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