Under the City
Having lived in New York City for two years, Toronto for three years and now Chicago for six years, I’ve ridden a lot of subways in these three cities and, let me tell you, all subways are not created equal.
In New York, there are just too many people going to too many places in too much of a hurry. Once the doors open, it’s everyone for themselves. People have to shove to get off the train because people are shoving to get on the train. There’s just no time to be polite. It just wouldn't be efficient. And after a while, you just become inured to the wierdness: Okay, that guy just ate a live chipmunk. Ho hum.
In Toronto, orderliness is the rule of the day. The doors open and everyone on the platform politely stands aside while the passengers file off, then everyone files onto the nice, clean train. I suppose since it’s a grillion degrees below zero most of the time, if orderliness and consideration wasn’t the norm, you’d die.
Chicagoans fall somewhere in between. Sure, Chicago is a large city with lots of people but it’s tempered by the fact that this is still the Midwest and not New York.
New York’s subways are old, gritty, and the stations are not air conditioned. If you want to experience Hell on Earth, try waiting in a lower-level subway station in the summertime. Those city streets just radiate heat into the concrete stations so that it's like waiting for a train in a pizza oven. Literally, it can reach 125 degrees down there. The platforms reek of steaming urine and tracks are littered with half-poached rats. It’s not pretty. (And this is after Giuliani cleaned up the city). You really have to be a tough puppy to ride the subways in New York.
Toronto, on the other hand, has nice, clean, civilized subways. Taxes are super-high in Canada. For example, a six-pack of domestic beer will set you back about twenty bucks. That much tax revenue will clean up a lot of urine in a lot of subway stations. Also, there’s a Starbucks at every single subway station in downtown Toronto. Now that’s what I call civilized.
Chicago’s subways are in between. They’re dirty only because Chicagoans can’t go five minutes without eating. And fried chicken seems to be the meal of choice while riding the CTA. Really. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been riding the train with my nose in a book and boom, the smell of KFC Original Recipe blasts through the car. Before sitting down on a train in Chicago, you’d better check for chicken bones.
New York’s subway system has 254 stations. If you’re a musician playing for money and want passengers to donate, you’d better be unique. I’ve been amazed at the variety of music below the streets. I’ve seen instruments that I didn’t even know existed. Want to hear someone playing the sacbut? It’s there.
Okay, I just like saying "sacbut."
In Toronto, again, things are civilized and subsidized. If you want to play in a subway station, you have to have a permit and be hired by the City of Toronto to do so. Subsequently, you’ll hear a lot of nice Classical music below the icy streets.
Chicago’s subway stations seem to be dominated by a few regular locals. There’s the old woman who plays the violin, guitar, tambourine, whistles and tap dances at the same time. She knows only one song, though, consisting solely of A minor and E major chords. Then there are the two guys that drum on plastic buckets in the tunnel between the Red and Blue lines downtown. They’re really loud.
One day, I was down there and I heard rap music and groaned. (I don’t consider “rap” to be music anyway – it’s prose that’s yelled over a computerized drum beat). But this guy was not even doing that. This clown was lip-synching to rap! That has got to be the lowest form of performance art I’ve ever seen in a subway station.
New Yorkers would have laughed at him.
He would have been arrested in Toronto.
And I wanted to throw him in front of the oncoming Red line.