Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tale of two cities, Part 2

My first experience of the New York subway came after a seven hour flight plus a two hour queue (or "line" as they say over there) to get through immigration. The US citizens customs queue was only about ten poeple in length, and they were through in about quarter of an hour, after which they closed four desks rather than opening them to the non-US queue, as might have seemed sensible. Add to this the fact that I spent the best part of two hours trying to stop the hyperactive Welsh bloke behind me jumping the queue, and you'll understand why I was in a bit of a fractious mood by the time we finally made it to the baggage hall to collect our cases. We then had a pleasant enough ride on the JFK air train (a but like the monorail from Disney World) before reaching the local subway terminal, Howard Beach station.

On reaching the platform at Howard Beach, the first notable difference between the New York system and it's London equivalent became clear: none of those electronic boards that tell you how long the next train is going to be. We waited in the dark (literally and metaphoircally) for about fifteen minutes, before the train arrived and we dragged ourselves aboard (it was about 18:30 local time - half an hour past 11pm according to our UK-adjusted body clocks). Glancing expectantly at the wall of the train to see how many stops we had to go, another big difference emerged - those handy maps of the Tube system's individual lines don't exist in New York, so if you don't know the system, it's really difficult to work out exactly where you are, and where you are trying to get to. The Wife, needless to say, had researched the whole thing down to the ground before leaving the UK, so was quite comfortable. What would I do without her etc etc.

It was actually quite exciting and authentically USA. Even before we got on the train we were treated to the spectacle of a teenager dancing up and down the platform opposite in mock basketball poses, before being aggressively manhandled into a seat by a cop. Seemed a bit harsh but, hey, this was clrearly the land of zero tolerance of imaginary sports. I couldn't help wondering if they felt the same way about air guitar.

We slid through Queen's through some excitingly-monikered stops (Rockaway Boulevard - Kerrang!) before shooting through a tunnel under the river and entering Manhatten's network of subterranean stations. Now, I'm not going to pretend that London's Underground stations are all works of art, but I have to say that they're much more attractive than New York's. The likes of Baker Street and Charing Cross draw you in, their walls practically telling stories. Harlem had some nice Mosaics, but we're talking fairly small-scale stuff, and as for the Broadway stops, the home of big-budget theatre, nada. By and large, the New York subway stations all seemed pretty functional. Advertising seemed far less prevalent too - this could be a good thing, depending on your perspective, but it suprised me in the capital of capitalism that media spaces like escalators and platforms weren't festooned with commercial messages, as they are in London.

But one crucial factor in New York's favour pretty much outweighed all the others: it was just far less crowded. I haven't a clue why. It wasn't as if there were more trains, or less people (it was New York - the city that never sleeps). But somehow the traffic just seemed to be managed better. On Thursday afternoon a 6pm - peak time rush hour, you'd think - we travelled back from Fifth Avenue to Times Square on a train that was supposedly packed, and I just thought "Is this it?" We had to stand for a couple of stops, but people weren't crammed in like in London, and there was not an elbow in site.

It's a funny thing but whilst I was in New York I missed London, and my fondness for the place increased by the day (NY may have skyscrapers, but has it got 1000 years of history? I caught myself thinknig things like that). And then I got back to work on Monday and had to breathe eau de armpit for twenty minutes on the Tube, and suddenly I was missing New York.

There may just be a moral in there somewhere.

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