Part Two of my non-chronological, written-after-the-fact recap of my trip to New York. Today’s focus is on some of the adventures in getting around the island: The Subway and the anathema of every tourist trap, the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus.
I don’t mean to get all West Coast Snooty here. I know New York is known for its subway. I know you had mass transit a century before we started getting around to it. But damn, BART’s got you beat, hands down.
Sure, BART doesn’t go ninety percent of the places you want to go in the Bay Area and you usually have to drive to a station, thus negating part of its purpose. Then again, the New York system seems to have some pretty major blind spots, too. I thought it would be as ubiquitous as the Underground in London. It is not. Good luck getting west of 7th Ave.
New Subway slogan: Harder to ride than BART and less useful than the Tube!
Seriously though, would it kill you to have more than one sign that says which train is coming next? BART only has one or two lines per station, but they still tell us when the next three trains are coming and where they’re heading. In New York, some stations had a fancy touchscreen directory that you could maybe, hopefully find when and where the next train is, but only after swiping through countless ads and screens not related to subway trains at all and whispering sweet nothings in the directory’s ear and cupping its balls just so. Other stations had one hanging sign, usually all the way down at the end of the track, often turned off. Other stations had abso-fucking-lutly nothing.
However, I like your idea of a local/express option. Locals stop at every stop, expresses only hit the major ones. There’s a lot of times I would like to have my BART train skip all the stupid stations where nobody gets on or off. And when Subway trains were listed as local or express, it was easy enough to figure out. Sure, with no forewarning, you pretty much had to wait till the train was on top of you to figure out if you should board or not, but at least the train itself was (usually) labeled. On the way out to the Mets game, we were told to take the express, and were quite happy to see 80% of the stations going by. On the way back, we couldn’t tell if express trains were running at all, so we boarded a local and took forty minutes to get back.
(Speaking of the 7 Train to the Mets game, here’s the only verification that we took public transit. Giraffes tend to get nervous underground.)
But then there are the expresses that aren’t listed as expresses. Rat bastards! The 1, 2, and 3 lines run on the same general track through Manhattan. The 1 Train makes every stop, the 2 and 3 do not. As far as I could tell, that was not designated on any map. Fortunately, some nice locals told us to hop over to the 2 train. Well, they didn’t tell us, because we didn’t ask, because we thought we were pros at this little system after four days. Fortunately there were two other tourists rude enough to ask some locals how to get to Times Square, and the local told them to transfer to the 2 train. I overheard and was rather appreciative.
A couple more things I found odd about the subway. One was the cost. It cost the same whether you’re going one stop or to the end of the line. Boston’s T Line worked the same way. BART works the opposite, where the farther you go, the more you pay. That was great when I was heading to and from the Mets game. But when I only had to go two stops, it was kind of a pain in the ass. Maybe it’s done to discourage laziness. Or maybe it’s done to encourage people to venture out of their comfort zone. From a political economics standpoint, it makes the tax very regressive, not something I would associate with a city that just nominated a socialist. Any time anyone, rich or poor, near or far, pays the same dollar amount, that burden rests more on the poor. I also assume that the rich or middle class are the ones likely to go farther, or to visit lower Manhattan from the far ‘burbs. Whereas the working poor are more likely to only go one stop or two stops, doing groceries or errands.
The last thing I found weird was that people went in and out via the same turnstiles! What sort of chaotic morass is this? BART entries CAN go both ways, but they’re always programmed to go only one direction at a time, and they change based on time of day. In the morning at an inbound station, maybe four of the five turnstiles are for entry, but in the afternoon, they’re showing exit. In New York, they’re all entry and exit AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME!!! The outward direction doesn’t require a ticket (hence the universal $2.75 fee for each ride – they only “charge” at the entry), so the turnstile is always freely flowing in the outward direction. The inward direction is locked until the metrocard is swiped.
