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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!


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.

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