The dirty underside

by Julie Frayn on August 18, 2013 in  Adventures in New York City

Adventures in New York – part eight

Baby girl and I had avowed to take taxis everywhere we went in New York. Or walk. Crawl if we had to. Anything but take the subway.

The subway. The dirty underside of New York City. Where every ride on any train is a life-risking endeavour. Where the seedy and the sleazy and the dodgy come to prey on the innocent and the unaware. That’s all that goes on in the stations and on the trains, right? Theft, murder, groping, rape. It’s a criminal’s playground, their evil ways unabated and unfettered by authority or law. Right?

Uh, no.

organized pandemonium on track 37

organized pandemonium on track 37

Our first glimpse at the free-for-all that is the New York subway system was standing in the doorway to track 37 at Grand Central Terminal. This is the busiest and largest station in New York, and the sixth most visited tourist attraction in the world. Perhaps two timid, semi-claustrophobic, anxiety-battling prairie girls from little ole Calgary (where the population density is 237 people per square mile, vs. 27,532 per square mile in New York City, all of whom appeared to be waiting for a train on track 37) could have picked a better place to get indoctrinated, huh?

Grand central 100

Grand Central Terminal's 100th

We weren’t getting on a train that day. If anything, the organized pandemonium cemented our resolve to avoid it at all costs. So we just took in the beauty of the station. Another lucky break for us, 2013 is Grand Central’s 100th anniversary. And we were there for that.

Thursday we decided to take in the giant whale exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. We could walk the fourteen blocks from our hotel to 30 Rock, but after taking in the spectacular city views from the 70th floor, we had to get all the way uptown to 78th Street and Central Park West. Walking was a stretch. And we’d quickly learned that taking taxis was no safer than standing in the middle of traffic waving your arms and screaming, “Come on, hit me already!” And for that privilege you paid a very high price. So we gave in and asked the concierge where to find the nearest subway.

a small portion of our subway map

a small portion of our subway map

He pulled out a subway map and unfolded it on the counter. Our first impression was, WTF? Are you kidding me? How are we ever going to figure out this confusing mass of coloured lines and little dots???

We found the station he marked on the map – 6th Avenue and 48th Street. The BDFM trains ran through there. Of all the stations at which to start this adventure, it was BDFM. That struck me as funny, in an “I don’t really get my own joke” kind of way. We descended the stairs, opted for the ticket machines instead of the human ticket seller, all snuggled in and safe behind his cage. It spit out two tickets, we slid them through the card reader, and pushed through the turnstile and into the station. Into the belly of the beast.

Derek Morgan! Where are you?

Derek Morgan! Where are you?

We read every sign, followed every arrow, and finally figured out how to get to a platform where we could catch the B train uptown. First trick we learned? The more letters and numbers on the entry sign, the more confusing the labyrinth of platforms and levels below. The time we walked into the N-R-Q-L-4-5-6 station at Union Square, well, let’s just say we were just lucky to find our way out…

Inside the BDFM station we were struck by a few things. It wasn’t so dirty. It wasn’t so busy. It wasn’t so scary. But we did avoid eye contact with the natives, and kept hold of each others hands. Just in case.

Catching the B-train!

Catching the B-train!

A B-train whizzed into the station and came to a quick stop. Our concierge had warned us not to dilly-dally – get on that train and sit your ass down before it launches into the next leg of its journey or we’d land on our naive small-city tailbones. His other piece of advice – don’t TOUCH anything!

Well, like our initial expectations of high crime, and the subway world being lived out in black and white like film noir, we soon realized his warnings were over the top. The start and stop of the train was no different than our own LRT back home (perhaps a little smoother!). And sorry bud, but if you’re standing in one of those trains, you just HAVE to hold the pole.

An express train speeds by

An express train speeds by

By the end of that day, we had the map figured out. We had the system figured out. We were subway converts. Hell, we bloody well loved it. And compared to cabs, it was cheap like a bottle of Naked Grape on sale at the Real Canadian Liquor Store.

On our last day in New York, we were waiting to catch the subway from our hotel all the way down to the ferries to see the Statue of Liberty. An older couple, clearly tourists, clearly confounded, approached us. The woman peered up at me, her subway map open and gripped in one hand. “Do you speak English?” she asked in a thick Irish brogue. I stifled a laugh and said yes. She asked which train takes her to the ferries and I told her to just follow us.

off to see Lady Liberty!

Off to see Lady Liberty!

They were surprised to discover that we are Canadian. Apparently we fit right in and passed for real New Yorkers. New Yorkers that don’t speak English.

Stay tuned for part nine… Canadianisms in New York City


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Schulenberg August 19, 2013 at 3:51 pm

That sounds like quite an adventure. The closest I’ve ever been to riding a subway was this one time in Oslo where, by mistake, someone gave me directions to the subway station instead of the train station. Then I had to take a taxi to the train station because, by that point, I was in danger of missing my train and had no idea where the station actually was.


Julie Frayn August 20, 2013 at 5:19 pm

This was my first subway. Our LRT here does go under a tunnel (under a graveyard – creepy!), but other than that, it’s overland transport.

Mitch August 20, 2013 at 7:35 am

Hmmmm. I think you should travel to all the big cities in the world and ride their subway systems. You could write a subway travelogue! I’ve never been to New York so can’t comment on their subway but I have ridden the Tube in London and Sydney’s subway/train system is kinda cool. Used to ride from underground to above ground and across the Harbour Bridge to get to work every day! Apparently, it is against the law in London to smile and have a lively conversation with anybody on the Tube! 😉


Julie Frayn August 20, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I LOVE that idea! Want to bankroll the project ? 😀 Man, if that was against the law, you’d be given a life sentence… Hahaha!

J Timothy Quirk August 20, 2013 at 7:44 am

Enjoyed your post! I was wondering how you’d find the subway system and so glad you found it a great experience!


Julie Frayn August 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm

I was surprised how much we did like it. So easy, so fast, so cheap. What more can you ask? If I get to go to NYC again, I’m going to ride it from one end to another. I want to see where it goes from underground to plus fifteen!

Rea August 30, 2013 at 9:19 am

I have never been on a subway in all my life. We don’t have things like that in Africa. Love your blog and will be reading more of your posts.


Julie Frayn September 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thanks so much for visiting and commenting! This was my first subway, if you don’t count the trains at the Hong Kong airport :).

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