The Manhattan streets were gridlocked at 5:30 on the Friday two weeks before Christmas, as cars, buses and the ubiquitous yellow cabs competed with shoppers to cross midtown intersections.
Going just a few blocks in a cab or a car could take 20 minutes. But beneath several of those snarled avenues, subway cars sped a polyglot cross-section of New Yorkers to uptown and downtown neighbourhoods and the boroughs beyond.
On the F train beneath Sixth Avenue, commuters--some laden with shopping bags themselves--were pleasantly surprised to get a seat at such an hour, when typically they would have to squeeze into overcrowded cars. They could only assume that the usual rush- hour throng was staying late to shop.
A wiry man in a green Santa hat sang a jazzed-up version of Jingle Bells, looking for tips. He's one of a regular band of subway panhandlers who work the F train--some sing, some play musical instruments and some simply announce in loud voices their tale of woe and bless the commuters in advance for their generosity.
(A subway haiku, delivered with unabashed simplicity by an elderly but spry, F-train waif: “My name is Sonny Paine, I'm hungry and I'm homeless. Please help me.”) The subway in New York is more than a convenient means of transportation in a congested city--it's part of the show.
Each line has its own personality. In fact, many have their own T-shirts. Some even have songs, the most famous being Duke Ellington's jazz standard, Take the A Train.
The F, which I catch at Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has one of the more diverse populations as it journeys from deep in the borough to Manhattan, and then through Queens.
Originating at Avenue X, the F moves through neighbourhoods of Russians, Jews, Latinos and African-Americans before hitting the predominantly Anglo, gentrified neighbourhoods of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights.
Seats can often be had if you travel off peak, though it gets as sardine-can crowded as any line during the rush hour. A New York subway at rush hour is an agoraphobic's hell. (And I have yet to experience it in city's steamy summer heat.) The 2, the 3 and the 4, on the other side of the neighbourhood, travel through the heart of Brooklyn and the passengers are predominantly African-American until the train gets closer to Manhattan where the Brooklyn yuppies board. These trains are always crowded, rarely yielding a seat to a Park Slope arrival, but have better connections for some Manhattan lines. All are safer than might be expected in the largest city in America.
In fact, nowhere is New York's renaissance as a safer, cleaner city more apparent than in its fabled subway system, which enters its centennial year in 2004.
Fifteen years ago, the subway was a no-go zone for all but the bravest New York traveller.
The cars were dirty and smothered in graffiti; gangs of “fare-jumping” kids would leap turnstiles and intimidate paying customers, and a trip through one of the less busy stations at night was like a trip through Tom Wolfe's
Bonfire of the Vanities.
Now, the stations and cars are reasonably clean and well-lit; a heavy police presence deters petty vandalisms as well as more serious crimes, and a broad strata of New Yorkers rides the system day and night.
Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani gets most of the credit in the popular imagination for the turn-around. He cracked down on the misdemeanours like fare jumping and graffiti writing as part of his overall offensive on crime; he removed the homeless from the stations. But the reclamation had begun long before he took office when, in 1982, the city approved a five-year capital plan that brought the system back from the edge of desolation. Now, the subway--together with its more patrician cousin, the suburban commuter train--is the preferred method of transport for most New Yorkers, a triumph of mass transit over America's love affair with the automobile.
Roughly 95 per cent of workers in Manhattan's vast business district arrive in the city by public transit, though the region's clogged highways attest to the fact that the affection for the auto remains strong.
The underground network, part of the larger Metropolitan Transit Authority, is a maze of wandering track that can bewilder and intimidate a new arrival to the city and confound even veteran commuters who wander off a familiar route.
The system has 28 separate lines that originated as several competing services early in the 20th century but were brought together by economic necessity. As a result, connections at the 490 stations can be haphazard or tedious, requiring commuters to walk hundreds of metres to switch trains.
Still, the system works, for the most part, carrying more than 7-million passengers a day.
You can ride to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and avoid the exorbitant parking prices; beat the traffic to LaGuardia Airport in Queens, or ride out to Coney Island in the farthest-reaches of Brooklyn.
In Manhattan, the subway gives you easy access to Battery Park and the World Trade Centre site at the lower end of island, to the Empire State Building and Times Square in midtown, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center on the upper east and upper west sides respectively.
But while the system is vastly improved, it still has its challenges, especially to the neophyte.
Trains do break down. And following the New York principle--in fact, it must be some universal principle--they only break down at the most inconvenient moments.
Like the morning, just a few weeks after I arrived in New York for The Globe, I was assigned to cover President George W. Bush's address to the UN General Assembly and had not a lot of time to spare for my own arrival.
When the train died at 34th St. — the UN is at 45th — I grabbed a cab, which was a bad move considering the Secret Service had shut down traffic on the eastern half of midtown Manhattan. At about 38th, I hopped out of the nearly stationary cab and dashed through a torrential rain to the UN building, arriving completely drenched but just in time.
Express trains are not well marked. On more than one occasion, I've found myself hurtling past my station and then a few more. Each time, it seems, I was rushing to an appointment. Nothing to do but get out at the first station stop, switch platforms for the returning local train and then proceed to stop at every unwanted station until my stop.
Travelling with children can be a challenge, especially when you are unfamiliar with the system. One friend, Helga Ehrlich, was headed home to Brooklyn with her husband and three children on a Saturday about a month after arriving from Canada. The train passed their familiar station and, in their confusion at the next stop, they all managed to get off but their 11-year-old son, Andrew.
Subways doors are almost always unforgiving. I have seen them open again at a panicked cry, (there is a conductor somewhere) but I would never count on it. And I would not stick a limb in one to try to force it open, especially if I was not on the train.
Helga's husband, David, shouted through the door to their son to get off at the next station, and the family caught the next train. But the following train was a different line and stopped at a different platform from Andrew's train in the next station. After a panicky few minutes that seemed much longer and with the help of a most co-operative police officer, they located the lost boy.
Even in New York The Safe, which now boasts the lowest crime rate among major cities in America, a woman travelling alone needs to follow the usual precautions.
Still, women do travel the subway alone late at night. One friend, who is frequently at evening functions, has a self-imposed curfew of midnight for travelling in the subway by herself, though she'll go at almost any hour with her husband. And she won't enter or exit the system at an unfamiliar stop at night. Her Brooklyn Heights station, she says, is always busy up to midnight and New Yorkers find safety in numbers.
And then, amid the somewhat surprising general level of politeness, there are the random acts of pure nastiness. Diane Brady, a magazine writer in New York, was trying to manoeuvre a double-stroller through a crowded subway when she bumped a woman's ankle. The woman turned on her in anger, grabbed her hand and twisted her finger, breaking it.
In her shock, Ms. Brady did nothing to detain the woman or alert the police. Instead, she went to the hospital, where they bungled the setting of her broken finger. But that's another New York story...