Saturday, October 07, 2006

Subways: a token

I'm in New York City for the weekend, the town where I was born and raised but don't visit all that much any more.

It seems to me there are more people here than ever. Whether that's true or just my perception, they certainly sport more iPods than ever. Subway riders are more subdued than they used to be, dreamily lost in contemplation of their musical selections, bereft of the otherwise ubiquitous cell phones that don't seem to function deep in the bowels of the stations.

This latter fact poses a dilemma, of course, when one is rushing to a meeting, as I was yesterday. Now, those who know me are aware that I tend at times to run just a tad late, but yesterday my tardiness was enhanced by the fact that I had to buy a subway card (the subway tokens of my youth long gone, along with the fifteen-cent fare).

The man in the booth--and they still do have a man in the booth, and I thought dealing with him would be faster than trying to relearn how to operate the automatic card machines--was relatively laconic about how the whole thing worked, however. Unlike most New Yorkers, he seemed to savor the slowness. By the time I managed to purchase the card ("I'd like one ride;" "I can't sell you one ride;" "What's the smallest number of rides I have to buy?" "Two;" "How much will that cost?" "Four dollars") and put it in the turnstile slot and then step up to the train--my train, serendipitously arrived at the station while he and I were having it out--the subway doors slammed shut.

The wait for the next one was uncharacteristically long. And I was surprised at how antsy the lack of phone coverage made me. Apparently the cell phone has become such a regular part of my life that I take it for granted, although I'm not one of those people who walks around the city streets habitually jabbering on one. But they are incredibly useful items for just this very purpose: to say I'll be a few minutes late; to say "Where are you?" when I'm meeting people in a public place and can't find them.

The train did eventually come, as trains eventually do. Despite what I'd imagine would (and should and could) be major advances in technology, the guy who announces each station (at least, that's what I think he does) is just as unintelligible as he was back in the days when Saturday Night Live made fun of him. The young lovers still smooch. The remnants of my high school Spanish are still such that I can understand all the ads in that language ("Learn English to become more independent"). New York is still the quintessential melting pot. People-watching is still a great sport here.

A few snapshots: an elegant and worried-looking person with profound cheekbones, so tall and thin and hawk-nosed, and with such a severely short haircut that it took me a while to ascertain she was in fact a woman, holds a dog carrier of a size that could only contain something tiny and yippy and frivolous, like a Yorkie. An Afro-American woman looks for all the world like Cleopatra, ancient and mysterious. The young man standing in front of me and holding onto the bar exudes a Brando-esque smolder (the young Brando of "Streetcar," that is, not his nearly unrecognizable older manifestation).

Emerging at Times Square and walking to my destination--a hotel there, to meet some friends--it strikes me that this is not the Times Square of my youth. And I spent a great deal of that youth in this general area, because that's where so many ballet studios were clustered, including the one where I spent several formative years, at the old Metropolitan Opera House.

At ten and eleven and twelve and thirteen and fourteen I rode the subway there and walked through a small part of what was then a sleazy and not-all-that-inhabited Times Square, keeping my head down, not wanting to make eye contact with the drunks and the perverts who seemed to be its main inhabitants. But yesterday (and every day these days, or so I hear) it brimmed with vast crowds of the mostly young to middle-aged, mostly upbeat and on the move. The signs are brighter and more numerous (although I miss--oh, how I miss--that old Camel smoking sign). And I, no longer a dancer or even young, moved among them, somewhat of a tourist in the city I once knew so well.

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