Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Three weekend subway tales

Saturday evening, I step onto a downtown train, and as the doors close I realize there are two teenage girls seated in the center of the car having a heated argument. Terrific. The girls were sitting right next to each other (every seat was taken), and Girl #1 leaned in even closer to Girl #2 as she shouted, "If you gonna talk about that, how 'bout what you pulled at my birthday party?! Girl, we talkin' my SWEET SIXTEEN party, and you all, Just walking him out, and you don't come BACK for 45 minutes." Her friend responded in like manner (dismissive gestures were flying, usually accompanied by "Psshhh"). And when I say they were shouting, I mean, this conversation was being carried out at a volume level that I'd say is only appropriate to normal conversation if you're standing next to the speakers in a nightclub, or maybe operating a jackhammer. Not, I would say, on a rather crowded but quiet subway car, when you and your conversation partner are sitting hip-to-hip. Every few sentences, the girls would laugh -- angry though they ostensibly were -- so I was satisfied this wouldn't escalate into a hair-pulling, earring-ripping, bystander-injuring fight. But it was still alarming, and still hurting my ears. So I changed cars. Girls, I'm sorry you don't get enough attention at home, or at your birthday parties, but I'm not here to make up for that. I'm just trying to read this copy of Commonweal.

* * *

Sunday morning, I'm on the uptown 1 train platform at Columbus Circle, just beginning my walk all the way to the end. Which is a great tip, by the way, in all cases but especially when you're heading uptown from 59th St. on the 1: instead of just stopping at the center of the platform, where the crowd is already three deep, and then fighting your way onto the already-full car that stops in front of you? Walk to the end of the platform, where you will find fewer people waiting for spaces on cars with lots more room. I don't know why this is such a well-kept secret, but I'm trying to get the word out. (Also: stay to the right. And step aside to let others on and off the train.)

Anyway, as I was saying, I was walking along the platform, and a white-haired man approached me and said, in halting, German-accented English: "Miss. We go to Guggen-hehm Moo-seum?" I thought he was asking me out on a date or something until I noticed the three middle-aged ladies nearby, also awaiting my response. Just harmless tourists! Phew. I'm always happy to help lost tourists if I can, because the subway system is hard enough for us residents to figure out (especially on the weekends). But this was no easy case, because -- as you've already realized, if you're a New Yorker yourself -- there is no simple way to get to the Guggenheim from 59th Street, especially not from the 1-train platform. (At least they had the uptown part right.) And they obviously spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no German (I can sing "Happy Birthday," but that wouldn't have helped much). "The Guggenheim..." I said, and the man nodded and said, "Eighty-six." One of the women held out a map, on which she (or someone) had circled the B-C 86th St. stop. Right street -- wrong side of the park. I tried to demonstrate this by pointing. "The Guggenheim is here," I said, dragging a finger across the green rectangle that represents Central Park. "Yes, and ve are here," the man said (almost rolling his eyes, or so it seemed), pointing to 59th St. The woman spoke up: "B or C?"

If only it were that simple. Even tourists fluent in English would probably get turned around if I gave them the best getting-to-the-Guggenheim advice I could muster, and these tourists were definitely not fluent in English. The woman with the map did not feel like waiting around for me to think of a good answer. "To eighty-six," she insisted. "B or C?" Like, Come on, lady, we don't have all day. But of course, I was trying to think of a route that wouldn't take them all day. I looked around for backup -- maybe someone would help me convince them that they should consider another path? But everyone within earshot was staring straight ahead, or up, or down; anywhere but at me and my new friends. I was on my own. "You could take the 1 train..." I began, but they all shook their heads, and the woman repeated, "B or C?" and jabbed an impatient finger at the map. Maybe it's just the German/American social barrier that made them seem so impatient, but by this point I wanted to say, "Look, you seem awfully confident, so why don't you just go ahead and pick a train yourself." Instead I said, "You could get off at 86 and take the bus," trying again to convey the message that crossing the park would be necessary at some point. They conferred briefly ("Bus?") and seemed to reach an agreement that this would work. So when the woman holding the map asked again, "B or C?" I told them, "C," hoping that's the line that runs on weekends (it's all I can do to keep track of the ones I ride every day), and they headed off. I hope they found their way to the Guggenheim, or at least ran into a native they trusted more than me to direct them there.

* * *

Sunday night I encountered a personal subway first: an otherwise sane-looking passenger clipping her nails. I thought -- I hoped -- that this was just an urban legend, but no, I can now confirm that there are actually people who think nail-clipping is appropriate public transportation activity. And she was doing a really thorough job, too; this was no emergency hangnail removal. Clip, clip, clip, all the way downtown, in spite of many dirty looks tossed her way by the rest of us. (Wouldn't it be great if dirty looks were effective? So many of my problems would be solved.) I think I speak for all of us not raised in barns when I say: Ew.

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