Saturday, October 23, 2010

NYC Subway Survival Guide (Part 2)

One of the oldest and most extensive underground rapid mass transportation systems in the world, New York City's subways can be a daunting task to navigate even for the most seasoned of straphangers. This is where I come in. I'm a New Yorker born and bred, having lived here for all 34 years of my life. Mine has been a continuous love/hate relationship with the labyrinthine rail system ever since I started riding it at the age of 9, and  I'm here to present my tips and observations to you, visitor and citizen alike of this great American metropolis.

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.

But before we get started on the next installment of this ongoing series, please check out the previous entry at your own leisure:

Part 1: Trust No One!

And now, let us continue:

Part 2 - Make Yourself Less of a Target.

If you've never been to the Big Apple before, or if you have but never ridden a genuine NYC subway, you've no doubt built up an irrational fear of the underground rail byways that crisscross these 5 boroughs. In the movies, the subway always get the meanest, baddest rap. Sure, at one point it used to be extremely hazardous to your health to venture down into the murky depths of twisted tunnels just to get from Midtown to Downtown. I'm talking the 70s and early 80s, here. But then, history will show that all of New York was in a bad place during those wild days -- not just the subway.

Still, I give this city credit: things have improved 300% since my earliest memories of riding cars drowning in graffiti and rolling hills of garbage and abandoned newspapers. Both the MTA police as well as the undercover squads which patrol the trains have done an excellent job reclaiming the one true lifeblood of this city's transportation needs. I'd venture to say a newcomer to this town can live here for two years and still not see one incident of a crime being committed. It's rare, but it can happen. Unless you spend all your days roaming the underground from Washington Heights to Rockaway, that is. Then you're just asking for trouble.

Truth is, yes, it's a lot safer than it's ever been to ride the rails here. But that doesn't mean shit doesn't still happen. It does, and how you carry yourself and remain aware of your surroundings plays a huge role in whether you make it out of a dicey situation unscathed.

Here are 8 tips to keep in mind when riding the lovely NYC subway system:

1. Avoid confrontation. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, right? After all, many of us don't actively seek out confrontation. Problem is, when you have 3 million people all on the same evening rush commute home with you, simply standing in one place minding your own business can be enough to set someone wailing on your ass. If you want to make it home without joining in a fistfight, actively keep yourself out of harm's way. Avoid standing by the doors as people rush in and out of the train. If you are carrying a knapsack or over-sized purse, bring it around across your midsection or place it between your legs. You might not be aware of it, but that bulky bag on your back is pushing into the poor man behind you. And if that person just happens to be off his meds on this particularly fine day, well . . .

2. Accidental eye contact is okay -- the 3 minute death stare of Hades, not so much. Seriously, some people are just looking to pick a fight. If someone is staring you down, it's no big deal to simply shift your gaze marginally to the side by a fraction of an inch. Pretend you're reading the platform signs through the glass behind this person. Or whip out a book. Wearing shades are always the best bet, because this way no one knows whether you're staring at them or simply taking a power nap. Now, if you think this is the pussy way out -- well then, be my guest and stare away at Paco Melendez packing that shiv with your name on it in the right pocket of his hoodie. If you're a tough guy, take your chances. You might win this battle. Most likely, though, you won't. At the end of the day, do you really want to risk it?

3. Never play with your shiny new gadget while sitting adjacent to the exit doors. This is probably the most frequent crime I've witnessed with my own two eyes on the subway. People sitting near the door with their iPhones, iPods, laptops, or portable gaming systems in their hands, completely oblivious to their surroundings. Criminals love to wait by the doors as the train pulls into the station, stand there while the doors open, and then, at the last second before they close, snatch the device out the victim's hands and run like greased lightning off the train. If the timing is right, by the time the victim has the sense of mind to even do anything about it, the doors have closed and the train is already pulling out of the station. Do yourself a favor and simply read a book, or get some shut eye on your long commute. Otherwise, try to keep one eye on your PSP and the other on the door the entire time. Not an easy feat to pull off, let me tell you.

