Delight at the end of De Tunnel

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“Call me up”, my partner said to him, “I’ll lend you my gun.”

1966: subway token 15 cents, gas, 32 cents per gal.

All machines really do, as Hyde writes, is, “shuttle tokens of energy.”token-1966-subway-token-2 ear buds.jpg

Lewis Hyde, Alcohol and Poetry

You, the subway rider are a unit, a token of energy that will flow

through the subway system to be delivered for use at the appropriate point.

 bright sneakers down esc DSC_9286 copy.jpgDown you go. Into the massive, energy movement machine:

You take street stairway S3* before you get to the escalator. And the air rising up from the subway is cool, it stays cool the spring/summer time of year. When the air above ground becomes sweltering the air below is cooler as the soil underground takes longer to heat up. Same thing happens in the the fall when the air above turns cold and the air below ground is still summer-hot. So you catch some relief when the seasons change. At least you have that.

As you descend you detect the background, “Arome de Subway”, the more benign scent of steel dust woven with a hint of fouler odors like the awful evidence of underpass urinators. It remains long after they’ve “gone.”


subway sleeper DSC_5333.jpgBut as you go deeper into the system, into the masses, you might encounter the stench of the unwashed, not just those who didn’t bathe recently but those who haven’t been in the neighborhood of water, other than their own, in weeks or months. These are the “skells,” in subway-cop jargon. But to our society they are the helpless homeless. They certainly are that…and they do need help.

But in the meantime, no passenger wants to be near them. When they need assistance, no medical personnel really wants to touch them, but they do, it’s their job. When they commit a crime, no cop wants to arrest them, but they must, it’s their job.  These lost Americans could be me or you or one of our loved ones, lost to that parallel world, that Calcutta on the Hudson, that world of mental illness, drugs, alcohol or all three…that is their world. There are over 60,000 homeless in NYC. Most are in shelters, but thousands more live “elsewhere.” There is no accurate count of the street/subway homeless:

Then there’s the roar. The roar of a subway train can cause deafening effects, sometimes Lee ear check finalIMG_2641.jpgfor life. Decibels measuring 92 to 102 are measured often. Sure, it’s bad for the ears of the riding public but Transit cops, and all who work in the subway are exposed to it for eight-hour shifts all year long for many decades. Most retire with as least some degree of hearing loss. Many, with severe loss.

Catch me, a retired Transit Detective, among my Brothers and Sisters at a Transit Police Fraternal Order of Police, ( FOP 317 ) meeting. You’ll see me straining to hear across the round tables or even to the person nearby saying, “What’s that?”, “Sorry?”, “Didn’t quite get that.”

Some trains are louder than others. A train trip that involved hydraulic brakes slamming into emergency can result in “flat wheels.” In those fast-stops, steel wheels sliding against steel track cause a flattening of the wheels at the point of contact. If this train proceeds in service then every time the flat section hits the track there’s a “clunk” sound. As the train speeds up all those clunks together become a roaring, steel bear whose howling reverberates off the tile walls of every station it runs through.

Then there’s the touch. Yes, at rush hour, millions of people edge or elbow each other to crowded train DSC_9145.jpgboard trains, trains which become packed with humanity. All these “tokens of energy” are being carried to their point of release. But a rider is sometimes jammed in a swaying, shifting, sea of flesh. Sometimes opportunists use this condition to release unwanted “energy” in touchings and feelings upon another. But they often get busted for the act. And not the kind of “bust” they were hoping to experience that day. See, Sex, Beneath the Surface:

Crime. Crime in the subway, as in NYC in general, is way down today compared to the days and nights when I patrolled that nether world. But there are fewer cops available to take crime reports today too, which might account for some of that decrease in stats. About 2000 cops staff today’s subways whereas 4,500 patrolled before the merge with NYPD in 1995. There is no doubt that people do feel safer seeing cops in the subway more often.


Cops Times Sq DSC_9203.jpgBut due to many factors. people in NYC and in the subway are safer. Most ride year after year without incident. But people still are victimized by pervs, pickpockets, bag openers, even robbers.

