Friday, October 22, 2010

NYC Subway Survival Guide (Part 1)

New York City. Home to one of the oldest and most extensive underground rapid mass transportation systems in the world. Nearly 11 million riders travel in and out of its maze-like warrens of underground tunnels and platforms every single day, always on the go to someplace important. It can be a daunting -- hell, even dangerous undertaking for even the most stalwart of straphangers. And while you the rider may be tempted to simply mind your business and keep to yourself and your mp3 player until the experience is over, sometimes a more proactive awareness of your surroundings is required to make it out alive.

This is where I come in. I'm a New Yorker born and bred. I've lived here for 34 years. My first great subway experience was during the big New York City blackout of 1977. Just a few weeks shy of my first birthday, my pregnant mother and I were stranded on the No. 2 line for three hours in pitch black before help finally arrived. You can almost say I was born on the battlefield. I started riding the subways to school on my own at the age of 9. Mine has been a continuous love/hate relationship with the MTA system ever since. In that time, I've learned the map inside out. I've seen acts of overwhelming generosity and abhorrent horror -- sometimes on the same commute!

And I'm here to present my tips and observations to you, visitor and citizen alike of this great American town. The Subway Survival Guide is meant to keep you alive and well to live another day in New York City. Ignore its warnings at your own peril.

Now then: Let's get started, shall we?

Part 1 - Trust No One!

This may seem like a no-brainer to most. After all, we all know how hard and tough living in New York City can be. And yet . . . AND YET! . . . I can't tell you the number of times I've seen people open their hearts during the long commute when in reality they should be closing their wallets and purses.

Look, it's simple: When on the subway, always keep your money to yourself.

Now, I'm not talking the obvious, like not counting your wad in plain sight of about 50 other nosy bodies in the same car with you. No, most people already know better than this. What I'm referring to are the countless scams in operation on any given day throughout the entire MTA. Scams that are technically illegal, but which law enforcement doesn't actively seek out to prevent.

The most notorious and, in my mind, the most obvious is the panhandler -- those who solicit you for a personal donation into their cups. These are the miserable wretches who come aboard during all hours of the day and feed you a variety of bullshit depending on the individual trying to tug at your heartstrings. In the 80s it used to be the legless Vietnam vet. But now that most Vietnam vets are either dead or too old to panhandle anymore, the story has changed to just simply being homeless. Sometimes they'll embellish their stories by saying they've been abused at the local shelter and must now live in the subway. Or sometimes they'll say they have two children waiting for them back home, but that the city has cut off their welfare allowance.

Btw, it's always two children. Not one, not three, but TWO! And their public aid status is always currently under appeal, but in the meantime . . . can you please help tide them over until they can get back on their feet?

One time an obvious dope whore came aboard and claimed all of the above (except the Vietnam war vet story, of course. That would be too obvious), AND that she was currently two months pregnant to boot. Tears were streaming down her face, and she looked a horrible mess. Mostly women riders on the train gave her some money. I, on the other hand, sat there wondering just what exact percentage of this pitiful woman's "earnings" was going to go straight into her arm later that night.

Now you might be saying: Batista, come on! I know better than that. I would never give a homeless person money. I'd give them food or clothing or something non-monetary in value. And I'd reply: good for you, Jack. But that's not the reality that I see every day. Most of you give money. LOTS of money! Quite a few of these panhandlers make more in one day than I do.

And you know, some of these other scenarios might not even seem like scams to you at first.

Take for instance the teens who roam the train cars carrying boxes of candy for sale. The story they spin to peddle these overpriced goods changes every several years, yet they are always the same down to the very last kid. And, in fact, the evolution of the tale can be a nice study in group psychology.

See, years ago when these kids first started to show up in earnest during rush hour, their story went something along these lines: "Hello, we're selling candy to raise money for our high school basketball/football/baseball team's uniforms. All we have today is M&M Peanut and Starburst. 1 dollar, 1 dollar. Does anybody want to buy some candy?"

That was the pitch, and people fell for it. Which I never understood. I don't even have kids and I knew this story was full of shit. What parent would rightfully allow their school's sports faculty to send their Junior Varsity child out into the mean subways of New York in order to peddle Snickers bars for funds? I mean, seriously? At one point it even got to be an epidemic on the trains. Sometimes I would see these kids three or four times in one day!

No, like other sob stories on the subway, this was just a scheme to get people to cough over more money for something which costs half the price at the newsstand or corner store. Do yourself a favor and don't fall for this.

Nowadays, the story has curiously evolved. I guess they realized people weren't buying the "school uniform" crock. So now these kids come aboard and don't even try that bullshit anymore. Now they try the honesty approach which, predictably, is still not the truth. Their pitch these days goes something like this: "I'm out here selling candy trying to make money. Not for my school team, not for my church, but for myself so that I have money in my pocket and a reason to stay off the streets out of trouble. If you would like to buy some candy, I only have M&M Peanut and Starburst left for 1 dollar each. Does anybody want to buy some candy?"

Now, you see, isn't it obvious what's going on here? Somebody is buying these M&M boxes in bulk from wholesale, then sending these little ragamuffins out into the subway to hawk them at a marked-up value of $1 apiece. By my calculations, they can be making AT LEAST $25.50 in profit off of each bulk box (you can buy a 48 count box from Costco for just $22.49). If you have a gang of 20 kids working the system, and each kid sells through only just one box during the course of the day, that's a net profit of $510 per day per gang. BANK!!! I would imagine whoever is organizing this has drug connections. Except, selling M&M's is a lot less incriminating and something younger would-be gang initiates can do to cut their teeth before they move up to the really lucrative illegal stuff.

So, honestly, do you want to support this illicit empire? Really? Is your sweet tooth going to suffer that much? Can't you wait until you get out of the subway and find the nearest Pakistani newspaper vendor who will sell you M&Ms and whatever other candy floats your boat for cheaper? I think you can.

Yeah, I know what you're probably thinking: Damn, dude, you're one seriously cynical bastard! But point is, don't fall for these schemes to depart you of your hard-earned dollars while riding the subway. The cost of ridership is already criminal as it is, wouldn't you rather be more safe than sorry?

And to be honest, this is something tourists don't have a problem avoiding. For most part, out-of-towners are overly cautious, having probably been told horror stories by their tour guides or hotel concierges about what to expect in the subterranean no-man's land of this great big city.

No, sadly, the easiest dupes are New Yorkers themselves. Maybe it's out of pity, maybe they actually believe these maudlin tales of woe. But take it from me: you must have a heart made of stone when you ride these trains. If someone is selling you a story during your evening commute, that is all it is: a story. What they intend to do with that money afterward is entirely of an unsavory nature.

So, keep your money to yourself, traveler. Don't give in to the sob stories. This is New York -- everyone's a crook! Or at least, that's what you should be telling yourself when you ride our subways.

It's the number one and most fundamental rule of survival here: trust no one but YOURSELF!

(To continue on to Part 2 of the NYC Subway Survival Guide, CLICK HERE.)


Kim Kasch said...

Life is hard in the big city - looks like more ways than one.

David Batista said...

That's not even the half of it, Kim. If you've lived here all your life, it's all second nature. But for those who move here later, they seem to only be able to take the city for 4, maybe 5, years before burning out and moving to the suburbs. :)

Botanist said...

That's pretty scary, David. There are loads of cities I've loved: London, Vancouver, Paris, Munich, Victoria of course. And of course you're always a bit wary of strangers, especially people asking for anything, but I've never felt in danger in any of those places. The thought of places like New York scares the heck out of me though.

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