Underground Railroad

Commentary: In Exile

I don’t want to take a shuttle bus anywhere, those shortish buslettes with the cryptic destinations in the marquee window at the front (“Terminal,” “North Lot,” or sometimes simply a color, “Blue”), always overdoing it with the air conditioning, grey and mauve velvety seats that seem to have just been vacuumed. They’re always taking you somewhere sterile and boring: an airport, a franchise hotel, a rental car satellite parking lot. A place that you’ll leave again in the very near future. A transitory hub.

The Republican National Convention is coming to town, but not by subway. No, they’ll be traveling by that great 20th century semi-mass transit conveyance, the shuttle bus. The conventioneers announced this some time ago, that their delegates and dignitaries will not be taking the scary subway. The decision was clearly made by people who have never been to New York City, and I for one am happy. Surface transit in this city is not a viable way to get around, and certainly not during a week when protesters will be frenetically shrieking through the streets like the zombies from 28 Days Later. The thought of all of those Republicans sitting in traffic for hours, surrounded by gridlock and a city that doesn’t vote for them, before giving up and getting out and walking to their destination makes me feel almost drunk.

The subway is, for all of its nastiness, the best way to move about the city. There is also entertainment on view, sometimes in the form of street performers and musicians, and sometimes in the form of the deranged, who would like to interest you a handful of reasonably priced unwrapped double-A batteries, or a free tirade about shadow governments.

I once had a man offer to sell me a bar of soap on the subway. It was unwrapped. He was holding it in his hand, and he demonstrated its usefulness by reaching out and placing the tip of his finger on a zit on my forehead.

“This will take care of that,” he said, his finger still on the zit as if to drive home the point. Other passengers looked up from their newspapers to see what thing on my face needed to be taken care of.

New Yorkers are obsessed with the subway as conversation fodder. “The Q train is down,” leaks the unconfirmed news in an uptown office building, and suddenly, the rumors are flying. Someone jumped in front of one of the trains, or was pushed. There’s a fire at 10th Street. A passenger went into labor and they’re going express to St. Vincent’s. Bloomberg commandeered it for a thrill ride. Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.

I could count on one five-fingered hand exactly how many times I’ve taken a cab in New York. Because I’m cheap and I’ve taken so few, a cab ride still feels luxurious, like I have a servant. By raising your hand in the air, you cause a speeding car to stop, let you in and take you wherever you want to go. You indulgently pay for time spent sitting still in traffic.

The bus is another option. In this city, the bus is the good-natured, well-meaning, on-the-slow-side cousin who everyone likes but who no one wants to admit is probably a little bit retarded. Crosstown, a bus makes sense. There are only a very few crosstown subway lines. But uptown and downtown, taking the bus is a horrible idea. Every block, it seems, has a bus stop on it, because updown/downtown bus people can’t be bothered to walk more than fifty feet at a time. People who take the uptown and downtown buses, I’ve noticed, often seem to be eating from a bag of potato chips as they climb on, and often, I’ve also noticed, they’re dribbling crumbs.

Take a crowd of irate people. Pack them tightly into a long, metal tube. Bury it. Rush them into a tunnel and then suddenly stop. Leave them there for several minutes. Maybe flicker the lights out for a moment. Eventually, start moving again. Offer no explanation.

That’s the way to travel. To this day, the reason Staten Island feels so psychologically distant from the rest of the city is because it’s not linked to the other four boroughs by the subway. It feels foreign, off the grid, like a satellite office park. Staten Islanders don’t go through the same baptismal that the rest of us do every day, going down into the ground, coming up into the light, like being born again, you come up in a different place than where you went in.

This year, the subway turns one hundred years old. There’s sure to be lots of hoopla, with ceremonial rides and unveilings of new station designs. A hundred years ago, the opening of the subway was viewed as something more than a new form of public transportation. People, being primitive and not yet cynical, thought of the subway as a metaphorical extension of democracy. The affordable way of coming and going meant that immigrants and A-list railroad barons alike could cruise uptown together on an elevated track at a breakneck four miles per hour.

One hundred years is a long time. I don’t know what year the first shuttle bus made its short journey from whatever airport terminal to whatever lobby, but it probably won’t be coronated with a memorial run. There’s nothing democratic about a shuttle bus. It exists for comfort only, and New York will be happy to prolong the RNC delegates’ comfort by blocking the intersection as we walk to the subway.

Will Doig lives in New York City. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.

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