Monday, February 14, 2011

Does this train take me to . . .

by Dick Mac

More than any other city in which I've lived, the streets and subways of New York, the great urban outdoors, play a huge role in the way local culture develops. More than Boston, Miami, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and London (the other major cities in which I've lived), the streets and subways of New York are hives of activity: love, commerce, art, commuting, etc.

Not just the homeless live in the streets and subways of New York.

There are salesmen: the ubiquitous hot dog and pretzel cart vendors, artists, sausage carts, knock-off designer bags, books, the contents of apartments from other neighborhoods, kids selling candy for their sports league or schools, and more.

There are the hustlers: the buskers, the preachers, the break-dancers, and my personal favorite: the guy selling Duracell batteries on the subway.

There are tourists: people with cameras, school groups, dance troupes, Americans, Asians, Europeans, Africans, Australians, Islanders, and perhaps even the occasional extra-terrestrial. Although I am not a fan of E.T. culture, it is clear to me that New York City is the place an alien would choose, if he needed to be under-cover on Earth.

There are the non-tourist out-of-towners: business people, students, shoppers, movie stars and rock stars, job applicants, diplomats, random billionaires, and others.

Then there is the subway, filled with many of those people, as well as commuters, residents, high school kids, and others from the metropolitan area making their way in and out of Manhattan.

If you are fascinated by humanity, as I am, the streets and subways of New York are the place to be. I like watching the people discover the city, search the city, live and love in the city.

When I see a person lost, with map in hand or hovering at the subway map with a blank stare, I offer to help.

The subway is the most challenging, because the question isn't always "which line gets me to Coney Island"; it's often: "how do I get to the Eretrian Embassy?" Not knowing where the Eretrian Embassy is located, it can be hard to help. More often than not, however, it is confusion with how to change lines, or how to tell if a train is going uptown or downtown, and how far East and West they might be. Streets like Canal, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, and 57th, can be very challenging for people because almost every line that enters Manhattan stops at those streets. Do you want to be at the East end of the street (take the Lexington Avenue line, or the Broadway line south of 23rd Street)? The Eighth Avenue line (A, C, E) is the furthest West. The 1, 2, and 3 travel Seventh Avenue. Sixth Avenue is serviced by the B, D, F, and M). The Broadway line cuts diagonally through the island, just as Broadway itself does.

One day I offered to help a man of Asian descent who was baffled by the 34th Street station at Herald Square.

In broken English he said "Find KAY-nel Street, please."

"Kaynel Street?" I asked, turning to look at the paper he was reading. He quickly pulled the page to his chest, so I could not read it. "I don't know Kaynel Street," I admitted. "Is it in Brooklyn or Queens?"

"Kaynel Broadway," he insisted.

I titled and slowly shook my head and tightened my lips.

He relented and showed me the paper he was clutching. Most of it was in Chinese characters, but there in the middle, in large print, in English, it said "Canal Street at Broadway."

I directed him to the Broadway line, he smiled and nodded, and I continued on my way. To this day, I refer to Canal Street as Kaynel Street.

In the January 10, 2011, issue of the New Yorker (subscribe here), this wonderful cartoon, by Joe Dator, appeared. I reprint it here without permission:

By the way, for those actually looking for the Eretrian Embassy's New York Office, it is at 100 Fifth Avenue (@ 15th Street). You can reach them by calling 1-212-647-1122. Take the Broadway line (N, Q, R) or the Lexington Avenue line (4, 5, 6) to 14th Street and walk one block West to Fifth Avenue, then one block North to 15th Street; or take the Sixth Avenue local (F, M) to 14th Street, and walk one block East to Fifth Avenue, then one block North to 15th Street.

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