special powers of divination

Behind as usual, I just read an essay that ran two weeks ago in the City section of the Sunday New York Times.

The writer, Erica Rex, is new to New York, transplanted from the town of North Fork, California. She came to the city under unhappy circumstances, took an apartment sight unseen, and is having, shall we say, adjustment difficulties.

It's a sad piece. I felt sorry for the writer, but at the same time, I imagine her a few years down the road, telling the story of her first months in the city with wry humor. By that time, she'll know at least half a dozen people with similar stories. Either that, or she's not a New Yorker after all, and she'll head back to North Fork.

One bit rang a bell.
The R train, I quickly learned, is anything but convenient. The station is close enough, but the subway has a life of its own. The R train, which takes over an hour to actually deliver me to any Manhattan destination, if it comes at all, has become one of the major preoccupations of my new life. Subways in general, I discovered, are a kind of force of nature in the city. They are to New York what the weather was back home. People here discuss trains and the vicissitudes of trains more than any other topic, including politics and unemployment.

Will the train be on time? How much time should I allow to get someplace I haven't been before? Will I be able to transfer to the express at Atlantic Avenue without having to wait another hour?

Then there are the unexpected stoppages. And to make public transportation really challenging, there are night and weekend schedules involving route switches and track changes, the likes of which only a select few with special powers of divination can interpret.
While this is a slight exaggeration, the subways are definitely a frequent topic of conservation here. New Yorkers love to discuss and debate the various options of getting from Point A to Point B via subway. Take the A, switch at 42nd to the R. The A to the R? No way, that's a terrible switch. Take the 1 to 14th, then the L across town. No, the L never comes! Switch at 125 for the D, take it to West 4th Street. But isn't the D local on weekends? And on and on. (There's a Seinfeld riff on this.)

Before the days of the free transfer from subway to bus, it was a point of pride to never pay two subway fares to get anywhere. No matter how convoluted a route, no matter how many switches it involved, we knew there was a way. And we are always asking each other how much time to leave to get anywhere. (No matter what the answer, add 15 minutes.) If we're late, we simply say "subway trouble"; if we're really late, "subway nightmare". Two words that explain all.

I hope Rex finds a little peace, or perhaps a more convenient apartment. Her essay is here, and a response from one of her neighbors is here.

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