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new york survival guide, part 4
who puts the 'public' in 'public transportation'
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)
4.11.11
humor

Okay, I officially admit it. And you're all the first to know. I have a small crush on Jamie Shupak, the traffic anchor on New York 1.

But can you blame me? Not only is she cute and Jewish (I assume), but she's surprisingly bubbly considering the time of morning, and she tells me if I'm going to be late for work due to subway delays. I'm pretty sure those four things are considered the trifecta.

Not only that, but if I had a car, the effervescent Ms. Shupak would also be the one to tell me that the bridges had 45-minute delays and the tunnels were backed up for miles. In other words, she'd have me take the subway, as I do anyway.

There were a few reasons for my decision to not own a car here, most having to do with the ridiculous cost of doing so in New York. Not only is the insurance really high, but due to something called "alternate side of the street parking," you have the excellent option of either moving your car from one side of the street to the other every 24 hours or paying approximately the GNP of Belize per month to keep it in a lot.

So I take the subway. And the buses, though not as often. I've noticed, however, that a large portion of the denizens of this fair city can basically be split into subway people or bus people. And I find that odd. I'm not making this up. I recently discovered a few weeks ago that my friend Sus has taken the bus once in the decade he's lived here. Conversely, my Aunt Ruthie, from what she once told me, never takes the subway and always rides the bus.

I consider this to be the major reason the two of them aren't dating each other.

My point is, I've been taking the subway almost daily since September 1998. So I've grown to know it pretty well. I even participate in what my friend Alexis has termed "pre-walking," which is the art of knowing where on the platform you want to exit the train (near the stairs, for example), so you know where to walk on the platform to wait for it. I'm not making this up, either. I know that the second subway door to the left of the white tiled column on the 59th Street/Lexington N/Q platform will allow me to exit right at the top of the stairs when I get to my stop.

Really.

I've also noticed that the types of people around you very much depends on when you're riding. For example, if you're riding a bus past, say, midnight, you're riding with a bunch of people who were actually willing to wait maybe an hour for the bus to show up. Weekday mornings and rush hours, not surprisingly, are mostly business people looking put-upon. The interesting times to ride the subway (and by "interesting," I mean, as Marillion once said, "all the best freaks are here") are late night and mid-day. Seriously, you see some of the wackiest people riding the subway in the middle of the afternoon. Because unless someone's going to a meeting or is a tourist, there's practically no reason for a person with a day job to be on the subway at 2:15 pm.

My favorite times, mostly, are weekend nights because I get to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes, drunk-watching (when I'm not drunk-being). I love seeing just-recent frat boys who don't know where they are ("How many stops? Three? How many is three?"). Or I'll see couples pledging their undying affection even though they just met at a club in Chelsea 2 hours ago ("God, baby, you are so hot. That's what I've always loved about you. What's your middle name?") standing right next to couples who have obviously been fighting all evening ("If that's what you want me to tell all your friends, you just keep it up. I'll tell them you've got a small dick, don't think I won't. I don't even care that you're my girlfriend."). It's kind of excellent.

Now those of you who have followed my column religiously (kneel before Zod!) may be aware that every now and then, I have written a column offering advice to those who, like me, are New York City transplants from, well, anywhere else (kind of the definition of a transplant, really). In those columns, I've offered advice culled from my time on the mean streets; things like "don't look at maps in public" and "buy a black leather coat" - yup, I put the "gritty" in "nitty-gritty."

Well, this month, if you couldn't infer from my intro, I'm all about the subways and buses (every time I type that, I think it's wrong - "busses" "buses" "abuses" - never mind). For unless you're my cousin who drives into Manhattan every day from some town in New Jersey that was apparently named by just throwing three nature-themed words together, at some point, you're going to find yourself dealing with New York public transportation, and it's important that you know at least some of the kinds of people with whom you might be spending that portion of your day.

