I've been riding the New York City subway for as long as I can remember. I know it like the back of my hand, and if you plop me anywhere, in any borough, I can find my way home without so much as visualizing a map in my head. On top of that, I know where to position myself in most subway terminals to put me right in the entrance to the next train in which I'll be making a transfer. Meaning if I'm on the Bronx-bound 2 train needing to transfer to the Q, I know that I have to be in the third car on the 2, which will leave me right at the north side entrance to the Q when I get off in Times Square, which cuts my walking time to the transfer by 2 minutes, which allows me to catch an earlier train without having to walk an extra two blocks when I get above ground, thus cutting my commuting time to work by about 4 minutes.
Got all of that?
I know you don't, but it's okay. I'm here to help.
Tourists are generally terrified of the subway. And, believe it or not, it's mostly Americans. Foreign travelers are usually fine and will give it a crack, even if they will drive you fucking bananas asking for directions. Americans, on the other hand (generally mid-westerners), are under the assumption that there's a residential rapist and mugger in each terminal, eager to introduce you to the rat-infested cesspool that movies and television have made it out to be. (For the record, I find the rats to be adorable.)
I rarely find myself in a situation where I'm in any sort of altercation. Nor will I ever find myself on the train going the wrong direction, or accidentally wind up in Brooklyn at 2am. Why? Because I know what I'm doing. Though it took years of commuting daily to figure it out.
Yes, some places can be dangerous. And yes, it's less safe at night. But if you follow these simple rules of subway etiquette, you'll A) save yourself a shitload of money on taxis. B) come out of your vacation having felt like you've really experienced New York City:
1- Be mindful of who's behind you.
No, I'm not insinuating that there's going to be a knife-wielding homeless man or a minion from hell standing behind you at all times. Though the former totally possible, I'm referring to being in a crowded subway car.
Always make sure that whatever backpack or man-bag or purse you're wearing be tucked in front to you, to avoid swinging it around and hitting someone who's walking around looking for an altercation. Also, be conscious of your ass. Like, seriously, never have your ass in someone's face.
I once had a girlfriend who was notoriously unaware of her surroundings no matter where we went. We'd be at a concert, and she'd be dancing like no one's watching in tight quarters, and next thing I knew, she'd smashed the poor person sitting in front of her with her kneecap. One time, on the 4 train, she backed her ass up within an inch of the face of a scary, giant, terrifying albino black man. Picture Charles Barkley, but a crayon-like white. He took it for a second, giving her a moment to realize what she was doing and adjust herself, being that there was plenty of room for her to go. Then, as she took out her pocket-mirror check herself out, the man took his hand and pushed her ass out of his face.
Now of course I had to get involved. Not only because he pushed my girlfriend, but because she shrilly screamed "HE JUST GRABBED BY ASS" for the whole subway car to hear. Then, in a bit of delicious irony, he muttered "white bitch" under his breath.
The rest of the story is pretty simple: I yelled at him to appease my pride and defend her honor or whatever, he stared at me with the "anywhere else and I'd fucking shank you, but there are too many witnesses and I'm on parole" look.
Was he wrong for the way he handled it? Of course. It's never okay to put your hands on a woman. That's not my point. The moral is that if my girlfriend had been considerate and minded what was going on behind her, we never would have been put in that position. You're not always going to be standing behind someone who will be polite enough to say, "excuse me, ma'am, would you kindly remove your buttocks from in front of my face? I'm trying to read."
What it really boils down to is respecting people's space, however sparse said space may be.
2- If someone is being a loudmouth or acting like a lunatic, NEVER make eye contact.
I made this rookie move the other day (which is what inspired me to write this post). There's nothing worse than that moment where you're listening to someone ramble on about something completely insane, only to get caught up and have them catch you eavesdropping on their conversation.
I was on the 2 headed towards the Bronx, when this obviously drugged-out woman with massive gums and small teeth was theatrically venting to her friend about her baby daddy drama. I was listening to a podcast, so I could make out some of it, though I wasn't particularly interested in what she had to say. I just could not. stop. looking. at. her. mouth. There were about 2 inches of gums and tic tacs for teeth (what was left of them). It's a terrible quality of mine to stare at people who have this unfortunate characteristic (that, and lazy eyes). I'm working on it.
She must have caught on to my staring, so during a lull moment in what I was listening to I found myself panning up to her eye, where she was looking dead at me. I could read her lips:
Big Gums - "What are you looking at, you white mothafucka?!?"
(I'm actually half Puerto Rican, but that's not important.)
Now, here's where my experience kicks in. Despite my silly goof, I just looked at her confused, smiled, and made sure that I never looked up from my phone again. And, even more importantly, I never pulled the earphone out to acknowledge what she was saying. Did I listen? Of course I did:
Big Gums - "You best keep lookin' yo mothafuckin' phone you white-ass mothafucka or I'll come over there and put my foot up yo mothafuckin' assho!!! Sittin' there lookin' at ma mouth like he wants to put his little white dick in it, fuck outta here with that boooooshit!"
You get the idea. I had about five stops to go before I got off, so the ride was pretty nerve-wracking. Mostly because I had to suppress a savage urge to burst out laughing. She eventually tired herself out, which I accredited to the headphones. Seriously, headphones are important. People will leave you alone if you're staring at your phone with headphones on. It's like an imaginary forcefield.
So avoid eye contact with psychos, because once you lock pupils, you're inviting them to come and try you. And ain't nobody got time for that.
3 - When you hear someone yell "Ladies and Gentlemen..."
