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(Kim Rosen FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(Kim Rosen FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why 'the subway charms us so' Add to ...

This article was originally published September 20, 2008.

Here's what you probably don't want. You don't want your subway car taken over by a heist gang led by Robert Shaw. You don't want your car invaded by menacing Coney Island disco cowboys. You don't want to sit next to vampires, werewolves, demons, superheroes or peroxided hipsters who live down there all the time.

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That first predicament (for the other illusions, see below) is the plot of 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. One of the best subway movies ever made, it's also a film that crystallizes a fear of the subway system. Going underground equals hazard: The threats are rarely as spectacular as grand theft or supernatural invasion, but, in real life, they do run from threatening drunks to deadly assault with a screwdriver or terrorist bomb.

Most of us therefore view the subway as at best annoying and at worst dangerous, and use it only when we have to. Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker, sensitive as always, said this about New York City: "Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS." I know, right?

But in an era of soaring fuel prices and precious boutique hotels, what about indulging in the subway as a form of tourism? Opportunity costs are minimal, adventures abound and the journey is sometimes more interesting than the destination.

Everyone who lives in a city with a below-grade transit system knows that the subway is the jittery basic conduit of urban life, a combination of nervous system, arterial exchange mechanism and moving playground of the unconscious. Heated by the weight of concrete and desire above and the mantled earth below, it is a crucible of human interaction. The subway, hidden from view at grade, is a city's real centre.

A woman, riding late on the Q in New York, observes a crackhead light her pipe as other patrons move away in alarm. Offered a chummy hit, she takes it. "I didn't want to smoke it, but wondered, 'Is this like being in a very poor country and you have to choose between taking their only food or insulting them if you don't?' " The higher etiquette!

On the Bloor line in Toronto, college students in fancy dress swarm a car late at night and immediately begin conducting a debate in the style of the Oxford Union.

A toothless woman on the Boston Red Line asks a young man to "start her apple" for her.

A philosophy professor - okay, it was me - is confronted in the Prague subway by a broken-nosed undercover cop in a windbreaker and is arrested for lack of a fare ticket. I confess that the red-haired anarchist who was escorting me to an anti-globalization conference had persuaded me not to pay. "We never pay," she said. Subway anarchism!

ROMANCING THE RAILS

Every city's subway has a different vibe, a different smell. The Métro in Paris, smooth on its rubber wheels, smells like bad gas.

Chicago's rickety Loop trains offer time travel; you fade into black and white riding them.

In London, the dank tiled stations resemble defunct psychiatric institutions, cruel mazes of narrow tunnels and long flammable escalators. (Martin Amis's novel Success depicts someone afflicted with a fully rational fear of entering this troglodytic pit.)

San Francisco, true to its bourgeois-bohemian dualities, has both the BART, into Berkeley and Oakland, with clean trains and orderly queuing, and the disastrous inner-city MUNI system, with its platform brawls, turnstile-jumping and train deaths.

Los Angeles, a place where people are ashamed to admit that they use the subway, actually has a nice one, with carpeted trains, Frank Gehry architecture and handsome bums who look like - maybe are - out-of-work actors.

Seattle and Vancouver have skytrains, which are somehow neither properly futuristic in the domed-city mode nor as cool as the old el-trains still to be seen in some parts of New York or Chicago.

Tokyo's massive system is a spaghetti tangle of lines teeming with fashion, insobriety and too many people. (A character in a Russell Smith novel missing his Japan-bound crush: "He saw her being pushed into a wad of people on a bullet train by a pudgy uniformed official, a fragile skein of Western silk being bent to fit through Lilliputian doors.")

Many cities feature stations that are marvels of beauty and structure: Moscow, Stockholm, Washington, Montreal, Beijing's new lines. Most of them harbour abandoned and hidden stations, lines and chambers, where, if you're lucky, you may be invited for a secret birthday party, avant-garde theatre performance or surveillance-busting scavenger hunt.

All of them offer a cheap ride that can take you to the farthest reaches of a place: Van Cortlandt Park, Cockfosters, Fremont, Shin-Shibamata. They can also stop you dead in your tracks, lights out, on the way to a movie premiere or a crucial rendezvous.

