Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Taxi and the Tortoise

I love this week's New Yorker cover. Especially because it speaks directly to one of the most central arguments in my household, an argument that rears its head almost daily when we're home: taxi or subway?

Though neither of us are so rigid that we can't see the value in both forms of transportation, we each tend to cling to our positions in a way that extends beyond rational decision-making. To wit: I will always prefer the subway and he will always prefer the taxi.

He says the taxi is faster, and sometimes that is true. But then there are those times when you get caught in traffic and there is nothing you can do but sit there like a chump while the meter rises and rises. I'd rather allow an extra 15 minutes and bring a book. Or the latest New Yorker. I can't read while in the back of a car, but I can read while on the subway.

He says he likes being above ground, so that if you're running late (maybe because you got caught in traffic), you can use your cell phone to let the person you're meeting know that you'll be late. But I love the subway precisely because I can't use my cell phone. It's one little window of calm in my otherwise always-connected day. I can't update my blog, I can't talk on the phone, but I can read or people watch or think. And since there's absolutely nothing I can do to affect my course (I can't tell the conductor to go left here or take the FDR or watch out for that other car) I am able to actually relax.

Now sometimes the subway will screw you. Trains get re-routed or just plain fail to show up, construction work appears out of nowhere, mentally ill people lose control of their bowels. It happens.

But most of the time, it gets me exactly where I need to go, and in a reliable amount of time. And it only costs $2. Now that the Air Train is running, it costs just $5 more to go all the way to JFK. With transfers, that trip takes one hour from my apartment in Brooklyn. If I were taking a cab, it would cost $45 + tip and I'd also have to allow an hour, because while you can get there in just half an hour, you can never be sure how the traffic will be.

It's not just about speed or cost, though. There's also the very real sense of community I feel each and every time I take the subway. On any given day you'll see Hasids sitting next to strippers next to investment bankers next to single mothers next to vegetable vendors. And when that train gets re-routed or doesn't appear, or when that inconsiderate asshole plays his stupid music over his cell phone, we all experience it together. I also see people give up their seats to the elderly and pregnant, or move around to help a family sit together, or help a mother carry her stroller up or down the stairs.

It feels so cliched to write about, so sentimental, but I can't help it: New York City is one of the most diverse places on earth, and it's the subway that helps unite us into one people. I love having my wheels when I'm on the west coast, but by the end of my stay there I often feel a sense of isolation from the city itself. Not from all the individuals I've connected with, but from the city as a city, as a mass, as a community.

In the end, I have to admit that my fondness for this cover might also have something to do with knowing the outcome of the mythological race. I like to believe that if Aesop were a New Yorker today, he would be writing his fables while sitting beside me on the F train.


S. P. Miskowski said...

"Trains get re-routed or just plain fail to show up, construction work appears out of nowhere, mentally ill people lose control of their bowels. It happens."

Oh, that reminds me of so many bus trips in Seattle! I have seen or overheard a lot of my best material there.

Congratulations on the brilliant review! I can't wait to see the show.

Busboy said...

I'm thinking this would make an excellent "This Week In" link one of these days. Can I Can I?