Subway Studies



3005 Astoria Blvd, Long Island City, NY

Neighborhood: Astoria, Multiple

Today, I walk the stairs up to the elevated platform, ready to join 3.5 million of my closest friends on the subway. Just a few days before a possible transit workers strike was to have happened.

Being unable to get into Manhattan would have hurt my wallet but, I remind myself, there are bigger issues at stake.

The N train is pulling into the station but the woman ahead of me on the stairs is struggling with a baby carriage. She doesn’t want help and I feel bad barreling past her, so I walk slowly behind her and almost miss the train. The conductor curses me under his breath for taking so long to board. This doesn’t help me keep my emotions out of it.

There are bigger issues at stake. There are bigger issues at stake. There are bigger issues at stake.

Today, in a nation where 14 million US citizens spend at least one night in jail each year, 171 individuals will be incarcerated.

Like my hirsute ancestors, I spend far too much time inside dank, filthy caves with other melancholy members of my species. We each possess a physiology that evolved to negotiate the Stone Age. Unfortunately, we live in the Space Age. There’s the rub. We are urban cavemen—overmatched in our daily battle to navigate an artificial reality.

The prehistoric subway system of New York City was obviously designed well before anyone could have ever have dreamed of millions of riders each day. Still, in general, that imposing amount of straphangers could theoretically fit without much fuss if humanity was further along in its glacially gradual evolutionary process. However, since you and I are stuck in the primitive confines of the early twenty-first century, illogic reigns supreme and the trains are a daily—but unfunny—replay of the infamous (and over-rated) stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ classic 1936 film, ‘A Night At The Opera’. I say “over-rated,” because the Marxsters did infinitely more comical work but somehow, it is the so-so stateroom nonsense that has become synonymous with their genius thanks to myriad film critics who are afraid to buck the system and be original.

Today, more than 3000 Americans will lose their health insurance, 4000 will be diagnosed with cancer, and 5000 will die due to heart disease or cancer.

As each frustrated passenger boards, they silently insist on standing within a foot or two of the same door from which they entered. Thus, the middle of the car is a veritable oasis of acreage—a convincing testimony to the concept of space, if you will—but rarely does anyone even consider venturing beyond his or her beloved doorway. The unavoidable aftermath of this unreasonable behavior is serious human gridlock.

The subject of choice amongst the denizens of the doorway logjam is the rumored transit fare hike that lurks after the strike issue is settled. Two-thirds of NYC subway riders make less than $50,000 per year (we’re talking total family income) and we’re being duped by yet another bait-and-switch. Threats to raise the fare from $1.50 to $2.00 are met with howls of outrage. That’s when the MTA pretends to listen and settles for $1.75. The city gets the number it wanted all along and we pay (at least) fifty cents more a day to stand in a congested moving doorway.

I tug my book from my backpack and hold it an inch from my frowning face.

Today, 165 Americans will die from occupational diseases and 18 more from a work-related injury. More than 36,400 non-fatal injuries and 3200 illnesses will occur in America’s workplaces.

Today, as the train pulls out of 30th Avenue, I notice a skinny, unshaven man with a funny hat, carrying a small bag bearing the tell-tale words “Twin Donut” on it, I smell trouble…literally. I watch—and cringe—as this guy wedges in next to some unsuspecting co-commuter, opens his oil-stained bag of greasy junk food, and begins to publicly consume what he calls “breakfast.”

No matter how hard I try to concentrate on my book, I find myself glancing at this Gilligan-looking guy gleefully chomping down on a jelly donut camouflaged with powdered sugar. The subways are a veritable breeding ground for all types of germs. Jelly donuts are horribly bad for your health. Eating quickly and not chewing your food enough times—especially in a very stressful environment—is unquestionably detrimental to your welfare. As I contemplate his monumental obtuseness, Gilligan proceeds to pull out a steaming hot cup of java. The lady next to him is hyperventilating and every jerk and bump of the train ride brings her closer to a future of painful skin graft treatments. For sure, another great New York Post headline: LADY SINGES THE BLUES.

