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 describe-online.com for the (fully verbed) source material.