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Getting Boston transit

Published: October 9, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.


It’s 8:45 pm on a Wednesday night. Around this time you’d typically find me at some miscellaneous location around campus, in trademark position—feet propped up on nearest surface, pencil in hand, notebook in lap, nose in book or, more likely, in laptop. I take comfort in my routine; we’ve grown attached.

On this night, however, my nose is not tucked between the pages of an anonymous textbook, nor am I comfortably sinking into the pre-worn cushions of a community couch. I am instead three towns away from Brandeis, crouched over in the cold on a remarkably uncomfortable platform bench, darn near ready to kick myself because of my carelessness.

It is now 9 o’clock, I barely discern, squinting up at the train station clock through the yellow light of a dying lamppost. At this moment I regret ever taking automobiles for granted.

You see, I am a post-city suburbanite. I’ve ended up in Waltham after five years of chasing subway cars and packing into sardine cans on wheels. My hometown is the only defense I can pose against the all-too familiar (and often astonished-sounding) question, “You don’t have a license?”

No, I don’t drive. I fear for my life too much to risk it on the streets of Brooklyn, and I’m not talking about the gang-infested ones, either. I’m talking about the ones that stage car horn symphonies into the wee hours of the night; that harbor muscle car drag races and clunker crash cases, and turn otherwise harmless streetlights into epicenters from which chaos and mechanic cacophonies can ensue. New York City is not a place most people want to drive, much less want to learn to drive. Besides, as any self-respecting city-goer will tell you, the city’s transit is so much more convenient—faster, cheaper and (usually) safer than the gas-guzzling alternative.

So why am I suddenly disgusted by railroad tracks, cursing the day I failed my driving exam (by only one turn, mind you)? Partially because I missed my commuter rail stop and had to wait and pay fare for the next inbound train, but also because living in the suburbs of Boston is quite debilitating without a car.

As a New Yorker I’m dependent on the underground, which has a vibrant culture all its own. After my escapades throughout Western Europe, I realized that subways are as vital to a city’s transportation as they are to its culture. Be it the NYC subway, the Boston T, the London tube or the Paris metro—they all weave themselves into city life as intricately as they run beneath its streets. Amsterdam was the only city where the subway proved to be near-useless, and even there most commuters choose to be absorbed into a sea of bicyclists rather than submit to driving a car.

With a spankin’-new internship I first hightailed into Boston without so much as a Charlie Card to my name. As an experienced subway rider, I wasn’t intimidated by the cutesy Boston “T” line—how tricky, really, could any system named after a letter, that has a happy man wearing a hat for a mascot, be?

Everything seemed vaguely familiar and yet, undeniably different. Instead of uptown and downtown, Bostonians travel inbound and outbound. Instead of numbers and letters, trains are color-coordinated. Instead of having a muffled voice groan indiscernible sounds through a loudspeaker, Bostonians prefer to have a robotic man-voice politely announce their train delays to them. The depth between the platform and the train tracks is unsettlingly shallow—(though I suppose that isn’t such a bad thing, considering the number of horror stories I’ve heard of people falling over platforms). The map is uncomplex, unlike the circulatory system-esque diagram I’m used to that shows trains extending like capillaries to the far-reaches of the city. But the most striking and entirely un-New York-ish element to this particular subway system is the absence of all the grime, graffiti, garbage, odor, and rambunctious vermin that look as if they enjoy chasing cats in their spare time.

The peoples of both subway-worlds are diverse in their own unique ways. Boston is an undeniably “bookish” city—I have seen more people reading on a single train car here than I do in entire rooms of our school’s library. In New York, while many may and often do enjoy reading on their subway rides, the many distractions they encounter on the way (especially when passing through the heart of Manhattan) can make this difficult. Musicians, comedians, street performers, and unusually eccentric people often pass through the subway car and provide plenty of free entertainment. The cars of the Boston underground are quaint and quiet, with cute bells that sound off to proclaim their arrival. New York trains need nothing of the sort; the clanking, blaring shriek of a train car as it hurls itself through a subway tunnel speaks for itself.

I am slowly but surely adjusting to life as a “T” commuter. I always come prepared with a book and don’t miss the urge to whip out a can of Lysol every time before I sit on a platform bench. Charlie and I have finally come to terms about this transit business (though I still insist that trains should run past 1 AM). One sentiment still hasn’t changed, though—I’ll always hate the commuter rail.