Left Coast / Right Coast: Riding the Subway

Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Scott Brown.
Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Scott Brown.

By Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.

If there is one thing that a consummate New Yorker takes in stride, while most residents in the rest of the world would simply freak out, it’s riding the New York Subway.

Let’s start with paying for your ride. In the “pre-computer” days, one purchased a subway token, which you inserted into a turnstile. They were those old fashioned ones with the wooden turnstile on top. The wooden part (which probably weighed 90 lbs) would only release once the token had dropped down into the machine.

As kids are always in a hurry, many of us would drop the token into the turnstile, then push immediately and hard against the wooden turnstile. Of course, if you pushed too soon, what would happen is the turnstile would not budge and you would get the wind knocked out of you as you ran into an immovable object.

Today, the turnstiles are gone, replaced by a machine that still has a turnstile – but you purchase kind of a debit card. You insert the card into a reader in the turnstile machine, and assuming you have sufficient credit left on the card, you simply push against what is now a metal bar. Same problem if you push too soon although the debit card reader is electronic with a near instant release so it rarely happens.

Of course, many kids also participate in “turnstile jumping.” Here are two examples: Turnstile jumpingMore typical turnstile jumping.

Another way to “beat the fare” is to have two riders approach the turnstile together. One inserts the debit card reader. If the two people are reasonably thin, you can jam two people in between the metal turnstile handles and squeeze through. However, this does call for one of the riders to pay the fare.

Now once the subway arrives in the station, there is a basic etiquette that most civil people follow. The idea is that before the door eventually stops in front of you (you have only a second or two as the train slows down and is almost stopped). What you do is peer into the subway car and “pick out” the easiest free seat. Once the door opens, you make a dash for that seat.

The trick is to not seem as if you are trying to beat someone else to the open seat (this includes invalids, senior citizens, and pregnant women). Watch Kramer from Seinfeld make a poor attempt to do this. Kramer’s major mistake is he was not “first” to pass through the opening subway door.

The best place on the train: If you are a kid, riding up against the glass at the front of the first car is THE PLACE TO BE. Reason? You get to see all the strange things inside the tunnels between the stations.

I recall seeing homeless people camping out there. Also I once saw a wrecked VW Beetle. How it got down there is a mystery to me to this day. One caution. As you’re standing there with your face pressed against the glass (it’s the only way to see out into the dark tunnel – as the background light inside the subway cars makes it difficult to see “out”) you have to remember that hundreds of others have had their faces pressed against the same glass. Having an anti-fungal wipe with you is a good idea (but few kids even think about this).

Typical Subway Riders: You simply cannot believe the range of characters that ride the subway. The ones you have to really try and avoid is any group of young male adults of more than two, especially if they are dressed alike (similar colors). It is possible that they are gang members and could possibly threaten you or worse. Best advice is if you see a group like this get on the train, immediately move forward or backward into another car. Or, worst case, get off at the next station and wait for the next train.

Last “insider” tip: Many very busy stations have vendors selling hot dogs, knishes, Falafel on a stick or in summer, cold drinks. The idea is when the train stops at the station, if you are quick, you can jump off the car, rush to the stand (you should have exact change ready), pick up an item, plunk down your money and return to the still open car doors. Here is an example of how not to do it.

In all, riding the New York Subway is something that everyone should try – at least once – when you visit the Big Apple. If you wish to, it is not the worst idea to be “carrying” (a concealed weapon) on your trip.


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