On Line At New York

Outside the Helen Hayes Theatre, waiting for the doors to open, a very agitated male teenager passed on the sidewalk.  He was walking briskly and talking in a loud voice with himself.  He was also gesticulating, and in so-doing was using up all the free airspace in all directions.

“What’s the matter with him?” asked the woman on the line ahead of me.

“’T’s an angry young man.  What can I tell you?” replied her husband, as indulgent as he could sound.

This was my introduction to blasé New Yorkers.

Slowly the line shortened and I was up at the wicket at Lincoln Center.  I was mostly interested in seeing the spectacular setting and inside of the 16 acre site—home of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.  I was ready to listen or watch.  As it became my turn at the wicket, I asked:

“What’s playing?”  

Wicket keeper:  “Joo-lee-us Cee-ah.”

I guess I paused for a New York beat too long, so wicket man added:

“’Ts an Apra”

I bought a ticket and achieved all my goals.  

I would regularly walk on near the Ed Sullivan Theatre, home of the old David Letterman Show.  I watched the show on hundreds of occasions, and was in the studio audience several times.  I’d  occasionally stop in to chat with Rupert Gee, the deli-operator who was also a regular guest on Letterman.  Rupert is as he appears on TV—a little startled with the attention, but sincere.

On one occasion there was a big crowd extending down the block.  I thought perhaps Rupert was having a sale of special deli sandwiches.

No, it was a lineup to see someone coming in or leaving the stage door of the theatre.  This is where the guests came and went.  This time I was the talkative New York street performer:

“Who’s all this for?”

“Wa-keen Phoenix” said my fellow street performer.

This was early in Mr Phoenix’s career.  I guess after all my trips to New York I still paused a New York moment too long, because an older woman in the crowd showed some empathy:

“Ever since Frank Sinatra died, I don’t know any of them.

Way out in the Rockaways, I ran out of gas.  My GPS told me there was a gas station close by and so I locked my wife in the car and began walking.  The GPS was wrong and the gas station had closed.  I thought of lining up at a bus stop, but didn’t know how often busses came or where they went.  I lined up at a red light and thought I’d hitch hike.  Up came a convertible Thunderbird.  I could see inside and the driver could see me.  I explained my situation and asked for a ride.

“Sure” he said as he started moving a mountain of stuff off his passenger seat to the small spaces in the back of the car and between the seats.

“Oh, don’t worry, if you see my gun, I’m a cop.”

I pointed to a spot of blood on my shirt, and said:

“Great, and if you notice the blood on my shirt, I’m not an axe murderer, I just reached into my shaving kit this morning and cut my finger on my razor.”

“No problem.  Get in.”

Unlike so many New York stories, this man was a cop, seconded to the Triborough Bridge, and I wasn’t an axe murderer.  Many people go to the Big Apple to reinvent themselves.  Others remain who they actually are.      

The Toronto Tragedy

Canada’s largest city has only two subway lines that bring people into downtown.  Few people get off and more people get on until the cars arrive downtown, jam packed.  Those are north-south lines.  There’s just one east-west line which brings people from both directions to transfer to the north-south lines and continue downtown.  Many a morning, most riders don’t ride — until they stand waiting for a few cars while more potential riders arrive to jam up the stations.

Multiple lines, circle lines, diagonal lines and such are what make subways work so well.  Nobody told Toronto.   

Author Mark Ovenden shows these and other lessons well in his book, Transit Maps of the World.  This is billed as “the World’s First Collection of Every Urban Transit Map on Earth.”  There’s a bit of history and detailed captions, but the big attraction is hundreds of actual maps of subway and other transit systems.  What’s frustrating is that most of those pages show systems that are far superior to what we have in most North American cities.  We don’t have the European Union to help out and perhaps cars had too much affluence.  But that’s reality.

One interesting note is that, just like the map of the world most of us use, transit maps aren’t really to scale or even the right shape.  London’s is a great case in point.  The circle line is just a name, it’s not circular.  The map is a great guide to how to get around underground, but you can’t use it to get anywhere above ground because of the scale and shape issue.  

Ovenden is a Londoner and thus has reason to be a transit fan.  Fellow author and transit geek, Taras Grescoe is a Montrealer.  That city has had trams and busses for more than a hundred years, but only got it’s subway in time for Expo 67—the World’s Fair.  But that subway has rubber tires which make it a quiet trip into grand subway stations.    

Grescoe’s book is called Strap Hanger Saving our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile.  As the sub-title suggests, Grescoe is on a mission.  On the scenic route to achieving this mission, we learn a lot.  We read of the first victim of an automobile accident, Henry Bliss, hit on September 13, 1899 at West 74th and Central Park West in New York.  A Canadian can take pride in the fact that our subway cars, used in New York, last one hundred times longer before breaking down than did cars from the 1980s.  We also learn that only 5% of daily commuters to Manhattan’s central business district come by car.  The first New York subway was built in secret by inventor Alfred Beach who used a giant fan to bow cars down the tracks on a system appropriately called the Pneumatic.  By 1873 the Pneumatic had failed and it took the blizzard of 1888 to ensure the Big Apple got a subway, which in turn created the skyscraper.  

There was a time you could hop streetcars from Maine to Wisconsin—1000 miles.  Los Angeles once had more than this in its local system, but now the average driver spends 72 hours a year sitting in traffic.  Yet L.A. is second in America in transit trips taken.  

Grescoe discusses what may be a secret line under Moscow, Shinjuku in Tokyo, Bogota’s high capacity surface subways (busses), Portland for transit and bicycles, Vancouver’s Skytrain through the second densest downtown in North America, our lost high-speed Zephyr train, high use in Montreal, and, to return to the opening theme of this column, a chapter called The Toronto Tragedy.

Both books are good looking and good reads.