroller and a ton of other things including a tired, cranky child up and down stairs? Horrible mistake. We took the elevator and realized the train lines we were looking for (A, C) did not stop there. Also, the muffled voices of the tired announcements did not help. After 10 mins of haphazard sense-making on the wrong platform, we landed back squarely were we had started, stroller, baby et al.
Mistake 2: We walked to the other entrance, the one Google so assuredly pointed us towards. Only, when we reached there, the station read: lines E, F, B only. Not the alphabets we were looking for. On the edge now, we kept walking bravely nonetheless. After about 600 meters more, we saw another entrance marked A, C and took a leap of faith. Google warned us that we were in for another heartbreak, but we ignored it and entered. I wonder sometimes if Google feels like a parent to wreckless teenagers.
As we reached the station, we found that the trains were going uptown! We were overjoyed and quickly boarded a train that was coming. The train was empty; we got good seats and relaxed a bit. A minute later, I found my husband scouring his mobile phone with a cryptic frown spread over his face. After a stop, he said, “I am pretty certain we are going in the wrong direction”. Note: When he told this, the train had stopped in a station. We could have hurried out. We did not.
Mistake 3: We had a good laugh, blamed each other, and said: “ OK we will get off at the next station.” The train started to move, at which time my husband said: “ This is an express train”. Meaning, it stopped once in many stations. The joke was entirely on us. Exasperated and tired, we discovered we don’t need to get all the way back to our starting station, but if we got off the next one and switched entrances, we will still be able to catch the train line towards home.
Mistake 4: So we waited for what seemed like a very long time to get off the wrong express train. When we finally did, it was already past 11 pm. And we were not even close to where we wanted to be, with a baby, a stroller, and empty water bottles. The station janitors were cleaning the station, asking us to make way. Google told us our train was due at any moment. We saw a train coming, but on the other side of the platform, it was still going in the right direction just on the other side. There was no line mentioned in the train and the banner displayed “Special Train”. Being super careful this time we did not board the train, lest we end up somewhere else! We kept waiting and our train did not come. Some internal panicking and a muffled announcement later we realized that the one we let go was the right train! Due to track maintenance, all the trains were coming from the other side. About 15 more minutes later we finally boarded the correct train.
The train ride that was supposed to last only 35-40 mins from downtown lasted over 2 hours. On the way back (in the correct train) we met a man with two adorable kittens. My daughter who was oblivious to what was going on around her had a lot of fun. We, the adults were so tired that we laughed at our plight all the way home!
I have since realized that our epic subway journey was not so outrageous after all. Many first time New Yorkers have experienced the initiation rights of the Subway. The vastness and the intricacies of the NYC Subway is a test of the true New Yorker. The tourists better watch out.
- *source: wikipedia