Stare at the ceiling. Listen to your iPod. Get on the second car. If there’s a Red Sox game, don’t leave work after 5:30.
Everyone in Boston has a strategy (and a story) for the T — including myself, developed over eight years living here. Just like any other metropolis, the subway is the veins through which this city’s lifeblood flows. Though it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to deal with, whether you’re jammed into a car on St. Patrick’s Day with a drunk guy who can’t understand why you don’t play Super Mario, swinging to a violent stop and getting knocked over by everyone around you or just commuting to work.
The T (I’m limiting it to the subway here, though we also have an expansive bus system) consists of five main lines: Red, Green, Orange, Blue and Silver. The Red runs east-west, the Green southwest (and splits into four lines above ground using trolleys), the Orange southeast, the Blue north and the Silver is the airport loop. I live on the Green and work at Park Street, the biggest intersection of lines in the city.
Given how small Boston is, the T pretty much defines where we go and how we get there. Unfortunately, it has its drawbacks. Having always lived on the Green Line — though I’ve worked on the Red Line — getting over to Cambridge, especially when I first moved here, was a 45-minute trek. Because the lines only meet downtown, you’re forced to go there to get anywhere else. You have to break into the labyrinth of buses if you want to cut that down at all and most buses only come once every 20-40 minutes at any time outside of rush hour. It’s not like anything in terms of public transit that I’ve experienced in other cities. You either have to submit to the T’s will or plan your trip in advance, which effectively means you stay on your line or head downtown if you’re trying to meet up with friends.
Anyone who has been here knows that Boston likes to make things difficult. That’s part of what I love about this city, but in terms of everyday existence, it can be a pain. Nonsensical one-way streets that loop around and dead-end for no reason, outdated laws prohibiting happy hours, unpredictable weather that can easily grind the city to a halt — the T is just part of that. It stops at 12:45 a.m. There’s basically only one way to get wherever you’re going. The Green Line, in particular, is reliably inconsistent outside of rush hour. Renovation projects shut down entire stations. One of the hubs, Government Center, is closing this December for two-and-a-half years. Yet the T has also compressed Boston. It’s like a steel rod of the city — restaurants, shops and offices cluster along the lines as if life were magnetized.
Over the years, I’ve developed a strategy that gets me through the commute fairly well. Trains on the Green are two trolleys, each with three doors. In the morning, I always get on the first car, second door. Everyone picks their door — it’s a lottery given how packed the trains get — but I’ve found that most of the people who work at the medical center by my apartment seem to huddle on the first car and get off at my stop. Once they do, I’m not super aggressive about getting on, but there’s another woman at my door who is and I love her for it. She’ll shove her way into a train even if she has to have her face pressed up against the window at the bottom of the stairs. Trust me, that is not a fun place to be.
The way home is frankly much more of a gamble. I’m not a Red Sox fan, but I check their schedule daily when they’re in season. Living on the Green is difficult for two main reasons: the above-ground trolleys have to deal with street traffic and Red Sox games. The park is only accessible by train on the Green, so when there’s a game, the whole city is trying to crush its way into my ride home.
Whenever possible, I leave work before 5:30 or after 6:30 on home game nights. Having spent enough times squeezed into the airless hole between someone’s ass and the door at the bottom of the stairs in the dead of summer, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
It’s taken me eight years to really perfect my T style and it’s served me well. Aside from the commute, I’ve witnessed some pretty memorable things riding those trolleys: A drunken 21st birthday party successfully getting exhausted mall employees going home at 10 p.m. to sing “Happy Birthday,” strangers coming together to help a girl who nearly fainted from the heat (and motion sickness), the silence and solemnity every time the train passed slowly through a darkened Copley station this past April and more than a few crazy people.
What has been the biggest change for me since moving here for college is having friends who live all over the city. In just the past few years, I’ve begun a new journey on the T — exploring the far-flung stops on the Red and Orange Lines to attend coworkers’ and friends’ housewarming parties as they’ve moved away from the Green Line bubble (either due to frustration or rising rents). I’m learning just how big this city really is and where these unfamiliar subway lines can take me — before 12:45, of course. After that, in Boston, you’re on your own. We do a lot of late-night walking here.
As my friends have spread out, I’ve found that I see them less frequently. Even meeting downtown in some cases has become difficult, mostly because they’ve converted to a car-centric existence. The T is limiting, creating two worlds in Boston — one occupied by those who use public transit and one where everyone drives. Those, like me, who live on the T see and operate within the hubs — Newbury Street, Fanueil Hall, Harvard Square. My friends who live off the T live, in practice, in the suburbs and in architecture in the city. That’s not to say we never meet up, but instead of a quick hop on the T a few times a week, it’s a highly orchestrated monthly night out downtown.
Earlier this summer, when I was trapped in that lovely crevice I keep talking about during a Red Sox commute, a guy higher up on the stairs held someone’s messenger bag to keep it from hitting my face for the whole, painful ride. Even though we’re subject to its madness, the T bonds us — as long as we know how to handle it.