4. Beware of Mr. Jumpy. This is when being aware of your surroundings -- and more importantly, the people around you -- really pays off. If you see a guy standing when there are plenty of seats available, this should raise your Spidey senses just a tingle. If he starts fidgeting and shifting from foot to foot, maybe pacing back and forth from door to door, then your internal warning signals should be blaring as loud as klaxons! Twice I've seen such twitchy fellows proceed to do something quite insane to the closest available person. The one time it was a slap to the face and a quick dash out the door. The other time, another jumpy individual pulled out a handgun and pointed it at the face of the fat guy sitting across from me. He then proceeded to rob him of his money and iPod, directly in full view of me and about 12 other passengers, before running out the train just as the doors were closing. He also punched the victim in the face for good measure before leaving. Talk about adding insult to injury (the poor guy was pretty shaken up afterward, too.)

5. When in doubt, go to the middle. I recommend this the most to either novice subway riders, or if you've been partying all night and now you're taking the subway home all alone at 3:30 in the a.m. (stupid ass!). Subways typically have two MTA employees operating a train at any given time. The Operator or Engineer sits in the front car and handles the mechanics of actually moving the train from Point A to Point B. He should be your second choice to come to with a problem, as he's really more busy with making sure you don't all crash in to the train ahead and so forth. The other employee -- the Conductor -- is situated in the very center car of the train. His job is to open and close the doors, make sure everyone gets on, and make any necessary announcements over the P.A. He's also in charge of contacting the proper authorities should anything seem amiss. This is the car you want to be in if you're feeling less than safe on any given ride. The Conductor might not be able to save you from roving bands of muggers, but he's the guy that will call for help. As such, the middle car is usually the most crowded car during late night hours. And in NYC, there really is safety in numbers.

6. Display some common courtesy. Some of these should be no-brainers, but I've honestly seen more fights started over a simple case of bad manners than any other single provocation you can imagine. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or yawn, especially when the car you're on is crowded. Don't steal someone else's seat, you wouldn't like it if someone did that to you. Kids like to kick out ALL THE TIME, so please keep a tight reign on your children's feet and off the lap of the woman sitting patiently next to them. Don't fall asleep if you can't keep control of your head or torso from swaying back and forth like a scarecrow caught in a tornado; you might find your ass waking up on the floor. If you mistakenly bump into someone, the polite thing to say is: "Oh, pardon me"; not: "Well, who told you to be in my way?"

7. You're not a circus performer, so please don't practice your high wire act. Seriously, step back away from the platform's edge, dumbass! Do you really need so badly to physically see the headlights of the oncoming train as it approaches the station? Is that really going to make it come any faster for you? No, it will not! So do us all a favor and keep well away from the Cliffs of Insanity, there, Dread Pirate. Some of us have places to be and don't want to end up being interviewed for the 11 o'clock evening news.

8.  Afraid you might stick out? Change your posture. This is my default setting, myself, whenever I'm on the train and a large bunch of unrulies are sitting around me: I simply act bored out of my mind. I slouch back a little, yawn, and stare out into space. Or I close my eyes and pretend to sleep. I do my best to look like somebody who just doesn't give a shit, even though inside I'm hyper alert to every single movement and sound generated around me. Native New Yorkers are masters of this attitude -- we can adopt it faster than the drop of a dime. Usually, it's because we really don't give a shit! We've seen it all before. But if you're an outsider, seriously, do you best to avoid staring at the low-brow antics of these hoodlums. They'd like nothing better than an audience, and anything you do to make yourself seem more vulnerable is just asking for trouble. Again, the 11 o'clock news . . . you really want to avoid being the lead-in story that night.

This might seem like a lot to have to remember, but honestly you should have noticed a theme here. Which is: Don't do anything to make someone else want to stab your ass!

In this city of 13 million people, the chances of you running into that 1% of the American population not fit to be without restrictive clothing are marginally higher. The crazies simply LOVE big cities, and you don't get much bigger or famous than New York. So ask yourself this: do you really want to egg these people on even more?

Yeah, I didn't think so. Stay safe, always expect the unexpected . . . and for fuck's sake people, keep your nose out of other people's beef!

Trust me, you'll live to ride the subway again another day if you do.

(To continue on to Part 3 of the NYC Subway Survival Guide, CLICK HERE.)


  1. Good stuff man. I was totally unaware of the danger of using your tech gadgets by the doors.


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