Today, 80 percent of Americans will take a prescription drug resulting in 5500 cases of prescription drug side effects that require a hospital visit. Of those, 383 will die.

A few more plebeians jam in at Broadway. No, not as in “give my regards to,” this is a cheap Queens imitation—cleaner, but no footlights in sight. At the next two stops, 36th Avenue and 39th Avenue, the overcrowding becomes unbearable and even those in the seats are unable to move. This is the point where we hear the conductor’s daily plea for passengers to not hold the doors open. “There’s another train right behind us,” he assures a very suspicious horde. Yeah, right. When they say another train is “right behind this one,” they must be communicating in Chopka-speak. After all, isn’t there always “another train” right behind us in the grand scheme of things?

Instead of waiting for the metaphysical N train, more commuters attempt to cram themselves into space that does not exist without giving a damn that the train cannot budge precisely due to this behavior. If only people were this tenacious when going someplace they truly wished to be.

Today, 166 Iraqi children will die sanctions-related deaths. Today, 2,174 people will die due to war (9 of out 10 will be civilians; 5 out of 10 of those civilians will be children). 71 people will be killed or maimed by landmines.

As the doors finally close, I hear the conductor’s garbled message over the notoriously indecipherable subway loudspeaker: “Next stop is Queensboro Plaza. Change here for the #7 train to Manhattan across the platform.”

That means me…and about one-third the train. We all have to somehow squeeze out the doors, fight past the countless peons waiting to board the N, and then battle our way onto the #7 train that is almost always waiting at “the Plaza,” as it’s affectionately known to us veterans of New York’s subterranean tunnels of transportation.

As visions of a subway strike danced in my over-stimulated head, I follow behind the waves of passengers seeking to de-board (and I don’t mean that situationist guy) as the people waiting to get on the N converge on me like photographers chasing a Jen/Ben photo op. It seems that no one can remotely grasp the very unadorned logic that it’s easier to board a train that is empty than a train that is full. (Didn’t Confucious say that, or was it Neils Bohr?) Amidst enough pushing and yelling to fuel a maternity ward, I’m ashamed to admit that today I indulged my primitive urges by lowering my shoulder into a thin man with a mean, pinched, Christian Coalition-looking face who just wouldn’t get the hell out of my way. I know that sounds vile, but at least I suppressed the impulse to bellow “surf’s up” as I did it.

Today, nearly 300,000 animals will die in laboratories; another 150,000 will be killed on our nation’s highways. Fifteen million will be slaughtered for “food.”

The ride into Manhattan numbs me. I don’t even bother with my book…or my field study. I join all the other NYC subway riders who make less than $50,000 per year and stare blankly ahead until we reach Grand Central Station—the standard by which the entire concept of “busy” is judged. It never fails that a #7 train pulls in simultaneously from both directions, and the resulting madness of two trains regurgitating their passengers is cruel and unusual punishment, indeed. Doesn’t the Bill of Rights protect us from shit like this?

Today, as the doors slide open and the humans that make up this #7 train’s guts spill out onto the platform, I ease off the train and head immediately for a wooden bench. Laying my backpack on that bench, I take my time placing my book in my bag and strapping it onto my weary back. I spy a young homeless man mindfully going through the garbage can, pulling out newspapers that have already been thrown away. What this guy is doing is a wonderful example of cleverness and enterprise. He waits for the morning riders to toss their practically new newspapers; then he retrieves them and sells ’em back to the vendors for half price. The vendors, in turn, resell these slightly soiled rags to any unsuspecting mortal willing to plunk down his or her money.

Before you comment on the possibility of germs being passed from the garbage can to the comsumer, remember that anyone reading the New York (com)Post is obviously in the pathogen market as it is (insert rim shot here).

Speaking of pathogens, I’m off to work.

Today, 27 American children will die from poverty and starvation. Worldwide, that number is 43,200.

The subway strike, if it were to have happened, could have brought all this Fun City action to a standstill.

Everything else will keep on happening, day after day after day.

Mickey Z. is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” ( and the upcoming book, The Murdering of My Years: Artists & Activists Making Ends Meet

He can be reached at:

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