Eventually, though, I came to be fine with this. Even maybe preferred it. Obviously, the only time you’re going to have a large influx of traffic is when a train just arrived. And giving them access to all of the turnstiles helps expedite matters. I’m reminded of Oakland A’s games where 30,000 people were just released from the stadium, yet can only use three turnstiles. But under normal times, it wasn’t hard to avoid having two people trying to use the same turnstile in opposite directions at the same time. All you do is look up, see someone approaching one turnstile, and sidestep over to the next one. We do it on the street all the time, right?
I have a love/hate relationship with Hop-on/Hop-Off Busses. They’re something of a necessary evil. Most of the cities they run in are a bit too large, too spread out, too diverse to do piecemeal. If you’re going into a city blind, a quick jaunt around the city is a good way to get the lay of the land, maybe make some plans for the rest of your trip. My wife had never been to New York before, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t just doing the things I wanted to do. So either she reads through seventy-five travel websites, or we do a two-to-three hour circle around Lower Manhattan.
Completely logical. And yet…
It’s hard to not roll your eyes at people espousing how much they know about a place based on their hop-on/hop-off “experience.” Even after I spent the better part of two days riding it, I had to roll my eyes at myself.
And of course, once you’ve bought the 48-hour pass, you’re pot-committed. You can’t do ANYTHING else for the next 48 hours because, dammit, you paid for the damn bus.
An unlimited subway ticket would’ve been more affordable. If only I hadn’t bought the fucking AirTrain ticket instead.
But aside from my general issues with these tour bus companies, there were some rather specific problems with the New York varietal. I went on their website like a good boy. I purchased it online like a good boy. At which point I had to… go down to their primary office in order to stand in line in order to turn the vouchers I just purchased in for actual tickets. The line at the office included people who had already purchased, people who were looking to purchase, and people looking for information. I think there were some Broadway shows being sold there, too.
And no, that last sentence was not for humor and exaggeration. There was some sort of Broadway package being sold in the same place, and in the same line, as the hop-on/hop-off bus.
The end result was a twenty-to-thirty minute wait to get a physical representation of a product I already purchased. Have they not heard of kiosks?
Once I finally got the ticket, I had to walk three blocks to catch the actual bus. En route, I passed maybe ten guys hawking the hop-on/hop-off bus I had just purchased. These guys are as ubiquitous, and as subtle, as the guys in Vegas slapping their hands with strip club advertisements. I assume they must be paid on commission, because they’re fucking vultures. Even when we told them we had already purchased, they only took a step or so back, still watching us warily. They’ve been burned by that line before, like the Girl Scouts at the store who know that the whole “I bought cookies at the office” is complete bullshit. And I can only assume that, had I purchased from one of these guys standing right by the bus, if I would’ve had to walk the three blocks back to the office, and stand in line for a half-hour, with a voucher they had printed.
And speaking of printing the ticket, take a look at how convenient this motherfucker is to carry around a densely-populated metropolis:
And of course, I had to unfurl the whole fucking thing every time I decided to hop back on a new bus. So that they could scan the…
Holy fuck, it’s a goddamned QR Code? Like, one I could very easily have just downloaded to my phone back at the hotel when I purchased the product on their website? When the hell was this business model constructed, 1988?
Once you’re on one of these buses, you’re at the whim of the narrator. Most of them have a live narrator, who speaks into a microphone, that you can listen to by plugging in earphones to the side of the seat. You can also change the channel to listen to a pre-recorded narration in any number of languages. Sometimes the pre-recorded is the better option, because the live narrators are a complete crap shoot.
The first one we had wasn’t too bad. He was a cranky old-timer who started the tour with colorful stories about all of the adult theaters that lined Times Square in the seventies. He then complained about Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, and mocked a guy for liking the look of the latter. On the downside, he had a tendency to get lost in the script and repeat himself. Sometimes it was understandable. He’d say an Empire State Building anecdote when it first became visible, then repeat it again five minutes later when we stopped in front of it.
But the repeats started coming closer and closer to each other. Shortly before we “hopped off,” (does that sound dirty?), he went overboard, repeating the same sentence, literally word for word, back to back.
I probably should’ve checked him for a stroke. But hey, I gotta get off to see that 9/11 Museum and berate other people’s lack of humanity. I can’t be bothered saving somebody’s life.
