…And the Subways Keep Rolling Along

by John Delach

For several generations beginning at the end of the Second World War, the New York City subway system became vilified as unfit for decent people. Never charming, it was reduced to less than civilized by being referred to in demeaning terms like, “rat heaven, the muggers express and the electric sewer.” Rider ship declined as post-war families flocked to the suburbs. Then neglect, old equipment, lousy service and finally crime came to represent the norm. Those who could, avoided it; those who could not, endured.

Some booze, some snooze,

If you snooze they’ll steal your shoes

And the subways keep rolling along.

There were some improvements along the way, air conditioned trains were introduced in 1970, but the comfort of a/c was greatly offset by that scourge of the Seventies, graffiti! Subway cars became graffiti magnets with messages, slogans and name tags covering entire trains, inside and out. Panhandlers of every description worked the trains auditioning their marginal talent, trying out personal shticks to raise cash or begging either benignly or with the suggestion of violence.

Crime soared as respect plummeted reaching a point so low that we measured the safety of day trips by exiting the system before junior high and high school male animals invaded the underground seeking unsuspecting prey during their daily afternoon passages. Their lawlessness culminated when Bernhard Goetz shot four young troublemakers who threatened him.

Koch’s administration was the beginning of a turning point that Dinkins’ incompetence reversed for his four years in office.  Eight years of Guilani and twelve of Bloomberg finally produced a renaissance that lifted the spirit of the city as crime rates diminished and subway rider ship soared with riding the trains at all hours becoming the norm.

In 1997, I experienced a rare Saturday night encounter when I entered the station under Eighth Avenue at Fiftieth Street for the short ride to Penn Station. Concerned that this was a dubious choice, instead I was shocked to find the platform crowded with well-put- out young adults just beginning their night on the town. Even though it was close to midnight they eagerly lined the platform waiting for the next downtown C Train to take them to So-Ho, the meat packing district the Village or the West Village.

The arriving carriages were packed with more of the same, twenty something’s and thirty something’s in search of good times. Absent was fear or expectation of danger.

At first this experience was limited to the heavily traveled Manhattan trunk lines but, as New York City’s magnet attracted new generations of young, upwardly mobile residents this phenomenon spread to secondary lines running into Brooklyn and Queens. Over time  this same experience of safe passage spread across lines serving large parts of central and south Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Bushwick and various sections of Queens from Long Island City and Astoria and Flushing.

Still, the subway has never been charming and the old problems are giving way to different issues, issues of entitlement. The hipsters and millenniums desire for their own space is clashing with the reality that subways are a communal way of transport. The coaches are not the same as commuter trains. Seats are limited and the cars have been purposely designed to accommodate as many passengers as possible, most of them standing cheek by jowl during rush hour.

But to hipsters and millenniums, their entitlement doesn’t permit referencing history so overcrowding is a personal affront. Their grievances include, …”smells that offend, sounds that grate and personal grooming not appropriate for a public space. Riders seethe over frequent culprits; the door hog, the pole hugger, the litterbug.”

And the latest infraction; “Manspreading.”  The term may be new, but it’s an old ploy to prevent others from sitting on either side. Slouch down, spread legs and cover head. The guys, mostly young and uncouth who practice this defense know other guys don’t want the hassle to attempt sitting next to them and women find it revolting. So theses punks win their daily battle for space…and so it goes.

In a way though, it is charming that manspreading can be a cause de jure. I sincerely hope that these young, entitled riders are not being naïve lost in their own world of grievances. I sincerely hope that they comprehend the current state of affairs and understanding that New York has no more of a divine right to enjoy peace and tranquility than high-crime urban areas like Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia.

They should take pause over recent developments in the city under comrade Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s stewardship to consider if hizzoner is doing all that he should be to maintain their domestic tranquility. If not, manspreading will be the very least of their concerns.