Street Walkin’

-         - by Michael!

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 Street, the 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 City.

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.

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 same way.

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.

They are your armor.

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.

Bring your headphones.

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.”

Don’t do it.

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 OK.

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 going.

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.