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.

My neighborhood’s weird gentrification issues and our lazy police precinct

There are a lot of things I like about where I live, Crown Heights, recently profiled in the New York Times real estate section. But one thing I hate about the hood, and one thing I can assure you almost anyone who was attracted to it from reading that article would hate, is the noise. It isn’t constant–most of the time, I can get a decent night’s sleep or enjoy a quiet early evening’s dinner. But when it’s loud, it is loud. For instance, tonight, J.S. Studio, a hair salon on Franklin Ave. is having a banging party. I know. I went over there. They have a turntable in the back, on the patio. I kindly asked them to turn it down. I was really nice. I told them I had to work tomorrow. A guy who works there was really nice too. He even invited me to the party. I came in to have a water, but it’s Sunday night, and it actually didn’t look that banging. (Not many people were there). Plus, come on, I just want to chill out before I go back to work. He also promised me he’d turn it down, though not after telling me I was the only one to complain.

Anyway, I came back to my apartment and the noise has since gotten louder than before. I called the usual suspects: 311 (took about 25 minutes of holding), Police Precinct 77 (I told the officer who picked up that he could ask one of the officers who is stationed on Franklin Ave. to just walk a couple blocks and ask these guys to turn it down. He gave the typical lazy, CYA answer they give over there, which is call 311. If calling 311 did anything, Officer, I would have just kept it at that. But it doesn’t. NYPD basically tells you every chance they get that noise is not their priority, even though that is the top complaint that 311 gets and noise from businesses is a violation of the city’s code. Sometimes I wonder what we pay these people for?).

So here I sit, at 11:35 on a Sunday night, with a fan and an anti-noise machine on, a window closed, and ear plugs in, and I can still hear the drum beat of whatever awful music my neighbors are playing.

I’m not alone in my neighborhood, but one disturbing thing is the way people try to make noise complaints into issues about gentrification. When I was talking to the guy at JS Studio tonight, he mentioned that he had lived here all his life and this was typical. On that Brooklynian chat board, one commenter said this:

Outdoor parties using a pa system are normal for crown heights. didn’t u know that before moving there? why are you imposing your values and background on people who have lived there for a long time.

And the fat female friend of the guy (sorry to be mean, but she was not friendly), retorted to me that it was early. Which I really hate — when noisy people start trying to turn the tables on you about what time it is, when it isn’t their business about what time you need things quiet. (What if I worked at 4 a.m., and had to go to sleep by 9 p.m. or something. Ugh).

It’s funny, because every store owner I have talked to about the neighborhood — save maybe the owner of JS Studio if I had asked them — says it has changed a lot for the better, and I’m guessing it has something to do with more quiet, more businesses and less drug dealing. And yes, I’m sure prices have gone up, too, but that is a fact of New York that I don’t really blame on people who move in and try to make a neighborhood better. I blame it on the city government, which initiated rent deregulation in the ’90s, at the urging of landlords, most of them big landlords. I don’t see why the choice has to be affordable/noisy or unaffordable/quiet. That’s absurd. And making it into a race issue, or class issue or gentrification issue is absurd. It’s a city. You have to respect your neighbor, or love your neighbor, as the bible says.

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.

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.

Strange San Francisco

In order to gear up for my trip out West this August, I’m reading a book called San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature. It is an anthology of essays about how San Francisco writers like Mark Twain, Jack London, Dashiell Hammet, Joan Didion, and Amy Tan, portrayed the city and the region. The great theme of this region is the search for new beginnings that its settlers bring with them from other American regions and foreign nations.

I have to share this passage from the essay about Frank Norris by Joseph R. McElerath, Jr. Norris wrote in particular about the bizarre urban life of San Francisco. The following description of a scene from The Octopus about the Midwinter International Exposition (similar to the famed Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893) is just the sort of weird stuff that makes fin de siecle urban life sound like such a delirium.

[W]ithin the compound, one might also encounter a Japanese Tea Garden (which still survives), a life-sized elephant made of walnuts, an enormous wine bottle composed of wine bottles, a knight on horseback made to scale from prunes, and “native villages” inhabited by Eskimos, Hawaiians, and Africans imported for the occasion (University of New Mexico Press, 51).


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