In the City: Manhattan’s Bitch and Haven’t Head, Will Travel

If a person wants to know the value the city’s masters place on Manhattan and it’s rich residents below the have/have not border of 110th Street, all one has to do is compare the condition of Manhattan subway stations there, to ones in upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and the stations of the Staten Island Railway.

Mind you, this is relative. All subway stations in the city are disgusting. A general rule for being in a subway station is not to touch anything, not even benches. And for God’s sake, don’t wear flip-flops. Those who do may as well bathe their feet in feces everyday. Another valuable rule is to stand back from the edge of the platform. This seems like common sense, but everyone wants to know when the next train will arrive. They need the reassurance of information, so they lean out over the edge and look up the tunnel, hoping for a peek at some shine on the tracks from oncoming headlights off around the bend. The satisfaction of knowing is real, I won’t deny it, but this is how people get killed. They fall onto the tracks, they try to climb out instead of crawling into the people pit in between the tracks of every station, and get smacked by the train. Funny thing is, knowing the train is coming doesn’t make it show up any faster. You just spend the majority of your time staring up a dark tunnel, waiting, waiting, waiting, for any sign that the waiting is about to end. Me, I just take one quick glimpse when I get in the station, then it’s back against the wall to wait.

I had a customer when I was bartender describe something he saw in the tunnels once. He worked for the MTA as a track worker. He would tell me even my one cursory look up the tunnel was foolish, that all it took was a slip or bump from another waiting passenger, one fleeting moment of feeling faint, and that was it. He popped into the bar one day about a week after a crazy homeless person had pushed a woman down onto the tracks while a train was barreling into the station. Yet another reason to stay away from the platform edge. The train rolled over this poor woman. The operator got the train stopped, then he had to climb out and see if this woman was still alive. Part of the job. He climbs down out the front of the train with a flashlight, crawls underneath the carriage, among all the garbage and the slime, and finds a headless body, no sign of anything above the neck. This is when my customer comes in. Part of his job was responding to emergency situations like this. Not to save lives, but just to get the trains rolling again. The train was operational, but it was taken out of service after it ran over the woman. It needed to get to a yard for an investigation and a thorough cleaning. But it wasn’t going anywhere until they found this woman’s head.

“I’ll tell you man,” he told me. “We walked up and down those tracks for a half an hour before I finally found her head. It was a good hundred yards from the front of the train, way up the tunnel. Those things got some travel. They start rolling and it’s like a bowling ball. Give me another gin and tonic, will ya?”

So anyway, there’s a minimum level of filth that all stations meet. Shit, piss, puke, garbage, rats — it’s all there, even in places that add the smell of fresh paint and the shine of new wall tiles to the mix. But out in the boroughs...oh man. Seneca Avenue, an outdoor station on the M line, was just rated the worst in the city, with over 80% of station components failing an acceptability rating during a recent inspection. 80%! This includes such things as stairs and platform edges, making the station not just worn down and ugly, but dangerous to life and limb. Oh, it’s also the closest station to my apartment.

The day after Christmas, the city got hit with a blizzard. There’s nothing all that special about massive single-day snowfall totals here. It happens once a winter, usually. Sometimes twice. What this also had in common with every other major snowstorm I’ve seen since I’ve lived here is that the streets of the outer boroughs were the last to get plowed, some not getting cleared for days after the storm ended. Mayor Bloomberg declared the storm cleanup a success, after only peeking out his window onto the streets of Manhattan. Meanwhile, most of the city lay buried. Even way back in 1969, the city got blasted by a storm that the Lindsay administration failed to respond to properly. Where were the problem areas? The outer boroughs, of course.

Despite containing only 1.6 million of New York City’s 8.3 million people, Manhattan gets the lion share of the benefits of the city. Increased services, increased cleaning, increased maintenance, on and on and on. Disparity among the boroughs is a major factor that makes living in this city difficult. I’m not referring to things like income disparity or crime rates between the boroughs. Indeed, they play a huge part in a New Yorker’s sense of satisfaction with the city. What I am referring to are things the city can control. I can’t imagine a torched car sitting on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street for longer than a few minutes. But away from the shining center of the city, hulks like that can sit for days, weeks, even years if they’re squirreled away in the right corner.

People bear responsibility for treating their city properly, but the fact is, some people won’t, and that’s when the difference in the level of services becomes apparent. There’s a bus stop four blocks from here next to a cemetery that’s become nothing less than a dumping ground. Whole bags of garbage, food and beverage containers, dog shit — it’s a minefield for anyone trying to walk by. Could that happen outside the Trinity Church Cemetery downtown?

A person could fill a book with all the examples of the outer boroughs having to sacrifice standard of living to maintain Manhattan’s preeminence in the city. I’m ranting because I’m sick of it.