T.S. Eliot, in East Coker: "[W]hen an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations/ And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence/ And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen/ Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about." Feel the darkness of God for the price of one token!

You can fall in love in the subway. You can read a book ostentatiously, telling people you are a Jane Austen kind of guy or a Jonathan Lethem kind of girl. You can hang from the bars and pretend you are a monkey. You can smell people's feet, hear their dumb ideas, see them eat and sometimes vomit. This is democratic social space, my friends, with all the anxieties and possibilities that such space implies.

The tourist on the subway is both present and absent in the visited city, alien and ordinary, commuting without a job to go to. If travel is about feeling the chills of sameness and difference, there is maybe no better way.

Some people take the subway seriously, and that has its pleasures if you are of the obsessive sort. There are underground schedule freaks just as there are overland trainspotters. Foamers are people who get excited by looking out the window of the front car of a train, or near the edge of the platform as one comes in. Frotteurs rub up against people in intimate ways.

Tube challengers compete to see who can visit every station in the vast London system in the shortest time. Harry Beck's iconic diagram of the Underground, a classic of 20th-century graphic design, indicates the scope of this challenge.

This map is not the territory; it is not even a map. Beck's diagram does not pretend to correspond accurately to the city's geography. Maybe because of that, its abstract beauty has inspired artwork from Simon Patterson's The Great Bear, where station names are replaced with the names of actors, philosophers, politicians and celebrities, to Alan Nazerian's series of oil paintings and stained-glass panels by Mimi Lipson.

In Toronto, meanwhile, the wonderful sans serif station names - set in a font of unknown design reminiscent of Edward Johnston's London Underground Bold and Eric Gill's Gill Sans - have been repurposed as small pins for lapel or bag, courtesy of Spacing magazine. Wear your station.

COMMUTER CULTURE

All possible, and for just a few bucks a ride. Here is what you will need to make the most of your subway vacation.

Background viewing: Any or all of The TakingThe WarriorsUnderworld, Hellboy, Subway, Step Up 2: The Streets, The Seven Year Itch, Risky Business and Lost in Translation - also Alien, which isn't about subways but is about fear; Walker Evans's secret Polaroids of people commuting on the New York subway; and Lisa Gidley's amazing Station to Station project, a series of photos taken within a block of every subway station in New York City (http://www.spiraling.com/station).

Background reading: Thomas Pynchon's V, with playful subway "yo-yoing" up and down Manhattan; Jonathan Lethem's evocative Harper's essay, reprinted in The Disappointment Artist, about the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn; Maggie Helwig's novelGirls Fall Down, about bioterrorist plots in Toronto's subway; The Subway Chronicles, a collection of essays about New York's subway, by the known and the unknown. Tube challenging is unpacked at http://www.tubeforum.co.uk.

Background music: "Sitting on the IRT during rush hour, reading a newspaper while picking up snatches of two or three conversations as a portable radio blasts in the background and the train rattles down the track." This is how critic Robert Hurwitz described Glenn Gould's notion of "contrapuntal radio." Listen: The subway's natural noise is a found fugue.

Otherwise, shuffle your iPod to include these tunes (with thanks to critic Douglas Wolk): MTA, the Kingston Trio; Subway Train, New York Dolls; The L Train Is a Swell Train and I Don't Want to Hear You Indies Complain, Out Hud; Bled White, Elliott Smith; My My Metrocard, Le Tigre; Subway Song, The Cure; Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, The Jam; and of course Petula Clark's Don't Sleep in the Subway.

Don't forget at least one version of Take the "A" Train and either the Blossom Dearie or Ella Fitzgerald rendering of Rodgers and Hart's Manhattan: "It's very fancy/ On old Delancey/ Street you know./ The subway charms us so/ When balmy breezes blow/ To and fro."

For those who don't recall, that song begins this way: "Summer journeys to Niag'ra/ And other places aggra-/ vate all our cares./ We'll save our fares!" Do that. Take the metro instead, enter the heart and soul of the city, and turn wherever you are into an isle of joy.

Mark Kingwell is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and the author of 12 books, most recently Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy.

