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  • Ronald Dawson
    From http://cgi.chicago.tribune.com/travel/special/zanzibar/endpaper.htm Dawson Take the A train For a glimpse of real life in the big city, you ve got to get
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2001
      From http://cgi.chicago.tribune.com/travel/special/zanzibar/endpaper.htm
      Dawson


      Take the A train
      For a glimpse of real life in the big city, you've got to get beneath it all

      By Robert Cross
      Tribune Staff Writer
      Sunday, March 18, 2001

      Science fiction writers of the Fifties assured everyone that the whole
      transportation thing would be solved by now. We're supposed to be flying
      around with rockets on our backs. Cars should be soaring through the skies,
      powered by the sun. Instead, we still mount massive SUVs with exploding
      tires. We idle at traffic lights. We wobble along on scooters or
      rollerblades or hike over miles of pavement, wearing ridiculous shoes with
      swooshes painted on their heels.

      We can send people to the moon, but . . .

      Maybe science did let us down, transportation-wise, but engineers and
      railroad experts haven't. Long ago, they came up with the ultimate urban
      transportation miracle -- the subway. I love their efficiency, their speed
      and even their ambience.

      Granted, I miss a lot that way. Tunnels lack scenery. But the trains don't
      have to stop at stop signs, or idle in traffic jams, or screech to a halt
      when jaywalkers bolt into crosswalks. Generally speaking, the stations have
      been built in places where people want to go.

      To make up for the lack of window appeal, subways offer a glimpse of real
      life in the big city. Only a few tourists are brave enough to take the tube,
      so most of the riders represent a cross-section of the indigenous
      population -- for better or for worse.

      Not only that, subways provide lasting travel memories that postcards never
      record.

      On the Paris Metro, a young woman spread a curtain across the back of one
      passenger car and produced a Louis Armstrong puppet, complete with miniature
      trumpet. Armstrong's unmistakable voice serenaded us from a boom box while
      he pranced across the makeshift stage. Creative begging at its finest.

      After an evening in London's theater district, I hopped on the Underground.
      At Piccadilly Circus, four young men and four young women boarded, cans of
      beer in hand. They yelled, whistled, groped one another, staged mock fights,
      spilled their brewskies (Budweisers yet!) and pelted all of us with candy
      wrappers. Thus I was afforded a wonderful British soccer-thug experience
      without having to attend a game.

      In Mexico City, the transit company serenades passengers with piped-in pop
      music. No mariachis. On one memorable route, we were treated to Pink Floyd.
      On another, it was Louis Armstrong singing "Hello, Dolly." That one reminded
      me of Paris.

      I particularly enjoyed the Tokyo subway, because its maps are gloriously
      complex. Generally, subway maps show routes as lines of different colors.
      You find your destination and your starting point, then figure out which
      color goes through both (sometimes with a change of routes at an
      intermediate station). Then you must look at the very end of the color
      streak for the name of the last station. That name should be on the platform
      signs and on the end of the train. Try that on a map resembling a
      gaily-painted octopus -- its tentacles marked with names unpronounceable in
      the English tongue -- while millions of commuters fill every square inch of
      platform space and other map readers block your view.

      I enjoy the technological innovations that cities introduce over the years.
      In Hanover, Germany, electric signs visible from every seat display the name
      of the upcoming station, while a soothing female voice repeats the
      information in both German and English.

      In Chicago, HAL's evil twin tells you that the doors open on the left at
      Thorndale. (But I do like the handy fare cards.)

      From London, I could board a train at Waterloo Station, ride across the
      countryside, plunge into the Channel Tunnel, and emerge -- 3 hours later --
      in Paris' Gare du Nord, a station with subway connections to just about
      anywhere in town. Chunnel, as it's called, isn't terribly long. The ride
      through it lasts about 20 minutes. But until someone comes up with personal
      rocket packs, it's the quickest and most sensible way to cross the English
      Channel -- the ultimate subway ride.

      Other quick impressions: Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority looks
      as if it were built around the time of the Revolution -- appropriately
      quaint.

      New York's subway has not been overlooked in the general sanitizing of the
      city that used to never sleep. Service is getting smoother, the cars and
      platforms cleaner and less menacing. If the Disney influence continues to
      prevail -- as it does in Times Square -- the public address system might
      soon be playing "It's a Small World After All" on the No. 9 to Van Cortland
      Park.

      The District of Columbia Metrorail can be found several fathoms beneath the
      capital's streets. It's clean, quiet, well-marked and totally bland. It
      gives the lie to JFK's observation that Washington has Northern charm and
      Southern efficiency. Metrorail efficiency is so northern it's practically
      Germanic, and the charm is that it works so well in such a dysfunctional
      context.

      The same might be said for all the world's subways. In the chaos of the
      typical metropolis, they get you from Point A to Point B to Point C, etc.

      Point Z? I have a hunch there might be such a thing in Tokyo.



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      In his travels for the Tribune, Robert Cross has ridden subways on six
      continents
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