The little credibility I have pertaining to the New York City subway system is derived from my umpteen trips on these gritty trains, through these dark tunnels and into these humid stations. It doesn’t take a lot to master the metro, but there’s a few things you should avoid doing at all times- for the benefit of yourself and for other passengers (most of them, incidentally, impatient New Yorkers who will be reluctant to cut you any slack):
1. Walk really slow. The whole point of fixed-rail transport is to get somewhere quickly. If I wanted to stand behind you while you stare up at buildings along 8th Avenue, I would have taken the sidewalk.
2. Talk loudly with your friends. It makes the normal, quiet people populating the rest of the car feel very uncomfortable that we can hear every single private thing you’re saying.
3. Leave a seat empty during rush hour. People across the car who stand up right in front of the one empty seat on the entire train (while everyone is packed in like sardines) amaze me. If you sat down, there’d also be more room for your fellow standees to spread out.
4. Play music at deafening volumes on your headphones. Either get noise-cancelling headphones or turn your volume down- every single person in the car can hear that rap song that was popular three years ago blasting into your ears. It’s hard enough hearing the crackling, muffled voice of the train’s inaudible announcements without Rihanna’s “Umbrella” playing in the background.
5. Give your bag its own seat. Especially when the car is crowded, this is ridiculous. Bags were made to rest or roll on the floor, so put your bag there. And let that elderly lady sit there instead of your extra suit.
6. Stare at someone for a prolonged period of time. We’re all guilty of doing this (New Yorkers are interesting people), but as a person who has been on the other end of this disturbing exchange, it’s quite uncomfortable. Just whip out your phone and play Angry Birds. Or stare at the transit map- that’s what I do.
7. Get on to a car when it’s already full. During rush hour, trains come even sooner after each other- just wait for the next one. It’s exceedingly disagreeable having to bump elbows and backs and forearms and foreheads with the three people surrounding you. Unless you want to literally get up close and personal with NYC’s culture, don’t get on a full train.
8. Decide not to hold on to anything. Actually, I find people who do this quite amusing. They aren’t aware that most subway cars (and, of course, tracks) are the same ones from many, many years ago and that they do not ride very well. So when the train lurches forward or halts suddenly as it pulls into a station and you wobble uncontrollably (or fall into the person next to you, more importantly), don’t say I didn’t warn you.
9. Talk to someone who doesn’t want to be talked to. You’re in this fabulous city and you want to make friends or learn more about it. Great. But this is probably not the best place to do it. The subway is more of a place for keeping to oneself, for quiet reflection and some casual (but infrequent- see number 6) people-watching. So don’t tell your life’s story to the half-asleep guy sitting across from you.
10. Bring one of those gigantic paper transit maps. You look like nothing other than a complete tourist with one of those- just pay attention to the maps in the stations and on the trains. Or better yet, download a transit app (I recommend the free iPhone app “Hopstop”) for some more furtive navigation.
11. Forget to wash your hands after you arrive at your destination. This is a big one- the subway is a cesspool of germs if there ever was one- always give your hands a scrub at that restaurant you’re going to, or use a mini-bottle of hand sanitizer as you walk the extra few feet from the station exit to the theater.
12. Doze off at any time. Or else you could very well wake up in the Bronx- and no tourist wants to end up there. Make sure to pay attention to the train numbers/letters and not just the line colors- some trains don’t stop at some stations.
13. Decide to emerge from underground wherever you choose. There are directions inside the station that tell you where each stairwell exits (as there are several of them)- make sure you get off on the right side of the street, or else you’ll have to cross and cross again to get where you want to be (and in New York, you want to keep the crossing to a minimum).