Friday, May 25, 2012

Thoughts of Places: The Underground

There was an old woman sitting in the long pasty white hallway lined with linoleum tiles and reeking with the scent of an outhouse. Her fingers were curled at their ends and she had a plastic bowl sitting in front of her. She didn't gesture to anyone or even acknowledge them as they passed by, but her bowl still had a few coins in it. Her hands looked vaguely like claws and she clutched them to herself, but she couldn't avoid notice.

I guess what she wanted was notice. And I certainly did.

When I think of the subway, I think of that woman. Waiting for the Metro with the sleeve of my sweater firmly pressed against my nose to avoid the stench of the underground world of Paris is not a pleasant memory, however fond my thoughts are of my seven-year-old trip to the City of Lights.

And unpleasantness pretty well characterizes my opinions of most underground transportation.

So I guess I didn't actually ride my first subway train until I was around seven. If I did before then, I can't remember when. It might have been in Los Angeles, though that car is so filled with exhaust fumes and honking drivers that I can't imagine going anywhere in the city without a set of wheels. But my first real memories of traveling underground are on the Metro.

If you were to compare subways to anything, you'd have to consider referencing a sewer. For all intents and purposes, that's where you are. You're below ground level and you're essentially traveling through an enormous pipe that can fit a giant train in it rather than just running water.

The first time I went to Paris, I might as well have been in a sewer. Every stop was a glorious reprieve from the terrible smell of the trains. A romantic and beautiful city Paris may be, but underground it most certainly is not.

Sitting on the trains, I'd cling to my mother's clothes to be sure she didn't get swallowed up by the crowds of people that overtook us. The room felt like a tightly packed can of sardines. It smelled like one too.

I couldn't wait to get off. And I couldn't imagine anything worse.

Then I got to New York.

New York, like Paris, is an exciting and wonderful city. When you're in the nice parts of town, you can experience culture, nature, innovation and soft pretzels all within a short walk from one another. There's no end to the possibilities.

But the innovation starts and ends atop the ground. Even worse than the Paris Metro is the New York Subway.

My dad is a New Yorker. He grew up in Brooklyn and took the subway to school. This is shtick that he should know. He didn't know a thing. We asked multiple people for directions. Once we finally got on the right train, we couldn't wait to get off. Everything about it was dank and dirty. Where New York thrives and growth and expansion, in the subway system the graffiti-covered trains speak only to a destitute history.

So when I got to Chicago I thought things would be better. And admittedly, they are. The El trains aren't terribly disgusting. The people who ride them don't seem deranged like some people I encountered in Paris and New York. But they're still sub-par.

Every ride is an ordeal with the trains only moving at a snail's pace. Delays are not uncommon and even when the El runs on schedule, you can never catch a train when you need it. The wait can often run upwards of 15 minutes. For a city-funded operation, you'd think they could at least invest in some padded plush seating to placate disgruntled commuters.

Complain as I do about the terrible offerings of Paris, New York and Chicago, I think the real basis of my disdain is that I've seen the future. The future is clean and tidy. It consists of couch-esque seating. It doesn't take 15 minutes for the next train to arrive.

My first time on the London Underground was in 2007 when I was making my way into the city from Heathrow Airport with my dad. It was the train to Cockfosters. If you've been from Heathrow into Central London then you know what I'm talking about. And perhaps you've laughed every time you hear the female voice say "Cockfosters" too.

Even if you haven't, you've definitely sat on the seats. And you know that if you're going to sit on any public transportation seat for 45 minutes, it had better be on the Tube.

I've gone on for blogs and blogs about how much I love London, I'm sure. It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have an unhealthy affinity for the place. There is no city to equal it in the world.

But if I'm going to make the case for this city, it has to be the fact that even the most menial offerings it has are somehow head and shoulder's above any other cities'. Going onto the London Underground is not like waiting for a Chicago El ride. There is always a sign that tells you when the next train is coming and it never switches to an advertisement. Even better, the trains usually arrive within a few minutes of each other. And they travel quickly.

The only time I've ever seen a rival to the Tube is in Tokyo. While I didn't ride their trains extensively, what I saw was a pure white, safe and traveler-friendly transportation system where people, however squished together, are relatively friendly and courteous. For each stop, the name of the destination is written out in Kanji (non-phonetic Japanese characters), Hiragana/Katakana (phonetic Japanese characters) and Romaji (Japanese words in the Latin alphabet). Everything is straightforward. Even I, who knew nothing about the city, made my way around with ease.

And after my experiences in these luxurious public transit systems, it has become even more of a chore to go into Chicago twice a week for class via El. The trains always smell faintly of an odorous topical medication. Often you will find yourself tipping over the edge of the track on a swift turn and feeling like you're about to plunge to your death. And even with all that adherence to quality, they still can't seem to get the trains to arrive quickly enough.

In places like London, I can't get enough of the subway. I have a necklace with a charm on it that has the Underground logo of a red circle with a blue line in the center.

So give me a reason to travel, CTA, Metro, Subway. You have examples set for you. Take the advice.

No comments:

Post a Comment