No verbs downtown after 36th St (eves/wkends)

9 Oct

Subway sign

Well, that was exciting. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from New York, but I got it. I saw Lower Manhattan and Battery Park retreating in the sunlight from the back of the Staten Island ferry while powerboats and bulk carriers crossed in our wake. I watched the Hudson River passenger boats tail-slide gleefully into their piers, load up in three minutes and bellow away downriver past the chess players in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I got hustled through the checkouts at Zabar’s so fast it was like there was an evacuation drill going on. But nothing felt more like New York than going down into the subway.

It’s deafening. Walking down the little spiral staircase into 79th St station, the noise that greets you puts The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 to shame. When the uptown and downtown expresses pass through at the same time on the centre tracks, the simultaneous BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG/BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG completely drowns out the sound of your local train arriving. At South Ferry, the station is built on a curve so tight that little metal gratings have to extend outwards to the doors to bridge the gap between train and platform, and the squealing of flanges when the next service arrives verges on the ultrasonic.

The vistas, the noise, the lights, the heights: it was all fantastic. The only thing that was slightly lacking was verbs.

The subway service mutates dramatically at weekends as a matter of course: services stop short, start at different places, come in on different platforms (and that’s before you even factor in the engineering works). There are, therefore, lengthy signs everywhere to that effect: the one above is a typical (and not the most complicated) example.

Perhaps it was the jetlag, or years following terse instructions on the Underground, but I didn’t grasp them at all. I instinctively assume that signs are written in the imperative and, if there are words missing, supply understood commands to suit. So my first take on the sign, as someone who knew nothing about the system, was “[TAKE] Broadway Local to Whitehall St weekdays and eves [BECAUSE THERE IS] no late night service on this platform.” But that doesn’t make sense. The same approach works deceptively better with the next one:  “Wkends [TAKE] R to Bay Ridge-95 St on N platform.” But the last sentence on the sign actually includes a “take”, as though it alone were a command. It took me four or five reads to grasp that these messages are almost entirely descriptive or existential: [THESE ARE] Broadway Local trains to Whitehall Street. [THERE IS] no weekend or late night service on this platform. And so on.

That’s not how we do things here at home. The Underground service never mutates as much as the subway’s, but even at Camden Town, the most potentially confusing station in London, signage for the Northern Line (which is almost two separate lines in one, with two northern branches and two routes through the city centre) is kept to a minimum – you’re told “Bank branch” or “Charing Cross branch” and given the train’s destination, and it’s up to you to plot the route from there. No one attempts a platform-level description of all the possible permutations, and certainly not without verbs. It’s probably just as well. If you did, the sign might look like this:*

Edgware and High Barnet trains alternately via Bank or Charing Cross peak times. Off peak all Charing Cross trains to Kennington, all Bank trains  to Morden. Peak Charing Cross trains also to Morden. Off peak Mill Hill East shuttle service to Finchley Central,  some peak Mill Hill East trains to and from Morden (some via Charing Cross).

No one would get to the end of it; it would make even confident out-of-towners start to doubt themselves. The best way of catching the right train on the Tube is still the old-fashioned way: stick your head in the door, bellow “TOTTERIDGE AND WHETSTONE?” interrogatively and wait for someone to look up from their Financial Times and say crisply: “no”.

* With thanks to for the (fully verbed) source material.

10 Responses to “No verbs downtown after 36th St (eves/wkends)”

  1. Picky October 9, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    “Gertcha.”. Or alternatively, since I’m now an out-of-owner myself, “Well I’m blowed, is that so?”. I’ve never had any trouble seeing where a Tube train is going (that’s one of the few delights of the system), but equally I’ve never felt the occupants of the nearest carriage are likely to give me information. Few of them seem to be reading the FT (although the dismal Metro seems popular): the female passengers are reading chick lit, the male ones are sharing the sound of popular music with the rest of us via their iPod earphones while eyeing up the chick litters. Perhaps I come from a cheaper part of town.

  2. Picky October 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Well, I am an out-of-owner, but tower was what I meant. Sorry.

  3. Picky October 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Bugger. No, I meant towner. Blessed iPad keyboards.

    • edlatham October 9, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

      Aha, you’re the technologically literate one with the iPad in among the Metro readers! I find that those who persist with the inquiry (or perhaps, more to the point, those who stand preventing the doors from closing and the train from departing) eventually get an answer (a flurry of “no”s, or, more worryingly, a flurry of “no”s and one “yes”.)

  4. Picky October 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Evidently not all that technologically literate. I take it you don’t find yourself stopping the doors closing late at night? I imagine that might produce a flurry of ‘no’s’ one ‘yes’ and a punch on the nose. Yes, I think I must definitely come from a cheaper part of town.

    • edlatham October 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

      Yes, it’s all fairly genteel out here on the western reaches of the Piccadilly and the Overground. Chiswick borders, don’t you know. Plus the smoothing international influence of confused Heathrow passengers with wheely cases hovering disastrously on the step of a Northfields-only service.

  5. Garrett Wollman October 11, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    I hope you noted that you were at *old* South Ferry loop, because the *brand new* South Ferry was severely damaged in last year’s hurricane and hasn’t been repaired yet. And that confusing sign on the N/R is because the Montague St. Tunnel, through which the R service is normally routed, was also severely damaged.

    • edlatham October 11, 2013 at 8:05 am #

      Oh I *see*! So some of these signs are referring in fact to long-term engineering works rather than timetabled changes? Or even all of them?

      • Garrett Wollman October 12, 2013 at 2:49 am #

        Some of them, yes. There are a lot of services that have different schedules during different dayparts, too, such as an express service on a three-track line that only operates during peak hours, in the peak direction. But it’s a big system, and at lot of the infrastructure is a century old, so many of the repair projects are of the “close it down every weekend from April to October” variety, and it’s considered worth informing passengers of this.


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