MIND THE GAP: WRITERS AND REPORTERS ON MEMORABLE METROS

ATHENS

Chaos is the Greek word for the original state of the universe, and not much seemed to have changed when I first explored Athens in 1975. Back then, the capital was renowned as a city to get away from as quickly as possible, but the traffic jams made even escape a drawn-out trial. If modern Athens is easier on the nerves, it's largely because of the upgraded metro system - surprisingly efficient and remarkably beautiful. A city that boasts the Parthenon already knows something about beauty, but the marble metro stations, adorned with ancient objects uncovered during the subway's construction, increase the aesthetic thrill. And then there's the promise of impulsive subway travel: One Sunday during the 2004 Olympics, I took a ride to the port of Piraeus. Within minutes of leaving the station, I was in a new world of crashing surf and ferries embarking for mythic islands.

John Allemang is a feature writer at The Globe.

BEIJING

I've been lucky enough to live in cities with incredible subway systems. For seven years, for instance, I was based in Moscow, where the crumbling socialist murals and heroic statuary of the metro are a stunning evocation of a time when ideology mattered more than oil revenue.

Until recently, Beijing's subway was a more humble affair, covering only a limited portion of the city. But the Olympics sparked a massive expansion, and, like the city itself, the metro is now highly modern and ultra-efficient, with electronic maps of the train's station-to-station progress and tickets that cost just 30 cents.

It is crowded, of course. But the disorderly hordes are slowly yielding to the influence of the government's etiquette campaigns. And the democratic mix of passengers, a cosmopolitan mélange of white-collar yuppies and working-class migrants, is a glimpse into China's new society in all its diversity, energy and ambition.

Of course, if you watch from the corner of your eye, you might see subway riders checking you out, too, even snapping a quick photo. After all, China's booming economy has allowed millions of ordinary people to visit Beijing for the first time. And foreigners are still an exotic sight for a novice tourist from a remote Chinese town.

Geoffrey York is The Globe's China correspondent.

BUDAPEST

Inaugurated by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1896, Budapest's first subway line is the oldest in continental Europe. Ride on it and you'll feel like you've stepped back in time. But the city's metro also traffics in the here and now: You'll see old ladies in house dresses next to women in fur and heels, kissing couples, workers in blue overalls and bureaucrats punching messages into their phones. And, yes, there are those ticket inspectors - known for their surliness and universally disliked. A few years ago, Hungarian Nimród Antal even made a movie called Kontroll about their constant conflicts with each other and with passengers, making the metro seem like a wild, lawless place. As the rest of the city modernizes, though, the bureaucratic system of ticket inspectors may soon become as much a relic of the past as the first transit line. There is talk of replacing them with electronic gates.

Carolyn Banfalvi is the author of Food Wine Budapest.

PARIS

When I'm in Paris, I go down the steps to the métro and I feel myself entering the city's yin. Here is where Paris dreams of itself under half-lidded eyes. At Bastille, you're standing on the platform beside one of the corners of the destroyed prison wall. At the Louvre station, the benches are made of glass, as if the floors are works of art. Most of the stations are nondescript tubes filled with advertising, but their names advertise the city itself: Saint-Germain-des-Près, Opéra, République. The métro is Paris's cultural and historical mycelium. Above its network are the fruiting bodies of the city itself: its palaces and gardens. When you exit Charles de Gaulle-Étoile, you even find yourself standing under the most beautiful mushroom in the world: the Arc de Triomphe. But the most profound effect the métro has on me? It's that every time I enter it, I know when I exit, I'll still be in Paris.

Michael Redhill is a novelist currently based in France.

TOKYO

I didn't see the famed "push men" - who literally "push" people onto already overcrowded trains - on my visit to Tokyo. But even without that experience, riding the subway in Japan's capital is memorable. Not only is it one of the world's busiest transit systems (Shinjuku Station carries an average of 3,525,520 passengers a day), but it takes you to a world below the city that is often just as exciting as the one at street level. And just as dense. They say that if everyone had to exit all the underground trains and malls and all the above-ground buildings at once, there wouldn't be enough standing room. Which made me feel like I was getting a glimpse into my own city's distant future. One day, Toronto will be much denser and, because of gasoline prices, driving may become a luxury. Perhaps the only difference between Tokyo and Toronto will be those push men. I predict we'll still prefer to wait for the next train.

Dale Duncan is a contributing editor to Spacing magazine.

 

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