I woke up in a closet.


Rapid Transit, or the next Bubonic Plague: My thoughts on the MTA.

When it comes to New York City Transit, I think it’s appropriate to employ a litmus test. Did you make it to the station a little early to relax and catch up on your book, or did you just miss the train and now you have to wait around for-fucking-ever next to a rat infested dumpster?

There are several pros and cons to NYC transit to explore. Your standpoint depends on how in-depth you like to analyze things that you encounter on a daily basis.

 Pro: It gets you to work quickly and easily! You can go anywhere!

Con: It only gets you there quickly and easily if you work in Manhattan. Just take a look at the MTA subway map and you’ll see that all of the subway lines in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx pick up people from the far reaches of their boroughs and deliver them directly to a block within the parameters of 14th street to the south, 57th street to the north, 8th ave to the west, and Lexington Ave to the east. This is no coincidence. The subway system is meant to transport people to where all the business or lines connecting to business are located. You’ll notice that Wall Street is dense with subway stops as well. But what if you’re not going to work? What if you live in Astoria and you want to go to Brooklyn College?

Aside form the shuttle lines that transport within their own borough, the G train – hated by many – is the last vestige of a connection between Brooklyn and Queens. There was once a great network of trolleys that connected the two boroughs that are geographically connected, yet so culturally different because of how difficult it is to move back and forth between them.

 

Pro: It’s open 24 hours!

Con: Stations or sections of lines close down for construction for nights and weekends, or stretches of months at a time. Inconvenient. ‘Nuff said.

 

Pro: The cars are air conditioned in the summer! What a nice reprieve from the sweltering temperatures of the platform and streets.

Con: The time spent on the platform could last longer than your train ride. Once inside the train, everyone you were sweating with on the platform is right there with you. Hope you brought hand sanitizer.

 

Pro: More and more stations are equipped with a marquee that announces when the next train is arriving!

Con: These things are great only when they’re working. Imagine you’ve had a long day at work. It was grueling, but you trudged out and walked to the subway. It’s not past midnight, but it’s not so early either, so the trains should still be running somewhat frequently. You swipe your card and you take another two flights of stairs down the platform. Before you look up at the marquee, your heart is filled with hope and optimism. But it says your train isn’t coming for another 29 minutes. Depending on how impulsive you are, you might walk out of the station immediately to spend $25 on a cab-ride home! Chances are, the train is actually just a few stations away. Someone just fell asleep at their post instead of doing their job, and essentially robbed you of $27.50.

Finally, I have to bring up something that I consider a very prominent feature of public transportation here. It’s something that we see every day, but it isn’t advertising. Even if you don’t ride the subway, it’s something that has a high profile in New York. 

Here, the gap between rich and poor is massive and appalling. Those of us who get around underground or by bus might scoff at people driven by chauffers or riding in an expensive car. Wealth in New York City is conspicuous, and it’s common to ostracize those with wealth because what the wealthy have seems so unnecessary to us peons. I feel that something that is even more egregious about the disparity in wealth in this city is the population that lives underground or on the streets.

As a child visiting New York, homeless people puzzled me. I feared falling into that position myself, but I never wondered how people wound up pushing around a shopping cart with garbage bags. I read the Mole People by Jennifer Toth, a book that I HIGHLY recommend. She gave a heart-wrenching account of exploring life underground and on the streets with the people who fall through the cracks or are forced out of society. She listened to the stories of homeless individuals, and added humanity to a group of people that we grow accustomed to consciously ignoring every day. The book inspired me to think even more about my connection to these people, not only as a fellow human, but as a fellow New Yorker.

When I hear people say, “If you’re homeless, it’s for a reason,” it infuriates me because it dismisses even thinking about asking “why? What is that reason?” Yes, there is a reason why, but making a statement rather than asking a question shuts the door on seeking an explanation and a solution to a problem that is too widely accepted. These are humans we’re talking about. They’re hungry, tired, and cold. Some of them struggle with addiction, others suffer from a stigmatized mental illness or infectious disease. Some of these individuals were rejected by their families at a very young age because of poverty, alcoholism, or because they are gay, lesbian, or transgendered. Some of them never had a family to rely on to begin with. These are people who were born a certain way or born into a condition that they had no control over. Why do we cast them aside as untouchables instead of trying to understand and embrace them? I’ve spent years struggling with my ability to accept coexisting with the homeless while doing nothing to help change their lives. Every time I encounter someone so severely in need, it haunts me. 

I’ve seen children as young as 9 years old begging for money on trains. Once an African American boy approached me on the L train and asked if there was I job I could give him so he could earn some money. I was so shocked I couldn’t respond. A man a couple seats away from him scolded him and told him he needed to be careful with who he talked to. But who would guide him if he was wandering on the subway alone to begin with?

There are also the women who panhandle in the subway with a sleeping baby that is usually drugged. How do we put up with this and keep walking?

A year after Hurricane Katrina, my first year living in Brooklyn as a Pratt Student, a man was begging for money in front of the Clinton-Washington G train stop. He said that his house had burned down and that he’d lost his wife and little girl. Deeply concerned by the story, my friend and I gave him money. A few weeks later, the same man was begging for money on the subway with a different story. A woman, who he claimed was his wife, was walking through the cars with hands out alongside him. I felt a little betrayed that I had been lied to, but I realized that it must take a great deal of desperation to come up with a ploy to earn money to survive from day to day. I started to assume that the money would always go to drugs instead of food. Not wanting to support drugs and the violence that often goes hand-in-hand with drugs, I stopped giving money altogether. Now the problem remains for me, if I can’t help these people with direct aid in the form of money or food, how am I going to help them at all?

Like many other issues in our society – such as poverty or racism — I think that in order bring people out of homelessness, New Yorkers must abandon their attitude of helplessness. As a society, we find it easier to ignore what we can’t immediately make sense of. We look for the easiest explanation to justify why things are the way they are, then we put that explanation in a jar with a very tight lid and hide it far away from our consciousness. I think if we begin to stop accepting things for what they are just because of society’s standards, we will be able to actually feel inequality, wake up, and make the effort to destroy everything that casts people into darkness. 

And that, is pretty much everything I have to say about the subway. Oh, except for subway car performances, I forgot about those. I’ve enjoyed a couple subway performances in my life, but 98% of the time, I’m too worried about getting kicked in the face to applaud those kids. 

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