1) The "look-around" guy. I'd say about 70% of my train rides feature at least one of these guys. Basically, they seem to feel a need to see what's happening on every platform, for reasons I've never been able to fathom. They always stand by the doors, and when the train pulls in, once the passengers have exited and entered, they invariably stick their heads out the doorway to ... um ... I'm not sure. Take a look, I guess. It's not that I'm not a naturally curious person, by nature, but these gentlemen - and it's always a guy - really do seem to have some sort of vested interest as to what's going on outside the train car. And that's it. They don't get off the train, they don't stop the doors from closing, they just look around.
Danger rating: low
Confusion rating: high
Annoyance rating: low

2) The smelly guy. This doesn't really need much explanation. Often, the smelly guy is homeless; sometimes, he's not. Either way, boy does he smell. I've actually seen train cars literally cleared by the entrance of one of these guys. It starts with the people closest to him moving further down the train. But they can't get away from the smell. It follows them, like a lion stalking its prey, which means that it also hits the other passengers on the train as everyone moves away from the offender. Eventually, people either switch to other cars or thank whatever deity to whom they pray that their stop has arrived. (Here's a hint, by the way: if your train pulls in and there's only one person in the car you're about to enter, think very carefully about why that might be, and maybe quickly move to a new location.)

As a codicil, one does occasionally see the person who doesn't mind the smelly guy. Every now and then, quite close to the smelly guy, there will be one or two people pleasantly reading their books, even as the rest of the passengers are hurrying down the train car as if they're in a 1950's horror film ("It's coming right at us! Oh, no, it got Billy!"). Never let these people cook food for you.
Danger rating: low, unless you accidentally take a deep breath
Confusion rating: low
Annoyance rating: high, very, very, high

3) Subtly crazy guy/girl. Everyone knows that some people on public transportation are just insane. These are the people who stand in the middle of the car singing, "This Diamond Ring" (but not collecting money for it) or preaching about how Jesus hates seahorses. However, sometimes, someone can appear totally normal for a minute or so before that switch flips.

It happened to me yesterday. I was on the 101 heading up 3rd Avenue, sitting a couple seats down from a perfectly attired gentleman - jeans, t-shirt, non-ratty jacket - and hardly even noticed the guy until we got about five or six blocks underway and he suddenly yelled, "When we got the fried chicken?!" Though, to be fair, I might have misheard him. It might have been "Man, we got to fry chicken." Either way, that's some crazy.

Which is to say, watch out. The woman sitting next to you in the business suit might just think you've shown up specifically so she can drop her insanity stealth bombs. You're thinking, "Nice shoes," and she's thinking, "This woman will help me spread the truth about what City Hall is doing with all the cheese."
Danger rating: low, usually, unless provoked, but who'd be dumb enough to do that?
Confusion rating: high
Annoyance rating: medium, depending on your proximity and how willing you are to indulge the crazy talk

4) Old "block the door" lady. Remember what I said earlier in this piece about "pre-walking"? Neither do I, but we'll just have to soldier on. Obviously, I'm not the only one who knows the specific place to wait on the platform. These women - always women, always at least 93 years old - take it to a new level, standing right where the doors are going to be opening up. And they invariably have some sort of wheeled shopping cart (not the crazy "I stole it from the supermarket" kind, but the "I can't carry as much as I used to" kind), twice their width. And they're in your way and they don't care that there are people trying to exit. On top of that, for those of us with external, um, parts, that can be a pretty close call. I almost lost the remaining one to some 4'9" Asian woman at Queensboro Plaza a few years back.
Danger rating: low
Confusion rating: medium, but only because you want to say, "What, exactly, is your plan here, as we all exit right into you?"
Annoyance rating: medium, but can reach astronomical if you wind up being stuck on the train because of her

5) The lost souls. "Why is that man walking over to me? Is he looking at me? Does he want money? Is he looking past me? Why isn't he stopping? That's my personal space! I can smell his tie! My knee is touching his junk! What is going on here? ... Oh, right. I'm sitting in front of the subway map."
Danger rating: low
Confusion rating: medium, at first
Annoyance rating: high, but mitigated by the smugness you feel because you know how to get where you're going