Recent stats compared subway crime between 1994, 23 crimes per day among 3.5 million daily riders to today’s, 6 crimes per day among 5.6 million daily riders:

But if you think only six crimes per day are committed on a subway that carries 5.6 million riders daily, please, get off at the Brooklyn Bridge station on the IRT and  go upstairs. I have an East river span I’d like to sell you.

Hell, I’ll bet six crimes are committed on every rush hour train run. Now, I’m not saying the books are cooked. Police Comm. Bill Bratton who was Transit Police Chief on my watch, plays it real. We old-time Transit cops knew statistics management-magic in the 60s. But without the police omnipresence the subway rider enjoyed in the past, many people don’t report crimes. They lose their anger and inclination to report a crime by the time they get home. They’d just as soon move on with their lives. So another crime goes unreported, and statistically…never happened. More recent spike-in-crime- news:

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Being struck by a train is a horrendous thought for riders to even think about. And when it happens it’s big news in the media. But more than five times the population of the U.S. rides the subway during the course of a year but only 131 of that number are struck by a train in an average year. About 35% are suicides, other events are falls, retrieving items from the tracks or walking into trains while intoxicated. Of that number forty one die per average year.

Sometimes people under trains miraculously survive, I’ve been under there with many of them. One was sitting there just looking like he had been in a fight. Another’s legs were so badly gashed and severed he later had to have them amputated. But he spoke with me about his musical career and how he came about falling. It was as if we were having a bar chat together. Shock will do that. Often, of course, there is severe dismemberment…or worse. Being under or around a subway train in the presence of such a gruesome death brings out disassociation. Cops joke, “Hey, ever had eyeballs dipped in salt…great!” I think it’s a stone wall some cops erect to make unreal what is very…vividly…real. It’s a survival mechanism some need to use.

One gent, a seemingly “amiable” neighborhood guy known to us jumped in front of a subway train and survived. At a later date he jumped off a three story building and survived that as well. My Radio Motor Patrol, (RMP) partner at the time, who had a good relationship with the gent, saw him in the street months later and said to him, “Next time you want to kill yourself, call me up. I’ll lend you my gun.” The gent laughed at the joke. He always was, “affable”. Yes, really doing quite well on the surface, but maybe just a bit too much like…Richard Cory.**

conductor DSC_9279.jpgIn the very rare event when someone is pushed in front of a train or any serious subway crime happens it gets media amplification not unlike that produced by the “flat wheels” described above, simply because…it happened in the subway. It’s more of a spectacle. And the press so does love spectacle.

People feel more vulnerable in the subway. They are confined, sometimes finding themselves alone as well. For this reason many people choose to ride in the first car with the Motorman or the middle cars with the Conductor. When waiting for a train you can position yourself for the conductor’s position by standing near the striped, black and white Indication Board, hanging from the overhead, midway down the platform. It’s purpose is to tell the Conductor he’s in the right position before he opens the doors. And more importantly, opening them…on the correct side of the train!

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The tiled-walled passages of the old, strictly-utilitarian era are now replaced in many areas with mosaic marvels. Art abounds where it was once considered unnecessary, frivolous. I think the old institutional squares of tiles induced a sense of imprisonment. Today’s colored murals, and statue-art, add a tone that is more conducive to friendliness, ease, almost comfort.

Subway mural IMG_6653.jpg

You might say they add a subtle kindness to an otherwise mechanical, assembly-line, factory-feel to the massive, energy movement machine, as it takes your “token of energy” to its appropriate point of release. It might not have been a fun ride, but there is delight at the end of your trip…when you go up sunway, S8…into the life creating…life affirming… sunlight!

Subway stairs S8 up DSC_9334.jpg

May you all be well…


For more subway posts click About, on top of page.

Also see my sunnier blog,

* Stairways are marked S for street stairway, P for Platform, M for mezzanine. They aid as reference points for accidents, crime, etc.

**Richard Cory poem:

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