Subways are one of New York City’s finest institutions. They can take you anywhere in the City you want to go–if you know how to use them. But they can be a puzzle even to native New Yorkers, and a dark and frightening labyrinth to out-of-towners. I had a chance encounter with some NYC visitors that illustrates my point.

A few years ago I went to a play on 48th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan. I took the 6th Avenue subway from my home in Brooklyn, got out at the 48th Street exit, and walked the half block to the Cort Theatre. Easy peasy. After the play, however, the downtown 48th street entrance to the 6th Avenue subway was closed. I walked a block to the next access, but it, too, was cordoned off for maintenance work. I heard workers on the other side of the taped-up turnstiles say to another frustrated person, “Maybe you can get in at 53rd and 5th.” This is a bit of a walk, and I thought there might be an easier way.

As I was deciding whether to make the hike, five young people were coming down the subway steps. Seeing they could not get in, “What the fuck?” came out. I said, “My words precisely.” I could hear them trying to figure out what to do. Being a helpful New Yorker as so many of us are, I asked them what train they were trying to catch. They said the M or the G. I told them that the G did not run in Manhattan. (Although I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about the subways and a licensed New York City tour guide, the M train remains a mystery to me.) They were trying to go to Brooklyn, as was I. I told them to go to the subway station at 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, take any train downtown, transfer at the 4th Street station, catch the A or C train there, and transfer to the G at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. I felt a certain pride in my precision and preceded them on the sidewalk down 6th Avenue. However, when I got to 42nd, I saw a notice that the entire 6th Avenue subway was closed that evening. The group of young people caught up with me. They started to look a little panicky when they saw the closure sign. 

I said that if they were up for a walk (which was clearly going to be necessary), they could go two long blocks over to 8th Avenue on 42nd, which is what I was going to do. As we headed west, I asked where they were from; South Florida was the reply. When pressed for specifics, I heard Boca and Miami. Further probing yielded that they were working on a “food justice” project in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. I asked if they were part of a religious organization. A woman said, “No, this was their college Hillel.” I smiled, as did some of them. 

Another woman fell into step with me and said that although she had lived in Florida since she was ten, she had been born in the Forest Hills section of Queens which she still visited frequently. I guess she was trying to impress me with her urban savviness, but…well, she failed.

I could tell that some of them were distrustful when I did not enter the entrance at 7th Avenue and 42nd Street that bore a sign for the A and C trains. I said that the 8th Avenue train was another block away and the sign led to a tunnel—good when it rained, but the street was better when the weather was nice, and it was a beautiful autumn evening. We kept walking.

When we finally got to the right subway platform, they looked relieved, but for some, that look of relief changed when I told them not to get on the first arriving train, which was a D, a 6th Avenue train that was now running on 8th Avenue tracks and would not take them to their transfer point. This is the sort of gobbledygook that befuddles even the most loyal subway rider. Finally, the correct train for both them and me came and we all boarded.

The guy who seemed most in charge said that he hoped to come back to NYC after graduation from Florida Atlantic University. He was a social work major. I said, “You must not be interested in money.” He replied that both of his parents were social workers.” When we parted ways after twenty minutes on the train, I shook hands with him and said, “Save the world.” I hope he at least found the G train.

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