Here's a little blurp from my post The Doorman's Guide to Not Getting Ripped Off in NYC - Part II:
This brings me to...
4- If a subway car is empty, there's good reason:
Say it's about 9pm, and the trains are still reasonably full. You're waiting on the platform, and a train whips past you. You see several cars full of people, and as it slows down before you, you see one golden car that's full of seats. It passes you up a bit, and the following car is full of people.
A rookie would run towards it, because after a long day of walking around and seeing the sights, why wouldn't they want to sit down on their commute back to the hotel?
Step inside, and prepare for hellfire in your sinuses. Prepare to jump in, take a look around, and not fully understand the demon that will violate your nostrils. Prepare to hear, "stand clear of the closing doors, please", and have the next sixty seconds of your life become a Fear Factor challenge as the stink that you will endure will straddle your shoulders and fuck every oriface of your wholesome, pudgy little face.
You'll look around, frantic and confused, only to see one lone, raggedy body, sprawled out along one of the benches. This is the source.
You'll pray for the next stop, pray that you won't pass out before it gets there, pray that the odor hasn't latched onto your clothing to carry onto the next car that you'll have to dash to as soon as it the train makes a halt at the next station.
And you'll never make the same mistake again.
5- If you're waiting on a platform and a crowded train arrives:
Clear a path for the people getting off the train first. If you attempt to get on before letting people off, be prepared to be mowed down by a New Yorker. And heaven forbid if you obstruct the exit holding an open map. (I actually got douche chills just visualizing that.)
6- Subway poles weren't built for backs.
Can't seem to get comfy leaning up against that pole in the middle of the subway car? Had a long walk though Chinatown, and just want to relax and lean up against this snot-infested, bacteria-ridden bar of steel because there aren't any available seats for you?
Those poles were made for hands. Multiple hands. If a New Yorker gets on a train, sees that there's no seats, then sees your back-fat mushed up against the pole, bubbling over on both ends and taking up any room they have to grab hold and not faceplant when the shitty C train makes an abrupt stop at the terminal... well, prepare to be nudged hastily.
Tough it out, and grab hold of the coven of bacterial organisms eager to latch onto your flesh and give your white blood cells a 12-round title fight.
7- Treat the entrance/exit staircases as if they were highways.
Take notice of picture above. Now imagine it as if it were a highway (for some you international folk, just reverse everything I'm about to say). On a highway, you have one side going one direction, which is on the right, and the opposite side going the other.
Forget about the left side of the staircase in this picture for a moment and imagine the right side is your car on the highway. Say this highway has two lanes. Split the right side of the staircase down the middle. On a highway, you have the right lane and he left lane, which is the speed lane (or, more importantly, the "passing lane").
If you're a slow-poke, maybe have a bum knee or some sort of handicap, you use the right lane. Take your time. That's what this lane is there for. If a New Yorker gets stuck behind you on the steps, they can simply take one step to the left and proceed at their own pace.
Would you ever drive under the speed limit in the left lane of a crowded highway? Of course you wouldn't. You'd be run off the road in no time. Respect the laws of the staircase and let the maniacs pass you by on the left.
Same goes for escalators. There's a spot on the right side reserved for people who want to stand and let the escalator to carry them up. Then there's a lane for the frantic asshole like myself, who wants to shave an extra twenty or thirty seconds off their commute time.
That's really the drive of most commuting New Yorkers - getting there quicker than the day before. Fuck with that and you'll get an earful.
8- Don't eat hot food on the train.
Just don't. Especially halal food. Please.
9- Riding between subway cars...
Is kind of fucking awesome. But don't do it. It's illegal. But it's kind of awesome. But don't do it. It's illegal.
10- When you buy a MetroCard, be realistic about how much you'll be using it:
There are several things to consider when purchasing MetroCard. The first is that the card itself will cost you $1. That's a buck before you 're able to enter the subway.
Will it be a novelty? Will you ride it once, have your fill, then continue on the rest of your trip taking taxis? Or will you make a valiant effort to get to know the system and get the most out of your card?
If you have a family, I recommend purchasing one MetroCard for every two people, and putting cash on each one. It's $2.50 per person, per ride. Figure out how much you'll be using it for the day, and pay accordingly. If you plan on heading somewhere and coming back, that's $5 a head. Try it first and see if it's for you. A weekly pass will run you $30 per person. That's a lot of traveling to get your money's worth. Don't waste your money on one unless you're absolutely sure you'll be frequently riding.
Also, if you're a first-timer and looking to buy MetroCards for multiple people, use the MTA employees in the booths. You can tell them how many people you need to buy for and where you're going, and they'll help you out. (With an attitude, of course, but they'll never lead you in the wrong direction.)
And please, don't use the kiosks if you don't know what the fuck you're doing. You'll be getting in the way of New Yorkers. If there's one thing you should absorb from this post, is that you never, ever get in the way of a New Yorker.
One last thing- if you have leftover MetroCards at the end of your trip, always offer it to your favorite hotel employee. It's as good as cash and a wonderful gesture, but please be sure to never replace it with a tip. There's nothing worse than some schmuck handing you a MetroCard instead of a gratuity like they're doing you a favor, only to find out that there's 30 cents left on it.
Trying to explain the intricacies of the subway to the uninitiated is a fools endeavor. Like I said, it took me years of commuting all over the city to fully master the subway system. Don't beat yourself up if you don't learn it over the course of a few days.
And seriously, don't get in the way of the New Yorkers.