Just over four weeks ago, I moved to Manhattan for a new job
with Chautauqua Opera – my exact title appears to be “Chief Herder of Cats,”
which I’m loving – and immediately started helping the company prepare to move
upstate. While the main office for the opera is on 42nd
performances are in Chautauqua itself – which is almost as far westward as you
can go and still be in New York, a gorgeous seven- or eight-hour drive from the
I had about three weeks to learn my way around NYC,
commuting with the other millions of folks who call it their home. In general
I’m a fast learner, and I’ve traveled a lot, so I got the hang of it pretty
quickly. In fact, it’s a lot like the commuting to which I’d grown accustomed
elsewhere in the USA – just with more interesting smells.
So I thought, as a Public Service, I would provide a quick
and simple guide to using public transportation for those used to owning and
operating their own little gas-driven bubble of independence.
The key thing to remember is this: the people on the subway,
or on the bus, or on the ferry, or on the back of the cross-town sandworm, are not people
. Neither are you! You are
simply a physical object taking up a specific amount of space during a
transition from point A to point B.
And the kicker is, this is NOT different from the way you
already commute every day.
When you scream and yell at that [expletive deleted] Hummer
that just had to dash in front of you in order to advance half a foot in deep
traffic, you aren’t really yelling at a person. You’re yelling at a physical
object taking up a specific amount of space that just happened to inconvenience
You don’t try to talk to the cars next to you on the highway
in the morning. You just try to keep track of where they’re going and otherwise
ignore them unless they get in your way. Then you honk at them.
The sidewalks of Manhattan and the subways underneath work
in the exact
Some things about public transit are better than driving. For
instance, reading a book is frowned upon while driving. Not only do other
people tend to think it’s “dangerous” or some such nonsense, the multitasking
involved greatly decreases your enjoyment of the book, which is a much better
reason not to read while driving. However, you can read for almost every minute
of your subway ride! You can also listen to your own music with just as much
freedom as in a car, provided you brought your headphones.
You really, really want to bring your headphones.
I found myself often wearing headphones long after the
miserably short battery life of my Droidran out simply to ensure that I would
have some peace while reading. They are an unmistakable sign that this person
is interested in what they’re already doing, and do not necessarily want to
discuss politics, religion, or the growing incursions of the CIA into your
frontal lobes with a complete stranger, thank you very much.
Another thing that will help when traversing any form of
public transportation is to know how to get where you’re going, and then get
there. Yes, there are neat things to see on the sidewalks of New York, London,
or Paris. There are also neat things to see just off of Highway 285 in Atlanta.
Coming to a complete stop in order to take in the view in any of these
locations is going to earn you some “honking.”
You may get confused at some point with the warren of
different possibilities for routes, streets, avenues, and whatnot. Getting lost
is OK, even though we’re in the Google age and you definitely could have taken
care of that before you left Point A. But standing on a street-corner in any
commuter city with your four-feet-square map spread out in front of you as though
you’re accompanying Indiana Jones and have to find the three-piece Golden
Monkey before the Nazis do is not
Find an alcove or an alleyway before pulling that thing out.
Better yet, look around for five seconds, find a donut shop,
buy a $1 cup of coffee (yes, you can buy a cup of coffee for a dollar) and ask
for directions. People will help you, if you ask nicely – they’re not rude, but
they’re also not your tour-guide. Be polite, make fun of yourself a little, and
say “please,” and they’ll probably smile and explain how to get where you’re
But please… Don’t stop in the middle of the flow of traffic
to search intensely for your Point B. It’s just as rude as people who sit at a
green light because they’re too busy talking on their phone to pay attention to
the fact that the rest of us have places to go.
In short, treat your time in public transit like you would
treat your time in a car. Move as quickly as you can with safety, don’t pester
the people around you unless you absolutely have to, and keep an eye out for
homeless people throwing half-full beer cans at your face.
OK, maybe it’s not exactly
the same – but close enough.