NEW YORK CITY When it comes to traveling, there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Equipped with my curiosity of culture, I recently ventured to Boston and New York City in hopes of experiencing big-city life from the perspective of a young professional.
As I stood in the Kennedy airport, I rehearsed in my mind the New York City subway map and reflected upon whether I was being an idiot to take the subway on my first time traveling alone in the Big Apple. I had just spent four days dissecting the Boston subway system. But at this moment, I predicted that my sense of mastery would soon be dispelled. Nothing is as easy as it looks.
When I arrived in Boston, I was apprehensive but excited. I was fresh off the plane. At that point I still had my friendly Utah glow. I laughed with others on the hotel shuttle. I opened doors for people. However, as the days of my trip wore on, my inviting attitude wore off.
As I soon discovered, friendliness, overall, is not a strategic survival method on the subway. Although the subway has transformed from the once (very) dirty and scary public transportation system of the past, it still has a unique culture that prescribes certain unspoken rules. This isn't to say you cannot be friendly, but it is to say that you should know when to be. The majority of riders keep to themselves. Some read. They avert their eyes, and they do not smile. This is not to say that problems can't happen, but the negative hype surrounding subways could be considered overblown. (The average number of serious subway crimes in New York City is 10 per day, according to press reports, the lowest since 1969.)
Because of my success in Boston, I decided I could take the subway from Kennedy airport to Midtown Manhattan, which is about an hour ride and one transfer on the "A" Train. I had a book I could read, and I was familiar enough with the map that I figured I could do it. I knew I would be among the minority on the subway, at least until I got to Manhattan, but I wanted an unconventional experience. And I got one.
I imagined that I would be so intimidated by other travelers that I would only pretend to read my book. Surprisingly, as I ignored the inebriated women across from me, I became engrossed in my story. In fact, I was so comfortable reading on the subway that before I knew it, I was on 60th Street and had missed my station at Washington Square. Like, duh.
My heart raced and I panicked inside. I was in a foreign, chaotic and gigantic city near sundown. I maintained my composure and an expressionless face, pretended like the next stop was mine, leapt out of the car and maneuvered through the underground jungle. Aside from getting stuck in the exit turnstile with my suitcase, I made it to street level intact.
As my sense of comfort struggled to revive, I gazed out the window of my taxi. The people were a mob of socioeconomic diversity moving in unison along the sidewalks. Men on bicycles twisted in and out of stalled traffic. A man in his underwear was playing the guitar in an intersection as steam rose up from the sewers beneath him. I crossed my fingers and hoped that my taxi was not driving in circles. Where am I again? I asked myself.
Traversing the city by subway during my stay led me to feel relatively comfortable with New York City's culture and subway system, albeit I was a little paranoid.
I felt I had traveled a good portion of the island, from Midtown Manhattan to Greenwich Village and then up to Central Park East where the Metropolitan Museum of Art is located. People were asking me for directions. But, if there's one thing I have learned, as soon as you start to feel that the Big Apple is predictable, it will take you by surprise. And I'm not talking about the man in the gift store from Bangladesh who proposed to me in the souvenir shop.
When it was time for me to leave the city, I debated about whether or not to take the subway to the airport. Although I was more comfortable with the subway system, I still felt that each ride was an adventure. I figured I could take the "A" Train again to get to the airport. However, the man at the information desk in Grand Central Station on 42nd Street told me differently. "No, no, no. Take the 'E' Train to somethin' boulevard. It's fasta'." My mind went blank. I did not know the route of the "E" Train. I repeated the information back to him to make sure I knew what he was saying in his classic New York accent. Somethin' boulevard. OK, well, I thought to myself, if I have to transfer and this man doesn't know what the name of the boulevard is, I am going to take the "A" Train.
I decided to get a second opinion. The next information officer led me to the map on the wall and followed the route with his index finger. The only thing that would have made his explanation more simplistic would have been a puppet show. "Take the 'E' through Queens to Sutphin Boulevard." In the next moment, I actually got a New Yorker to laugh with me.
Now that I'm back in Utah, I realize on reflection that my adventure in New York illustrated an important moral of my public-transportation story. Based on my experience, the New York City subway system stigma is overblown. And surprisingly, it was my own lack of attention while riding the subway that made me cross that fine line into the land of stupidity.As silly as it may sound, the venture proved for me to be a test of self-sufficiency. It also reiterated for me that a city is not just a world of tourist entertainment; it is comprised of a foundation of local people. Riding the subway gave me an interesting introduction to this foundation that I may not otherwise have encountered. It was a true East Coast experience, at a fraction of the cost of taking taxis. Just don't tell my mother about it.