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A Review of the MTA (on a 5-star scale)

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is a public benefit corporation responsible for public transportation in the U.S. state of New York, serving 12 counties in Downstate New York, along with two counties in southwestern Connecticut under contract to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, carrying over 11 million passengers on an average weekday system wide, and over 850,000 vehicles on its seven toll bridges and two tunnels per weekday. The MTA is the largest public transit authority in the United States.

According to Wikipedia. According to me, the MTA is a much smaller, much more personal entity. My first experience with the MTA was the summer of 2016, while I was living in the dorms in Barnard University, taking a summer film course, but mostly galavanting around New York in the way that only optimistic 16 year olds from a small town out west can. My subway stop was 110th street, on the 1 line (the red line). If I walked down the extra seven blocks to 103rd - past Tom’s Diner, the indie bookstore I still frequent though I live 100 blocks further south, and the bubble tea shop with the best lavender earl grey I’ve thus tasted - I could take the 2 or the 3, express lines that would shoot me rapidly downtown, into the bowels of Chelsea, Washington Square, and Soho. Back then, these weren’t places I ever thought I could think of as home. They were distant dots on the straight, red vein of the 1-2-3, a southern pole to my uptown, ivy-league framed portrait of Manhattan.

Two years later, I moved into a dorm on 14th street, on Union Square Park. This is the best subway station in Manhattan. Widely connected and convenient, a tangled rainbow of green, yellow, grey, and blue lines, yet without the pompous delusions of grandeur of Grand Central or Penn Station. An inverted neighborhood, populated by buskers and cardboard-sign holders, ever rumbling with the sputtering beats of pickle-bucket drummers. This is the subway station that became the backdrop for the life I was building for myself in New York. In my first week in the city, I remember slouching, drunk, on one of those orange and yellow seats, in a group of beautiful strangers, clutching a pretzel from a cart somewhere in midtown, where we had gone to our first official New York club. I don’t remember much, except that I didn’t like the club nearly as much as I loved the journey home, the drunken dancing on an empty subway platform, the sloppy pursuit of greasy street food, and the lazy anticipation for the arrival of a screeching chariot to deliver us home. As we spilled out into the dark glow of Union Square after midnight, a student I had met that night asked if he could crash in my absent roommate’s empty bed - the trains to Brooklyn had stopped running. Drunken, sleepy, and happy, I absentmindedly agreed, and woke up next morning to the boy who would later become one of my best friends. God bless the inaccessibility of Brooklyn.

On early Tuesday mornings, I would wait impatiently for the infrequent and perpetually under-construction L line to jettison me into Brooklyn, where I would volunteer to teach ecology at an elementary school. With downloaded podcasts, a dirty chai, and a tofu cream cheese bagel, I would stare at the grimy tiled walls of the underbelly of New York, thinking about how much I felt like I belonged there, a piece of driftwood floating through the waterways of NYC commuters. Above ground, I was plagued with imposter syndrome, dwarfed by towering skyscrapers, dripping scaffolding, and people walking faster and with more conviction than me. Here, all forced into stillness by the perpetual lateness of the L, we paused, read, and observed. I was a New Yorker with a bagel and a purpose, waiting on a subway platform, to get to a place that I was running late to. I felt like a character in a movie, a photograph of the life I’d dreamt of leading two years earlier. The subway had slowly carried me down from my uptown delusions of New York into my Lower East Side reality. I couldn’t have been happier.

There’s a strange rhythm in entering the MTA. The quick hop-steps of descent from street level into the golden, tiled basement of Manhattan, a pause, a turn, to locate one’s metro card and the grey-silver turnstiles, sentinel guards to the churning seas of the city’s underbelly. The cautious flick of the metro card through the steel reader, the pause of anticipation, a fermata in this great sonata, wondering if the transaction took. The exhale of relief as the turnstile gives way, allowing entry. Two dollars and seventy-five cents - the barrier to entry of the subway, of New York, of all the places that are so accessible, so within reach, if one happens to be lucky enough.

My best friend, he of the aforementioned sleepover, king of the Brooklyn-Manhattan commute, didn’t pay a single subway fare our entire freshman year. Young, limber, and white, he went sailing above the turnstiles with remarkable ease, darting under the notice of the lethargic subway officer. I always envied his confidence in these gymnastics - certain that he wouldn’t be caught, certain that if he was, nothing would come of it save a chiding reprimand and a reminder to be more complacent in the future. I always feared authority far too much to take this risk, even though ideologically, I resent the notion that $2.75 is the price to pay for access to the city in which one lives, works, and plays.

There are different types of transportation for each socio-economic level of New Yorker -- those who stubbornly stick to taxis and Ubers, despite the clogged arteries of traffic and inevitable carsickness, those whose commute allows them to splurge on the metro card unlimited, allowing them two journeys a day for a cheaper cost than a single ride, the college kids and those whose lives only occupy a single neighborhood, for whom venturing outside their locality is a willing $2.75 adventure, and those who stay resolutely above ground, trekking dozens of city blocks and generating a vibrating hum of heat, energy, and life in and around the island.

I like to think of the subway as an equalizer, a place for New Yorkers to pause, wait, and move together. A place where confused mountain kids can land and feel as if they belong in this city. Of course, it is not those things. It is a function of a city built on greed, ambition, and propriety - a city built on stolen land, whose wretched guts devour the land, water, and labor of this earth - the subway system is the gastrointestinal tract of New York, consuming, digesting, and spewing out all that venture down its grimy throat.

And yet, I love it so. I never loved rats before I moved to New York. I never loved trains before I moved to New York. If I were to make the list of things I never loved before this city worked its way into my veins, it would be long, rambling, and incomplete. The hot sticky breath of the underground, a respite from the biting January cold. The claustrophobic clustering of the masses in a rush hour car, swaying and heaving and breathing together. The feeling of being alone, surrounded by strangers.

Perhaps that is what I love most about the MTA - too often, it is something easier to hate than to love. Too often, it is a midnight train that has stopped running, leaving us stranded in a foreign borough, forced to seek shelter and friendship. It is an infrequent and late train on a Tuesday morning, allowing us a moment of pause to eat a bagel, listen to a podcast, and pretend we belong in the life we are leading. It is a small yet insurmountable fee that we must pay in order to fully become a part of the tangled web of a city we have found ourselves calling home.

It is $2.75, and it is unfair, and it is grimy, and hot, and crowded. But it is something we can all be frustrated at together.

I give the MTA 3 stars.

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