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Gene Russianoff

Gene Russianoff

Posted: June 26, 2009 07:45 AM

Cross Roads


Maddening. Joyful. Slow. Speedy. Frustrating. A blissful detour from your woes. A bitter reminder of life's unfairness.

And it's either going to get better -- or head downhill fast.

Maybe that does or doesn't describe your relationship with your main squeeze. But it almost certainly chronicles the contradictory emotions felt during daily commutes.

Whether you love them or hate them, for millions of us every day, trains and buses are a daily dose of what it means to live in New York.

Some of my most vivid memories of growing up in the city are of time spent in and around City subways.

I am old enough to remember the 15-cent fare (up to 1966) when you could get a round trip, two slices of pizza and a soda for under a dollar. I lived in what was then a two-fare zone -- Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn -- so I had to pay a token each way for both the bus and subway. Which was one reason my brother and I biked from station to station just before the fare went up to a quarter, trying to horde tokens. Sadly, the booth clerks were under orders not to sell more than two tokens to each customer.

Among some of my subway recollections:

• I was sitting on one of those narrow trains on a numbered line, when a deranged rider opposite me took out a pop top can of cat food, flipped the lid, sprayed passengers with oily juice and began drinking and eating. So gross was this unexpected turn of events that riders on the car started screaming hysterically and ran to the other end of the car.

• When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my ride was often interrupted by a panhandler who said he was an alien and needed money for space fuel to return to his home planet. Whereupon, he would play (and not too well) the theme from the Twilight Zone on his saxophone. On one trip, in the midst of his routine, he stopped and yanked a rider out of his transit anonymity into beet red celebrity, saying: "Irving, it's me Julian. I haven't seen you since high school."

• Here's my best "I-will-have-that-seat" story: For reasons I will never know, someone punched out one of the windows on my subway car at 42nd Street-Times Square. There was glass and blood all over the subway bench in the car below the seat. And of course a lot of milling about and settling of nerves. Suddenly, a well-dressed women in business attire entered the car, swept the bloody glass off a part of a bench, sat down and started reading her newspaper.

• What was I thinking -- one long ago day -- when I told an attractive young women -- an avid skier -- that the skis I was carrying on a packed downtown 1 train belonged to a friend who knew how to ski, which I did not.

• And finally, there's the classic tableau: An F train rounding the bend in southern Brooklyn as New York's Oz-Coney Island came in to view. My two daughters and I stare out at the Cyclone, Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump. Just like I did with my Dad. That vision is right up there with holding hands with my wife-to-be at a midtown station and listening to a subway musician perform "Under the Boardwalk."


Memories like these - so vivid that they can seem almost like urban legends - sustain many of the riders who have spoken up for transit over the years. I know it's big encouragement for my own advocacy for transit.

Riders' phone calls and e-mails and petitions have made a huge difference over the years. Their voices are the reason why we have thousands of new subway cars and buses. Why nearly half of all 468 subway stations have been rehabbed. Why there has been much progress in fixing an aging infrastructure, from track to signals.

Transit has come a long way and -- as many riders will sharply remind you -- still has a long way to go.

During this year's floor debate on an MTA bailout, a State Senator from Harlem said he received more calls and letters on funding transit than he ever had on any other issue.

Governor Paterson and state legislators eventually came through with a package of $2.3 billion a year that calls on those benefiting from transit - riders, drivers and businesses - to come to the rescue of New York's financially troubled system.

It's unclear right now whether Albany's new funding will do the trick. Only time will tell.

But it's more time to build more transit memories. And these will sustain us for the next round.