6) The wheelchair-bound. Almost exclusively on the bus. I don't actually have any sort of warning about them, other than their holding up the line a little, but I did want to point out that if you find yourself waiting to get on behind someone in a wheelchair, take a moment to check out the elevator mechanism on the bus. It's really kind of cool.
Danger rating: low
Confusion rating: low
Annoyance rating: medium, if you're a dick

7) Jews. That's it. You're likely to be on the subway or the bus with any number of Jewish people. And they're likely to be on the subway with you.
Danger rating: variable
Confusion rating: variable
Annoyance rating: variable, especially if the Jew is me

8) Kids. As far as children of strangers go, at best, they're cute distractions. At worst, they're more annoying than I am. "Daddy, are we on the train?" "Yeah, slugger, we are. Stop kicking that man. You know you're not supposed to lay down on the seat." "Daddy, are we on the train?" "Yes, I told you. You can see the lights going by." "Daddy, are we going to a different train?" "No, big guy. We're already on the train. You have to stay seated." "Daddy, why did Mommy leave?" "Because you wouldn't sit down on the train." "Daddy, I have to tinkle." "For God's sake, you're 17."

The odd thing is when you see kids on the subway with their parents at, like, 1 a.m. I really don't get that. And it's not as though they ever have bags indicating that they'd been traveling somewhere. They're just, like, up. Like there was a really long line at the ice cream parlor or they'd been to a barbecue in Rhode Island for the day or something. Weird.
Danger rating: low
Confusion rating: medium, if the kid's a mini-Socrates
Annoyance rating: varies inversely with the cuteness of the child in question (otherwise known as the "Punky Brewster" effect)

Eight seems like a good place to stop. There are more, of course. The awe-filled tourists all wearing the same t-shirts, the women trying to smuggle small dogs in their purses, the bicycle riders (I'm sorry, if you have a bike, unless you also have a brand new cast, there's no excuse for this), the guy with the overlarge boxes too cheap to take a taxi, the woman who waits until she's on a moving vehicle to put on her makeup, the people who take the aisle seat so no one sits next to them, the musicians and singers, the sleepers (the snorers), the students, the models, the lovers, the dreamers, and me. All of us under its spell...

Sorry. You get the idea. In a city of 8 million, it's wonderful there are enough archetypes that I get to generalize like this. Amish people will have no idea what I'm talking about. See? But I have a feeling that a vast majority of my fellow New Yorkers, were my readership not just limited to immediate family and my publisher, would read this list and nod knowingly. I am certain of this just as I am certain when it's time to wrap up this column. About seven paragraphs ago.

You might also have noticed that pretty much everyone above was listed with a low danger rating. This is true and accurate. I'm not saying that there aren't dangerous people on the subways and buses; of course there can be dangerous people on subways and buses. What I'm saying is to make sure you don't ride with them. That's just common sense people, come on. Do I have to spell everything out for you?

That's it; you're on your own. Happy April.


ABOUT ADAM KRAEMER

A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

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COMMENTS

christine freeman
4.12.11 @ 12:48p

How could you not mention the kids getting out of school at 3pm screaming at the top of their lungs and blocking all subway doors! Danger rating is low. Annoyance is very very very high.

Ok, and another one - the two girls screaming at each other threatening each other about keeping away from a specific guy (one of them invariably thinks the guy is their boyfriend) - usually amounts to hair pulling, rarely escalates beyond that.
Danger - medium. But do leave the car at the earliest possible moment.


adam kraemer
4.12.11 @ 1:51p

I actually kinda like the guys who sing doo-wop.

dr. jay gross
4.17.11 @ 11:01a

Your observations are incitive, inventive, and necessary -the grist for a book (guide), for tourists or newly moved into New York, type people who haven't a clue. "A Directory for those who Choose to be New Yorkers for a day." You might even sell (pedal) them on the subway when you see someone who is obviously lost and can't understand the indiginous accent.

[edited]



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