You always get what you pay for. After innumerable unpleasant surprises through my life, I know the truth of that statement, especially when it comes to government and public works. As an example, say I’m building a bridge. Every decision I make about the bridge will be made entirely based on how much my options will cost. Now imagine I’m in charge of about 80 billion of those decisions. That’s kind of what the MTA represents. It’s like deciding whether the name-brand peanut butter is worth the extra dough, except multiplied geometrically and with the knowledge that if the wrong choice is made, tunnels may collapse or electricity will arc into a busy station full of commuters. Now think about how much you, dear reader, want from the MTA for your money. It’s a bunch of cash for a monthly pass here in the big city, but I can’t think of an aspect of our underground that I’d like to give up to save some of my hard-earned lucre.
Last Thursday I took one of the most enjoyable subway rides I’ve ever had. After a day of walking around downtown slapping up stickers, all I wanted was a chance to relax. On the R train from 8th Street to Jay Street, I had the pleasure of doing just that. In the evening rush hour, my car was politely filled seat by seat, with no one left out to straphang. This was a stark change from every other line I’ve been on in commuter traffic. There was no scanning the cars as they rolled into the station to find the empty one. There wasn’t even a need to spread the courtesy plague (highly contagious). There certainly weren’t any G- or L-train shenanigans; like mustachioed and suspendered hipsters dripping sweat because they just got out of a sweet dance party, or the urine-scented and persistent banjo player with an (ironic?) straw boater that plagued my last ride.
The only spot where etiquette wore thin was when two teens sauntered on with their mountain bikes in tow — the weather was beautiful, why spend money on the train to ride three stops? In fact, everything was almost eerily normalized. Most people wore pant suits and ties (not too Armani-flashy though), and the only ridiculous item of clothing I spotted was a pair of galoshes on an otherwise appropriately dressed 20-something. Maybe he was trying to break them in.
One of the weirdest parts of this particular ride is how quiet it was. The sound of the tracks is normally covered up by at least a low rumble of conversation. On this day, there was nothing except the click-hum-clack of the train itself. As I looked around with progressively greater astonishment, I realized nobody was talking because everybody was by themselves. Everybody. No couples, no parents with kids, no gaggles of teens. The two kids with bikes were the only intrusion, and after settling in they fell silent too. I can’t overestimate how rare this is in New York.
I can’t help but compare this to a recent public transportation excursion I had visiting Boston. The “T” is half as expensive to ride a month, and approximately half as useful or enjoyable. I ended up taking the bus and transferring to a train, which in New York is not a big deal. This is not so in the Ivory Tower. I found out a little too late that the transfer between bus and train costs something like 90 cents — just small enough to be infuriatingly petty. Among the other things that I had to worry about in Boston, but not in NYC, was the fact that the bus was leaking from several places, leaving spots that weren’t safe to stand unless I wanted to get a weird gray slime all over my clothes. Both trips were also dominated by loud conversations between local students, in the gonorrhea of accents — the Southie bark. This is not to mention that if I wanted to do this (ha!) after midnight I would be shit out of luck.
After a quick Fung Wah ride back home, I immediately relaxed on the MTA train. Since I’ve been back (over a week now) I haven’t had strange liquids dripped on me, or been forced to listen to the most grating accent on the face of the planet. I even sighed in contentedness when I swiped myself onto a bus for free, just because I had been on a train recently. At the risk of using the “starving kids in Africa” argument, remember how bad off other people are the next time you feel like tearing the MTA a new one. New Yorkers have a high cost of living, but I’m pretty sure we get what we pay for when it comes to zooming around underground tubes (in air conditioning, no less). Be thankful we invest in a Cuisinart for our daily commute, when all Boston has is a Slap Chop.