This week’s reports from the city’s reality
One of the strangest things about my brief stint with public assistance was the fact that no matter what other aid I got — food stamps, rent assistance, unemployment, etc. — I always was reimbursed for what the office called “carfare.” Now, I suppose in a place that’s not New York, this would cover gas, oil changes and the other things that you need to drive places. However, here it came out to exactly $29 a week — the same price as a weekly Metro Card. At first I was disappointed that “carfare” wasn’t actually going to cover me taking a private car back and forth to the welfare office, but I slowly realized how fantastic this little piece of help was. Normally, I would walk everywhere, just because I felt like a scumbag for spending the $2.50 on a bus fare, but I stopped worrying about it. I looked for excuses to get on public transportation (maybe I got a little carried away). If somebody wanted to meet up, I magnanimously offered to “come to them.” At the least, I got my money’s worth. What I realized in the long term is how much my perception of distance in the city changed when I no longer had to pay for transportation: everything seemed further away. Getting on a bus for three stops just because you can isn’t just lazy, it also separates you from the neighborhood you would have seen if you just walked through. Everything was either walking distance (a.k.a. not worth waiting for a bus) or the “other” distance, where I took transport. It warps the mind when everything is just “a trip” away. I’m glad I’m back to raiding my change jar to scrounge bus fare.
Not riding the train that often anymore has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I’m saving money, but on the other I’m losing touch with the city. My reality basically consists of the five minute bike ride between home and work, with the odd sojourn to Swoboda’s house for a change of pace. While I still know how to get around everywhere, I couldn’t even pretend to tell you what’s going on there. For a while this bothered me, but lately I’ve realized that it’s actually quite freeing. Just because I passed by certain streets and stations during commutes didn’t mean I understood them. To think that I had any idea what was happening in all those blocks — let alone even one of them — is downright delusional. I feel much more content riding the train now as an occasional explorer rather than a seasoned authority. Short of the MTA employees, that’s all any of us can pretend to be.
Ah, the nagging clarity of hindsight. Those of you who (shameless plug) read my contribution to the Subway Issue know I already outlined 13 things I hate about our mass transit system. Today on the subway I noticed a fourteenth and a fifteenth. First, a couple of displaced tourists with their two young children stopped me on the street to ask if the MTA accepted change for transportation. Repressing a rude laugh, I explained that the only way to ride the subway was to use a Metro Card. They went on to explain they were only in town for two days and weren’t able to get a 24 hour card like they did last year during their visit. Wow. It never occurred to me that the elimination of 24 hour Metro Cards could affect our tourism industry. Like it or not, we need these tourism dollars to support our economy and the elimination of 24 hour Metro Cards will directly undermine this. Who woulda thought? Second, a middle-aged, otherwise normal-looking lady sat across from me on the C train around 12:30 and proceeded — as if it were the most natural thing on Earth — to clip her nails. Seriously? I’ve seen plenty of local crazies and wing nuts guilty of more disgusting things on the subway, but when an Upper East Sider joins the flock, we know we have a city-wide epidemic. Courtesy is contagious, I was careful to outline, but it goes both ways. It also extends to the riders. Ladies and gentlemen, a crowded subway is no place for inappropriate personal grooming. If only we could alert a police officer or an MTA agent without an indifferent glance. Maybe I’m overly-sensitive, but that’s just the way I feel.