A Month of Tracking My Subway Rides

This morning, after a particularly unacceptable rush hour subway experience that made my friend Lyz one hour late for work, we decided we would start keeping track of our daily subway rides for the next month, and, at month’s end, let the MTA know about all of the indignities we had experienced — from delays to impossibly slow-moving trains to long waits.

It’s true that the MTA already knows about these frustrations, in fact, it sanctioned them with its brutal budget cuts earlier this year. But the fun of this exercise is to try to get a sense of just how bad the MTA has gotten, and whether, when we complain about the subway, we really have adequate perspective. Are we dwelling on the few infuriating rides we’ve had and ignoring all of the times we made it from Point A to Point B without even noticing, or are our commutes filled with consistent head-banging frustration?

I’m particularly attuned to such frustrations, because my commute is pretty brutal. I recently started a new job at Columbia University Medical Center, which requires me to commute from Kensington, Brooklyn, to Washington Heights, Manhattan. That means I ride the train across about one-third of Brooklyn and most of Manhattan twice a day. (My commute used to be much shorter, from Kensington to Union Square in Manhattan). I might move, but for now, I’m riding about one hour and ten minutes each way, from Church Ave (F line) to 168th Street (A line) with a mercifully easy switch at Jay Street in Brooklyn.

Anyway, without further ado, I give you my experience of today, Nov. 30:

The morning got off to a bad start. I arrived on the Church Ave. platform at about 7:25, as the G train, which starts here, was showing no signs of moving. For some reason when the G starts up here, it always takes the train conductors forever to get the train going, or to switch, if one conductor is relieving another. So I waited for about five minutes as the G sat there. Finally, it left, and the F came right after. The rest of the commute was amazingly quick and painless. I had a seat almost the whole way on both the F and the A (which basically clears out after it’s gone through the Wall Street-area stops). The train got to 168th St. at 8:25, which is seriously a record. Not so bad.

Evening commute: I arrived at the 168th Street stop at about 5 p.m. As I was walking through the station, an announcer said a Brooklyn-bound A train — my train — was approaching the station. Like many other rabid commuters, I increased my pace to a swifter walk-jog to try to make it to the platform to catch the train. When I got downstairs, the train was just arriving at the station, but it was empty and not stopping. So much for that train. About five minutes later, the announcer told us the next train coming was not serving customers. Two trains in a row were out of service?! But as the train pulled up, it was pretty full, and stopped to pick us up. So it in fact was serving customers.

As the train moved south, toward 125th, it started slowing down intermittently, as I’ve found it often does during this particular stretch of the commute. These train slowdowns I think are caused by signal or track issues, but I’m not really sure. Either way, there is something infuriating about them, especially when you’re on an express train.

The rest of the ride was pretty smooth, except for several failed attempts to close the doors at the Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau stop in downtown Manhattan. At 5:45, I was at Jay Street waiting to transfer to the F. The platform was crowded with people, suggesting the train was taking awhile to come. I always have wishful thinking that the train will arrive right away when I come into this situation, but I actually had to wait five more minutes for it to come. About three minutes into the wait, an announcer informed us that the delay owed to a passenger who had gotten sick at Broadway-Lafayette. The funny thing is, I had almost the exact same experience yesterday with no announcement about a delay. The F has just been terrible at running frequently at around 5:45, when I’m waiting for it at Jay Street.

I got off at about 5:55 at 4th Ave.-9th Street to head to the gym in Park Slope. Not a great train ride, but could have been worse.

NYC summer dessert survey

Poll for New Yorkers, what is your favorite summer time dessert:

  • Marino’s Italian Ice
  • Mister Softee
  • Something yuppie, like Van Leeuwen

The answer you give will reveal something about you.

As subway becomes a cesspool, it’s time to instate a food ban

I hate to be the guy that ruins the party, but news that most New York subway cars have become dirtier in the last year has led me to renew my call for a no-food rule similar to Washington D.C.’s metro. This is an even more practical solution in light of cuts New York has made and is continuing to make to subway cleaners, cuts that the Straphangers Campaign says is responsible for the last year’s dirtying:

The campaign blamed budget cuts at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the decline. There were 43 fewer car-cleaners in 2009 than in 2008, and 108 more are slated to be cut in the 2010 budget.

Yeah, a no food rule in New York has been considered and rejected in the past. It would change the way a lot of people — including me — ride the train. I’ll admit to being the person eating organic sea salt and cracked pepper chips on the N today. (Yes, I succumbed in a moment of weakness to the purchase of a snack food that tries to pass itself off as being healthy, but that’s another blog post). But, like most people, I would stop my eating if I was faced with a $100 fine like what District of Columbians face. I probably wouldn’t like it, but frankly, I’d rather have clean train cars and fewer rats, of which New York’s MTA has no shortage. Maybe the MTA could enlist this guy, who came up with a pretty brilliant subway etiquette campaign a few months ago telling people not to be jerks on the subway by eating smelly food and listening to loud music.

