Not even COVID will make me abandon it
This spring I spent two weeks having an affair with an electric car. But I have come to my senses and returned to my family: the letters and numbers of the New York City Subway. Why such loyalty to a beat-up old sprawl of train and track, a system that has lost two thirds of its riders since the pandemic tore the city apart? Because I owe the subway for my child’s earliest education and the basis for the bond we formed as father and son.
Unlike undergrounds in most cities, Manhattan’s system is iconic, instructional and oddly child friendly. You need only know that the “1–2–3” line is red and that the “4–5–6” is green and that these numbers may take you up or down the island of Manhattan. Letter-wise things are less clear. Why are A’s, C’s, and E’s blue and F’s, B’s, and D’s orange? To the adult this doesn’t quite make sense. For a child it is sense incarnate.
As a freelancer with a working partner, the task of whiling away afternoons often fell on my shoulders. When my son was still small I would strap him in a carrier facing out at exactly the height of the subway map. Even before he could read I sensed him staring at it, parsing red from green. Soon he began making specific destination requests.
“Today I want to go to Van Siclan Avenue!” Where was Van Siclen Avenue? What could possibly be there that was of interest to him? But to Van Siclen Avenue we went. His excitement grew as we neared Van Siclen Avenue in the same way other children might thrill at the sight of a highway sign indicating “next exit, Disneyland”. And he was never disappointed. We would arrive at Van Siclen or some other far flung station and descend the platform. I always hoped we’d stumble upon some undiscovered ethnic neighborhood with interesting food. But mostly these stations were in thrown-together neighborhoods with random assortments of check cashing and fast food establishments. The most exciting thing we ever found was an odd revamped diner at a desolate station called Hunters Point Avenue. I ordered a grilled cheese for my son and was presented with a bizarre brioche and gruyere creation that he hated and that cost seventeen dollars. Later I would read in The New York Times that the diner was a new hipster restaurant called M Wells and that it was worth the trek. We had accidentally scooped the New York Times by a year.
My son had not only memorized the service changes and the path of our normal routes. He had memorized the entire subway system. All 21 interconnected routes, all 468 stations. At parties, I’m ashamed to admit, I would goad him to recite the A line from memory.
As the complexity of my child’s mind grew so too did the complexity of his requests. Van Siclen Avenue was no longer enough. Now, a route had to be plotted involving multiple transfers. The A to the G to the L to the end of the line near the Canarsie Pier. On that trip fishing polls were brought (for fishing had been my childhood version of the subway, my skill set that I’d mastered at my son’s age). We wandered out onto the pier where Russians dismally plied the waters for herring. We made several casts and that was it. “Daddy, I want to get back on the L. And I want to transfer at Myrtle Avenue to the M and then get on the R at Canal . . .”
Soon subways began invading his non-subway time. He began taking the subway map into his room nightly and studying it. We would often find him asleep with the map covering his face. One morning after a particularly late night of study Esther caught him staring off into space. “What are you thinking about?” she asked. “I’m thinking about the G line,” he said dreamily.
The benefits of this intense study were finally realized one Saturday when we were trying to ride from Manhattan’s southwest corner to the northeast — a surprisingly difficult task nowadays as the City renovates the century-old network. We were about to transfer at the midtown hub of 59th Street when he threw a fit of protest. “No, no, no. Grand Concourse. GRAND CONCOURSE DADDY!” I listened more intently to the usually unintelligible conductor’s announcement and understood that I had not understood. He was right. He had been quietly logging the weekend service changes. These he blended with the information he’d caught out of the corner of his eye on his mother’s subway iPhone app. And then it hit me. My son had not only memorized the service changes and the path of our normal routes. He had memorized the entire subway system. All 21 interconnected routes, all 468 stations. At parties, I’m ashamed to admit, I would goad him to recite the A line from memory.
Our love of our son was such that we could only encourage his passion thinking that it would lead to better things. Which it did. The base numbers 1–7 the subway provided led to a fascination with an abacus he’d been given that was by coincidence color coded in a subway-esque fashion. Addition and subtraction followed as did a very precise understanding of other ordered systems. The lettered subway lines led to books about subways (there are many) which caused him to abandon map study for reading at bedtime (albeit about subways). And the subway was eventually integrated into play. We had foolishly put him in a Spanish language pre-K even though we don’t speak Spanish. We hoped he would effortlessly become a fluent Hispanophone. He emerged instead a stubborn Anglophone monoglot but with one good friend who was also fluent in subway.
The novelist Vladimir Nabokov in his memoire Speak Memory recalls how as a boy he was fantastically good at mathematics and that in bouts of scarlet fever his mind did battle with huge calculations “monsters that thrived on my delirium” which he could kill only by finding these numbers’ square roots and “extracting their hearts”. Eventually Nabokov’s early gift for mathematics vanished, never to return. I wondered aloud to another father if something like this might happen with the subway. “You’ll see,” he replied, “Around about five they lose their superpowers.”
My son’s subway kryptonite came in the form of a subway bacchanal that spanned the weekend from Halloween to his birthday. When asked what he wanted to be for Halloween he replied that he’d like to be the G train. There are of course no ready made G train costumes and so I followed a Tiger Mom’s internet instructions for a simple subway costume she’d whipped up for her own subway-maniac (it took me an entire tear-filled day). On Halloween he became the G train and Trick-or-Treated proudly. A day later his entire kindergarten class came to our apartment which we decorated with Lexington-line-green streamers and number five subway icons. A yoga teacher led all 29 children through a course in subway yoga and then each child ate a cupcake bearing a green number 5. In a single weekend his age, subway line, his favorite dessert, even his physical appearance had merged. Then after each child left with a party favor bag that included a subway map my son’s cupcake sugar high crashed him hard and he slept it off like a drunk after a bender late into the following morning.
The subway soon vanished. The Brio track that caused many middle-of-the-night stubbed toes was put away without incident. He cared less and less if we took the 1 or the A to 59th street. He stopped insisting on certain transfers and then lost the superpower of even knowing where the transfers were. The subway’s heart had been extracted and killed. A year later there was not a whiff of subways in his deeds or words. He was playing board games with friends. He was interacting in groups. He was in short a normal, happy boy. The subway had done its job.
But as I considered the end of these last train-filled times an incredible sadness came over me. For three long years I had ridden the rails with my beautiful boy as he came into consciousness. And now those closest moments were receding down the tunnel of memory. We laugh about those subway times now with tears in our eyes but they are fading even as we laugh. Soon they will be no more than a glint and a flash as sparks fly off the wheels and the train disappears forever into the darkness.
More thoughts on the value of public transportation in The Climate Diet, out this spring from Penguin Press