There was also a point that we went quite a few blocks without him saying shit. I didn’t notice it at first. Just assumed we had hit one of those spots in Lower Manhattan where there’s nothing interesting. I mean, what the fuck is a flatiron, anyway?
But no, turns out Dude was on his phone. He popped his head back up the stairs to look around a bit. Said something about the intersection of fuckwit and twattle, then popped back down the stairs. Dude was giving directions to someone. After an extended period of time, he got back on the microphone.
“Yeah, so this is Tribeca. Stands for Triangle Below Canal. And Robert de Niro lives right…”
His phone rings and he’s back talking to his buddy. But now his convo is bleeding through the microphone. No. I said twatwit and fuckle. My bus never goes to fuckwit and twattle.
Rather entertaining, but eventually we had to take advantage of the “hopping off” aspect, so we didn’t get to stay long enough for him to rant about all the Chinamen in his fine city nowadays.
We got off at the 9/11 Museum. And at this point, I’ll just say that I did the 9/11 Museum. Not much I can add if I want to stay tongue-in-cheek and/or irreverent. For now, just… wow.
When we jumped back on the next bus, after waiting about forty minutes and seeing three buses from the competitor company, the one that doesn’t advertise itself as “most buses in Manhattan,” drive by, we were relegated to the lower deck with the forty other people who were in line by then. No air conditioning. And for even more “fun,” the new narrator screamed every statement he said, each of which started “Alright, folks, this is…”
Fortunately we weren’t with him very long. But this was the first time I opted for the joy of the prerecorded narration. He was also the narrator that was most adamant about tips.
Our third experience was the Night Bus, which unfortunately did not take us to Hogwarts. But fortunately it was our best narrator. Not the brightest. No real history or architectural knowledge, as prone to distraction as the dog in “UP.” Most of her commentary followed along the lines of “I don’t know why that’s here” or “There used to be another building here” or “A lot of my friends like this pizza place.” Kinda felt like my four-year old was narrating.
But you know what? She was the best narrator we had. Nice and genuine. She started out the tour with a profound statement: Some buildings are really impressive during the day but you can’t even see them at night. Some buildings don’t do anything during the day but light up beautiful at night. And some buildings are wonderful no matter what time of day.
She’s the only one we tipped.
The following day, we took the uptown bus loop. It said it went to Harlem, but that’s being generous. It went just far enough to see the Apollo Theater, then it hightailed itself south like a wave of anti-gentrification, with a cursory announcement about Malcolm X as we skedaddled down the street named after him. Good job, bus company. Wouldn’t want to see where the Cotton Club or the Polo Grounds used to be. Langston Hughes, anyone? Y’all know there’s a huge artistic movement named after Harlem, right? But never mind. There’s the Apollo. Watch out for minorities. And hey, now it’s on to museums for the uber-rich.
The uptown loop also had no live narrator. I think it was supposed to have a live narrator. Other buses we saw had narrators. There was an employee on the bus with us, but he was just checking people’s tickets and playing on his phone while taking up a primo seat most of the time.
And the pre-recorded needs a little help. A bit obsolete. When it was describing the Tavern on the Green, it said it was closed for remodeling. I thought that was odd, because we had seen it our first day, one of the wonderful lunch spots we passed right after our shitty lunch. Then the recording went on to say it would hopefully be re-opened by the summer of 2013.
Hmm…. Might need to stop paying two hundred salesmen throughout the island and update the recording instead.
Also, the narrator changed when we got into Harlem. Not sure if “random white voice” was deemed inappropriate for Harlem. Or if the random white male behind the voice refused to talk about Harlem. Or, more likely, the route has changed since his 2012 recording.
The recording also repeated the same thing on both sides of Central Park, just like the live dude on the downtown loop. And it must’ve said “Watch out for low-hanging trees. Your safety is important to us.” about twenty times.
Maybe HAL was having a stroke. Again, I didn’t bother to check.
Of course, the best part about the uptown loop was getting to re-enact one of the best scenes in cinematic history. I present to you: The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Giraffe!