There’s a new sheriff in town at the Prospect Park Y pool

Today I paid a long overdue visit to my gym, the Prospect Park YMCA, to go swimming, because it was too damn hot out to run or bike. And lo and behold, there was a new sheriff — er, lifeguard — in town, and he was laying down the law. In contrast to the practices of the average Prospect Y lifeguard, this one ordered me to go back and shower immediately. I’ve never been told to do this before, and I don’t really get the reason. After all, what they call showering really means running some water quickly through one’s hair to make oneself look damp enough to go in the pool, even though we are about to submerge ourselves in a pool. How does it clean us off to take a perfunctory “shower” before swimming? But whatever, rules are rules.

When I returned to the pool, the lifeguard would not let me sign in on the pool clipboard, something all swimmers are supposed to do to indicate which lane you plan to swim in and the color of our suits and swim caps in case the guards need to get our attention while we’re swimming. Instead, he insisted on taking my name and information. I guessed my new, officious friend was doing this because the sign-up sheet usually looks like a page of hieroglyphic scribbles, rending it almost useless.

Having made it through the red tape, I hopped in and started swimming in the fast lane. This is not my favorite lane, because I’m not fast, but the medium lane was of course full. (It always is). After swimming a few laps, I grabbed a kickboard and kicked across the pool. As soon as I got to the other side, I was approached by the lifeguard, who told me using the kickboard wasn’t allowed — only freestyle. I didn’t catch if this is only a rule that applied to the fast lane.

I didn’t totally mind this lifeguard’s fastidiousness. After all, I can get behind keeping the pool clean and efficient. But when time came for him to evict people from the lanes, i.e. when it was clear some people had been in for more than 30 minutes, he stood idly by. So I wondered, why enforce a “busy work” rule, like requiring someone to take a shower, and not enforce a rule that would allow more people to use the pool?

NY v. Ill. Politics: The excitement never ends

What is more exciting: politics in (my home state of) Illinois or politics in (my adopted home state of ) New York?

Illinois: Rod Blagojevich co-stars in “Celebrity Apprentice” in two weeks, the lieutenant governor dropped out of the Ill. lieutenant governor primary about a month ago because he was arrested for domestic abuse, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk has a good shot at the senate (though hopefully not as good as Alexi Giannoulias)

New York: Embattled Gov. Paterson is out, Harold Ford is not running for Senate (relief), Rep. Charlie Rangel has been fingered for taking corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean (and was found in 2008 to rent four rent-stabilizied NYC apartments, like so many other well-off people in this city who certainly don’t need it), maybe Eliot Spitzer will run again and the mayor  of White Plains was arrested this past weekend on charges he beat his wife.

New York wins this round, if you’re one who likes political excitement at the expense of good government, that is. I’m willing to take nominations for other Illinois events, since I am not as in tune with goings-on there.

Best of Craigslist

I like when people make things clear about what they want when they’re looking for a roommate. Here’s a guy in Williamsburg looking for a roommate:

I clean up the kitchen when I’m done, I don’t play loud music at night, I don’t bring people back late at night after hanging out at bars and stuff – the apartment is a bit of a sanctuary from the intensity of New York if you know what I mean. Having said that – it’s cool if you want to have people over and stuff – the main thing is just to be considerate. I don’t mind if you’re straight or gay and I am totally open to being friends – I think it’s just important to be clear about the fact that being room mates is as much a business arrangement as it is anything else.

And this one, which finds in the neighborhood a pretty specific lure:

Loc’n at edge of Caribbean neighborhood with excellent cheap eats. C-town grocery around the corner has great Asian sauces and Jamaican curry selection.

And of course, why the neighborhood (Ditmas Park) is better than Park Slope:

Two avenues from Cortelyou Rd. strip, with Sycamore, The Farm on Adderley, Mimi’s Hummus, Flatbush Food Coop (unlike Park Slope, the coop doesn’t require you to be a member to shop there), farmers’ market, etc.
The local bars and restaurants are fewer but much higher average quality than in Park Slope, and way cheaper. If you’re considering living in the Slope, you can get a better experience and similar commute for less money in Ditmas.

Go Away Harold Ford

Please don’t run for Senate in New York. Or anywhere. We need less of people like you at our nation’s helm.

Dreaded season also a time to appreciate what taxes buy us

It’s tax season again. Because taxes are such a dreaded event, we associate our government with one of the more miserable things we are forced to do over the course of the year. If you live in New York City, you see that, not only do you pay for Social Security and Medicare services that you increasingly hear you may never benefit from yourself when you get to be 65–but you also pay the second highest in state taxes and a hefty city tax.

