A Belated Hooray for the MTA

A memoir by Mary Houts 

For several weeks after we moved from the country to Brooklyn, I dreaded the idea of taking the subway by myself. Going with my husband was fine.  He grew up near New York City and was an old hand.  But to me, the subway was forbidding and suspect. It was dark, smelly and scary.  I saw rats down there on the tracks.  I thought that if I stood on the yellow line along the edge of the platform I might suddenly fall in.  How could I be sure that the route wouldn’t suddenly be changed without my knowledge?  Using the subway system on my own was one of the most difficult adjustments that I had to make to city life. I despaired of ever feeling like a real New Yorker.

At first I tried to reason with myself into going solo, but without much success. The process went something like this:

Argument:  “You take trains and buses without any fuss, so what’s the big deal.”

Counter-Argument:  “Trains and buses travel where you can see the sky and the earth. The subway is unnatural, it moves you around in the dark.”

Argument:  “You’re not a novice at riding subways in other cities, so why should the MTA seem so repellent? Couldn’t you drum up the feeling of adventure and excitement that you used to feel when riding the London Underground or the Paris Metro?”

Counter-argument: “Everything is an adventure and exciting in a foreign country. Besides, those two cities give you a lot more information at each station about where you are and how to get where you’re going.  The MTA, on the other hand, is a little coy about putting up maps. They’re not always where I can find them. Much of the time their announcements are made by people who mumble into P.A. systems that seem to be designed to muffle sound. At rush hour it’s impossible to see station names through a solid wall of  standing humans.  I like to know where I am at all times.”

Argument:  “Think about it, you rode the subway on trips to New York with your mother       when you were a little girl in the 1940’s and you remember those trips were fun.” 

 Counter-Argument:  “My mother knew her way around.  Besides, back then subway rides were one of  the few times I ever got to eat candy. They had those machines attached to platform posts that you put a penny into and a little Hershey bar came out.  The MTA doesn’t have those anymore.”

 Argument:  “Millions of people ride the subways each day in New York City and don’t seem to  mind.   Could they all be wrong?”

 Counter-Argument:  “Very possibly.”

This kind of internal struggle between my rational and not-so-rational-self went on for some time.   But we no longer had a car and I finally realized that we would go broke if I continued to take taxis on my frequent trips to Manhattan and to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  I decided that there was nothing for it but to take the plunge.

The MTA’s HopStopNYC website proved to be a godsend.   It seemed like a miracle that it would tell me exactly how to get from my house to any address in the five boroughs.  Using it always gave my spirits a boost.  It was like following a treasure map with very explicit instructions. And the fact that it let me know how many calories I would burn up and how much air pollution I would be saving made each trip seem like both a health bonus and a public service. For a while I kept the HopStop  print-outs clutched firmly in my hand  every time  I reluctantly descended into the maw of  a station to make my way into the unknown.  Amazingly, the trains went where they were supposed to.  Even though there were still moments of deep concern when a train seemed to be taking an unusually long time to get from one station to another, or when one would stop between stations for no apparent reason, the MTA slowly began to gain my trust.

I began to relax enough to start looking around at my fellow passengers.  At first I couldn’t understand why old people like me were so poorly represented. It didn’t take long for me to learn from my own experiences as someone well over 70 that using the subway almost daily is not for sissies.  On the days when I was feeling my age, dragging myself over to the station and then facing the stairs and the crowds turned out to be quite a challenge. One excellent thing about being an old person on the subway, however, was that when it was crowded someone usually offered me his or her seat.  At first I hated it and thought, “Damn!  Do I look THAT old?” but I soon learned to accept gratefully.

Even though there aren’t many old folks, large numbers of people of all other ages in all walks of life can be seen.  In fact, people watching on subways is, I discovered, about as good as it gets. Unlike making my way on the sidewalks of Manhattan where it is necessary to concentrate on not getting mowed down by fellow pedestrians, riding on the subway gives me time  to observe the people I see and to mull over the human condition.  Plus, on the lighter side, people on the subway provide an on-going fashion show which helps me keep up with the trends.   From my forced examinations of riders’ extremities during rush hour excursions, I am able to report that men are favoring square-toed shoes this year.  And much to my dismay there is an alarming tendency recently among young women (and some older ones) to exit their apartments wearing tights uncovered by a skirt or slacks. On some this looks better than on others. There are also wonderfully unique ensembles to behold.  I remember being on the ‘A’ Train going uptown and seeing  a man with a bushy beard who was wearing blue jeans, work boots and a black and red checked flannel shirt. This outfit didn’t seem to harmonize with his waxed and curled moustache and his red nail polish, but after all, I reminded myself, this is New York.

Now that the subway system no longer seems like an evil adversary I have grown to respect it mightily.  I am in awe of the fact that it provides remarkably efficient transportation for this enormous metropolitan area at remarkably low cost to users. Riding it has taught me to stay alert to where I am and who is around me. And now that I have become more sure of myself as a passenger I have unparalleled opportunities for people watching. It  gives me time to get a lot of reading done as well.  I’m beginning to feel like a real New Yorker.


Mary Houts left her car behind when she moved three years ago from a farm in Pennsylvania to an apartment in Brooklyn. Learning to get over the initial shock of having to trade  door to door  trips under her own steam for public  transport has been only  one of the challenges and  many joys that she has discovered are a part of city life.