I Bought a Metrocard All By Myself & Other Stories Of Riding The NY Subway For The First Time

Unfortunately for me, I didn't really understand what I was doing when I transferred, so I watched trains spin around me in a haze, wandered around several levels, possibly entered Narnia, and finally asked a policeman for help.

So, first off, the rain was coming down in buckets.

I had been led to believe that New York was hot in August. Thus, I came prepared accordingly with light dresses and open-toed shoes. I was not ready to reenact Noah's ark in a shift dress and some red sandals, and was thus forced to wedge my feet back into the shoes I'd worn on the plane the night before instead of allowing them to air out (and when one has taken the redeye, “the night before” is perhaps a generous phrase to use).

I found my stop primarily by pure luck, namely because I followed a woman who looked like she knew what she was doing, which is my general strategy in strange places. Why I don't just ask for directions, I don't know, except that this would require both outing myself as someone who doesn't know what I'm doing, and confessing that I am a stranger who doesn't know the ways of the land.

To say that I was unprepared for what happened when I descended the subway stairs is an understatement.

Here is the thing. Where I am from, when it rains, it is generally cold to middlin'. Apparently this is not the case in New York, which evidently doesn't see fit to ventilate its subway stations worth a damn. As a result, I felt like I was entering the bowels of hell, fully anticipating to catch a whiff of sulfur between the clouds of fug and steam around me, as the stairs ran with water from the rain, which still hadn't tapered off.

I briefly caught a rush of cool air and wondered if it had all been a nightmare, if New York played this trick on newcomers before whisking them into the actual subway station, and then I looked up. Where I could see that “air conditioning” in hell apparently consists of an ancient fan so rickety that it looks like it might fall from the railing it's suspended from at any moment, along with the perilous strings of lights and the cobwebs, which jitter every time a train screams in and out of the station.

Here is the thing, New Yorkers. BART trains ease into the station with a moan and then a sigh before their doors wheeze open. Your trains rattle. No person with any concerns about safety would willingly board something that throws off sparks, rattles, and screeches to a halt, yet everyone on the platform appeared utterly unworried and promptly flooded the Manhattan-bound train, which was so packed with people that I didn't even need to grab a strap to support myself.

Which is a good thing, because you lot appear not to have straps on your trains. I get it. You're tough. Only losers need straps to help them balance on shuddering trains that careen around curves and moan soulfully to themselves while passing under alarmingly present bodies of water that appear to leave seepages and drips throughout every visible tunnel1.

To my surprise, my actual subway ride was absent any of the anticipated events. No musical performances, no fights over who had the superior sports team, no wacky cops wisecracking in the corner. It was just a train full of commuters who looked and behaved like most of the commuters I know at home, except that most of them appeared to be better dressed because they were going to Manhattan office jobs instead of San Francisco startups.

When the train disgorged us at 14th Street, I'm not exactly sure what I expected. I have in fact been in stations which require you to transfer before, including stations with multiple levels and even multiple public transit services (I'm looking at you, Civic Center).

What I was not prepared for was the sheer mass of people surging through a station filled with other people all urgently pushing to get onto the trains they needed. One woman muttered a surprisingly understated “shit” when she saw that the platform she wanted to get on to to board her train wasn't just full, but overflowing up the stairs and snaking across the floor to the next level. Her response was remarkably restrained, especially considering the fact that you New Yorkers are supposed to be masters of the fine art of profanity.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't really understand what I was doing when I transferred, so I watched trains spin around me in a haze, wandered around several levels, possibly entered Narnia, and finally asked a policeman for help. For me, this is a sign of abject despair.

“You want an F Train? What you want an F for?”

“Er, to get to 23rd Street?” I said, timidly, hating the fact that confusion and authority had reduced me to uptalk.

“You can take the Q or the R,” he said (or at least that's what I think he said), and I obediently trotted back to the platform he'd pointed at, boarded the first train going...North? South? West? I don't know, it's all very confusing. Anyway, it was apparently the right direction, because lo and behold, the train stopped at 23rd Street and I emerged blinking into the outside world, only to cry with triumph “hey, I know that building!” when I saw the Flatiron.

Sadly, the Flatiron was not where I needed to go, but the story of how I got lost trying to find an office that was two blocks away from the Flatiron building does not bear telling at this juncture, lest you think me utterly incompetent.

So that was my first day on the New York subway. I bought a Metrocard all by myself, asked an unfriendly and skeptical policeman about where to change trains, didn't get harassed once (clearly, my strategy of wearing short skirts and cleavage-exposing tops worked like a charm), sort of got on the wrong L but managed to find myself on the right one after my train stopped and showed no signs of moving, thus leading me to conclude that perhaps I should try another one, and saw not a single musical performance of any kind, to my immense disappointment.

To my astonishment, on the next day, not one but TWO remarkable things happened:

The first was that I stepped on the foot of a woman wearing open-toed shoes, and let me say that I am well aware that there is a lot of me to step, particularly when I am wearing heels (which I was), and she apologized to me. New York, are you feeling all right? Do you need your temperature taken?

The second was that an xoJane reader recognized me! She said she didn't realize who I was until I got off the train which is why she didn't say hi, but it's okay, Erika, you can admit it: I wouldn't say hi to a red-faced monster dripping in sweat either.

Would I do it again? Well, I sort of have to, so, yes. But I have to say, I can't wait to snuggle up with a BART train when I get back to California.

1. To be fair, some of that might be Sandy damage. Return