It is a lot easier to comprehend the impact this has on your already too meager paycheck, much of which is allotted to pay rent in what is probably the most expensive city to live in of the whole country.

Harder to comprehend is the level of service you get as a New Yorker and the money it takes to keep it up. Thousands of garbage cans across the city are consistently emptied, sewers are maintained, trains are run at all hours of the day and night, water is treated, restaurants that you eat at are inspected for sanitation, public campaigns are waged to remind people to get flu shots and not drink too much soda.

We can be quick to focus on the times when these services fail us–when trains are delayed, when the post office line moves slowly, or when we hear about some restaurant inspector getting paid off. It is tempting to throw the baby out with the bath water at that point, to dismiss the entire government because of such instances. But most of the time, things work, and they work pretty well, considering we live in such a large city that basically requires, if our days are to run normally, that things run well and on time.

A world in which we will not or cannot pay for such services is a scary one. It will look a lot worse than a postal line that is not moving fast enough. It will look like untreated water, unemptied garbage and non-running trains. We are already seeing it in some parts of our country, like California’s Inland Empire.

So, as I bristle when I look at my W-2, I at least have to admit that I benefit from how those tax dollars are spent, as well. Sure, I could live in a part of the country where I am taxed less, but I would live a totally different life–one where I drive to a strip mall for dinner because my municipality does not care to pay for bus services, one where I do not see my neighbors, because my town does not care to build and maintain a park, one, where my entertainment is my plasma screen digital TV.

But I happen to think that, if a citizenry has a good government, they are better off when they are more highly taxed. A good government is not easy to maintain, and it needs agencies that audit other agencies in order to prevent graft and corruption. But such things can be done and have been done as long as people are willing to pony up, particularly those who benefit the most from this system. Currently, it does not seem to be the case.

‘Mad Men’ Inflation Calcuator

Along with many other Americans, I have become engrossed by the show “Mad Men” on AMC. It is enjoyable on many levels. It is filled with seamy affairs and internecine rivalries that threaten to unravel in just about every episode. It is also taut and evocative of the early 1960s. Everyone abides a tacit appreciation for discretion that seemed to be a hallmark of social, professional and familial interaction during this time. Because of this air of secrecy, each episode brings with it a new revelation about a character that moves the plot along. For instance, the dashing Roger Stirling, head of the show’s fictional advertising agency Stirling Cooper is in fact revealed to be succumbing to some serious health problems. Earnest secretary Peggy has a knack for writing clever advertising copy. Anyway, anyone who watches the show knows the rest, the even darker secrets that these characters hold.

Another neat thing about the show is getting a sense of what it was like to live and work in New York in the late 50s and early 60s, and sometimes it seems not too different from today. Corporate ad man Don Draper has a funny confrontation with a beatnik who seems not much different in attitude than today’s New York hipsters one meets in Williamsburg. Snivelly junior ad guy Peter Campbell buys a penthouse with his wife on the Upper East Side, with help from her parents. Today, a Peter Campbell would have likely done what the yuppies here do and bought a similar place in the East Village or Chelsea, but you get the idea.

Curious, I consulted an inflation calculator to figure out how much that $30,000 penthouse would have cost today. Amazingly enough, it would only be $215,766, which is not actually that much for an Upper East Side condo. Campbell’s salary of $3,500 on the other hand would be a meager $25,173 today, probably less than the average starting PR person makes. No wonder he was reluctant to buy the penthouse.

Whatever Works kind of works

My brother and I have seen two movies together since I moved to New York City, both by Woody Allen, both at the independent Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Last August, we saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and last night we saw Whatever Works. As the prolific writer/director’s newest feature was about to begin, my brother said “Two New York Jews watching a Woody Allen movie on the Upper West Side.” With the starring role played by Larry David, it was truly a movie for people like us.

Yet, like most Woody Allen movies I have seen in recent years, I have had to prepare myself to be disappointed by self-conscious and unnatural dialogue as well as the inevitable May December romance. It always comes off a little creepy when the old neurotic, Jewish character dates the beautiful young woman (almost always gentile) in these movies, not just because of the age difference but because of the way the relationship depends on the younger woman revering the intellect of the older man.

Whatever Works did not bother me too much for these reasons, though. Maybe this was because Larry David’s intellectual wasn’t a lecherous character but rather almost asexual. Or maybe because I don’t think Woody Allen’s script actually bore out that he thought this kind of relationship, born perhaps of his fantasy (and since he started things up with his step-daughter, his real life), is functional.

No, the real fantasy in Whatever Works was the way Allen portrayed dim, God-fearing Southerners who come to New York City and are inspired to shed their small-minded ways and their NRA memberships. I guess this is the ultimate fantasy for many of us who live here.

Overall, I would give the movie a Meh, but an entertaining Meh. I liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona a lot better, though.

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