Home View from Underground The subways as New York’s great equalizer

The subways as New York’s great equalizer

by Benjamin Kabak

They come from the midwest, the southeast. They come from up north and out west, from Boston and Maine and from St. Louis and San Francisco. For a bunch of jaded grad students and bright-eyed 18-year-olds, the last week in August marks the ever-popular orientation period while recent grads, through with their summers away from the grind or backpacking trips through Europe, often decide that now, before Labor Day, is the best time to arrive in the city for that grand experiment in New York life.

Those of us who have lived our lives in the city, those of us born in Mt. Sinai or Kings County Hospital, are nonplussed by these new waves of American immigrants coming to the shores of our fair city. Mostly, they’re in the way. They invade our neighborhoods; clog up our local watering holes; and just can’t seem to get out of the way fast enough. Clearly, there is something of a love-hate relationship at work. These new New York residents — and I’m not quite ready to call them New Yorkers — love the city while millions of natives hate them.

Today, in its typical fashion, The New York Times looks at the lives of these recent arrivals. Cara Buckley, the beat writer for young people in the city, looks at when these New York residents finally feel like New Yorkers. While most of them wax poetic about seeing the skyline on return flights from home states such as Texas and Oklahoma, a common theme unites a lot of the comments Buckley and The Times printed.

A resident of New York — a new one, recently arrived from somewhere else in the vast America that we all view with a wary eye — feels most like a New Yorker when he or she finally masters the city’s complex subway systems. I bet you didn’t see that one coming.

“Learning the transportation is sort of what I’m working on right now. I’m pretty good with the subways now, but at night it’s a little weird, and I don’t really know how that works,” Boris Chen said to Buckley. Chen wasn’t the only one bemoaning our complex subway sytem.

And that’s where it begins and ends. If someone living in the city can navigate the hot spots — the so-called Central Business District of Manhattan — without the aid of a subway map (except during the weekends), then a New Yorker that person shall be. If someone can, by and large, get from his or her local subway stop to just about anywhere else in the city, if that person would even be so bold as to offer lost tourists subway directions, then a New Yorker you will be.

Of course, a subway rider isn’t the only thing that makes up a New Yorker. I went to elementary school and high school with life-long New Yorkers who, by the time they were 11, had ridden the subway just a handful of times in their entire lives. But that is more a testament to the culture of New York City private schools than it is to the role of the subway in the city.

We don’t have five color-coded lines as they do in DC. We have a mash of subway lines and bullet colors that run all over the place in a way that, to the untrained eye, makes little sense. Master that map, and the city is yours to explore.

For me, I have my own story about newly-arrived New Yorkers. I started law school orientation this week, and after a law school-hosted party and a few more drinks at a local bar, I ventured home to Brooklyn well after midnight on Sunday night. One of my fellow classmates — from North Carolina — asked me the next day if I have a cut-off time for taking the subway. “Do you still ride it at four a.m.?” he asked me.

I just laughed. Of course, I’ll ride the subway at four a.m. I’ll ride the trains at any hour of any day. But then again, Cara Buckley isn’t writing about me; I was born with the subway gene.

That wacky and crazy subway map up there comes to us via The Panopticist who says it’s a product of Marc Grubstein’s.

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Nick August 27, 2008 - 8:44 am

The gold standard of subway mastery is the corresponding platform pre-walk – if you’ve got that down, you’ve arrived (both literally and figuratively).

Marsha August 27, 2008 - 12:30 pm

The real gold standard of subway mastery is to know which car lets you out exactly at the exit of the station.

Eric August 28, 2008 - 12:42 pm

What in the world does this mean?

Nick August 28, 2008 - 1:54 pm

It actually means what Marsha said – when you walk to the point on the platform that corresponds to the closest exit to where you need to go at your destination, so when you get off the train you’ve saved yourself some time.

(I can’t claim the term pre-walk though – Randy Kennedy coined it in one of his subway articles in the Times.)

Peter August 27, 2008 - 9:07 am

When I moved here from Ohio in 1976, I would regularly get lost in the Union Sq Station. After I finally figured my way around it, the TA remodelled it, two separate times, and I would get lost all over again

The Mark of a True New Yorker » trainjotting.com August 27, 2008 - 2:23 pm

[…] SecondAvenueSagas offers the unique perspective of a New York native to an NY Times story on those skyline-gazing new adults arriving in our city these days and clogging our sidewalks and subways: the college freshman. […]

Alon Levy August 28, 2008 - 1:47 am

The hatred of New Yorkers toward newcomers is just bigotry. Native-born Americans in Arizona hate Hispanics; native-born New Yorkers in Brooklyn hate Californians.

Asking Directions in NYC: The 2 Out of 3 Rule : Nuts in NY - I Got Your Crazy New Yorkers Right Here September 11, 2008 - 10:23 am

[…] On the blog Second Ave Sagas, Benjamin Kabak discusses the notion that knowing the subway system in NYC is what makes someone a New Yorker. […]

David Donnell September 11, 2008 - 2:56 pm

The bit about giving directions to tourists is somewhat misleading… One may indeed be a New Yorker by the time one feels bold enough to do so, but that doesn’t mean one knows what they hell one is talking about!

(Phew, pardon the overwrought grammar.)

See my “2 out of 3 rule for asking for directions” at NutsInNY.com.



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