By Jeff Greenfield
If you have reached three score and ten, as I have just done, you’re permitted, perhaps expected, to mourn the passing of a better time, when tomatoes were tastier, the air sweeter. As Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City” says to a young man struck by his first sight of the ocean, “You should have seen it in the old days.”
If, however, you live in New York City, you have no right to such dyspepsia. By every reasonable measure, Gotham is a far, far better place than it used to be. Homicides a quarter-century ago exceeded 2,000 a year; last year there were 415. The Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfront, which most New Yorkers had experienced only as a rumor, has been reclaimed. You can walk or bike for miles along the cleansed rivers, and you can kayak on the Hudson—which years ago saw the return of the shad.
There’s one more improvement, far less celebrated, that has so improved my life it deserves special recognition. It’s found underground. No, I’m not talking about the subway cars—graffiti-free, air-conditioned and safe. I’m talking about what awaits a passenger in dozens of stations: Electronic signs that tell you when the trains will arrive.
Now, if you’re familiar with the London Underground or the Paris Metro, this may sound like decades-old comment. For a New Yorker, however—especially one like me, who has a near-OCD issue with time—it’s almost impossible to communicate what a life-changing experience these 3-year-old devices have wrought.
Let me take you back to The Way We Were. You would descend into the station, where you were thrown back on your Urban Smarts to calculate how long a wait you might have. Was the station deserted? Then you likely just missed a train. Is the station packed? Well, that could mean a train will arrive shortly—then again, it could mean a delay, maybe due to a breakdown, which would mean a wait of ... who knows?
Your likely response was to break into a maneuver every subway rider had mastered: The Platform Shuffle. You would walk as close to the edge of the platform as you dared, lean as far over as you could manage and peer into the darkness. Was there light at the end of the tunnel? Could you feel the first faint thrum of the rails? And was it the sound of your local, or an express train that would contemptuously pass your station, leaving you to wheel about in frustration?
And now? With remarkable precision, the arrival-time clocks tell you to the minute when the next trains are due. If you’re waiting at an express stop, it will list all the trains. If you see a mob amassing to throw themselves on the next train, but there’s one arriving only two minutes later, you have the option to wait. (No real New Yorker actually does wait, but it’s nice to have the option.)
To be sure, not every station is equipped with these clocks, and the angst of finding yourself at such a station is severe. It’s like suddenly being deprived of Wi-Fi and 4G at the same time. It’s also true that some New Yorkers have been so conditioned by the Years of Darkness that they still break into The Platform Shuffle under the very shadow of the electronic harbingers.
It gets better. When the New Year arrived, so did an app that provides real-time arrival information that’s synced to underground clocks at about a third of the subway stops. What this means is as you’re walking to your subway station, you can find out if you have time to stop for a cup of coffee and a bagel—or need to knock old ladies and small children out of the way to catch the next train.
And yes, the bagels were much better in the old days. (Age does have its privileges.