My brother showed me a small metal disc–a “slug,” he called it–when I was in the fifth grade. He’d begun traveling to Manhattan to sporadically attend Stuyvesant High School, and brought back to our little aluminum-sided house in Flushing all manner of illicit, strange materials. “You use this to get on the subway,” my brother explained, and in a rare gesture of kindness, he allowed me to briefly handle the strange object. It was flat and round and looked like gunmetal. The edges were a little ragged, as if it had been hastily cut from a longer cylinder of this alloy, which may very well have been true. The implications were fascinating: this meant that there was an effort by an unknown number of people in an undisclosed location to fabricate counterfeit subway tokens. Where were they dispensed? What did they cost? Or were they given out for free, a subversive attempt by some anarchist group to undermine the Transit Authority? How was it determined that this slug would work? I imagined hundreds of people arrested for slipping aluminum can tabs and Canadian nickels into the subway turnstiles, to ultimately arrive at the conclusion that this miraculous material would do the trick. While these thoughts turned over in my fifth grade brain, my brother snatched back the slug and retreated into his darkened bedroom. Any discussion I might have wanted to have about this counterfeit token was preemptively concluded.
Things have changed in the New York City subway over the last quarter century. For one thing, subway tokens do not exist. They were slowly phased out in the late 90s for the slimmer and less intriguing MetroCard, a payment system where you fill a card with money and then swipe it at turnstiles’ electronic readers until it is bankrupt. It is, by and large, a better system than the subway token, particularly since it has allowed for unlimited weekly and monthly passes. Yet the disappearance of the token is a social loss, another case where the need to interact with each other is replaced by automation and self-involvement. My MetroCard isn’t handled by hundreds and thousands of people before being slipped into my pocket, it’s die-cut by a machine and shrink-wrapped specially for the mechanical dispensers which issue each card individually through an exactly-measured slot. I can’t give someone else a fare off of it without screwing my own entrance into the subway, there’s no evidence of this MetroCard’s past users for me to examine. It’s a perfectly useful, sterile, disposable item, worth no more scrutiny than a movie ticket or instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle. It’s a symbol for the modern New York City subway: almost all stainless steel cars with their respective lines displayed in brilliant, red LED lights visible from the last station. A computer-generated female voice announces the station location and possible subway transfers, followed by a booming male voice admonishing you to STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Subway mezzanines are adorned with sanctioned sculptures and mosaic tile pieces of New Year’s Eve revelers and students and commuters and every kind of person or dream-thing that might wander into a subway station except for MTA employees. They’re a necessary evil, the men behind the curtain that keep the Wizard of Oz afloat.
The first time I made a foray into Manhattan without the guidance of my parents, I was ten years old. My friend Brian convinced me that riding the subway into the city would be a kick. Heavily into trains and roller coasters, Brian would draw elaborate track systems, complete with switches and crossings, in number two pencil on scratch paper. I agreed to go along for lack of anything better to do, and because we’d already successfully navigated an adult-free trip to the Bronx Zoo on the Q44 bus. We walked to Main Street and got on the 7 train to Times Square, where, Brian explained, we would transfer to an uptown train and check out the Museum of Natural History. I’ve mentioned before that riding the subway was a scary prospect when I was young, and scarier than the flickering lights and calamitous noise and track fires and stick-up kids was the fact that there was barely any way to tell what the fuck was going on. The maps and windows were covered in graffiti, the public address system unintelligible, and when you finally stepped out onto a train platform and into the station, proceeding onward was like solving a befuddling and very wordy mystery. The mezzanine where the 7 train met the West Side trains was a confluence of signage of every shape and color, in every font and style, each one seeming to describe a different subway system entirely. Interborough Rapid Transit? Downtown IND? Why was there an RR train but no R train? What was an NQ train? I am grateful to this day that Brian knew what train to get on, because had it been left to me, we’d probably still be wandering around those concrete, piss-soaked hallways. Though today, the piss has been largely scrubbed clean.
The New York subway was once a mysterious city within a city, a world with its own economy and social graces, a mash up of different rolling stock and maddening line designations. Part of my youthful perspective was undoubtedly owed to my own naivete; as I struggled to comprehend an adult world, I floundered in grasping the subway, a world which many adults themselves struggled to understand. But the subway was a lot dirtier, a lot less accommodating, it was thronged with confidence men and marks, performers and audiences, the world-weary and those brimming with optimism. The New York City subway is better now, overall, I don’t think anyone can deny that. It gets you where you need to go in a reasonably predictable amount of time (except on weekends, when the subway is a fucking mess), it’s relatively clean, well-lit, and most of the stations are in good repair. It’s a system that a tourist can navigate after getting lost once or twice. But the extinction of the subway token, and it’s counterfeit counterpart, was an intangible loss to the subway, a loss which can be sensed all over the island of Manhattan, at least to those who have lived in New York for the last thirty or so years. It’s a lack of personality, a deficit in secrecy, a utilitarian drive to make New York City the most visited city in the world. I can understand why that happened and continues to happen. I just wonder what will be worth visiting when every nuance is ultimately stripped away.
Hey, folks: I ripped off two of the pictures used in between the paragraphs of this essay from the NYC Vintage blog, which you should visit here: http://nycvintage.blogspot.com/. It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s still a trove of great information and insight.