Riding New York subway takes years of training

AS I learn New York City by bits and pieces using mass transit, I remember times when I struggled to learn those bits of San Francisco and St. Petersburg.

In the late'90s, when I lived in a dorm at UC Berkeley, a group from my hall went to see some lame Broadway show in the City. It was "Miss Saigon" or "Rent" or "Phantom of the Opera," one of those, the sort of "theme park dressed up as musical theater" show that allowed suburban kids like us to pretend we were exchanging ATM $20s for some Culture. To get there, I took BART for the first time.

After the show, my then-boyfriend had trouble with his BART ticket. Out of concern for him, I left through the same turnstile I'd entered, messing up my ticket. To get new tickets, we had to stand in line to get change from a McDonald's. I smiled a reassuring smile. He got annoyed and wished I would stop.

You can guess the transfer blues that ensued. Our first walk through the midnight streets of Berkeley had no romance in it; we were arguing over whether I was naive. (That argument never goes well.) When we finally arrived, no one seemed relieved; no one had worried about us.

Later, he told me that he appreciated my calm, and the worry and affection I'd shown in foolishly going back through the turnstiles for him. But that was too late.

Years later, in St. Petersburg, I learned to use a completely foreign subway system that trained me a little better for New York City. It was crowded, I had to walk huge city blocks to transfer from one line to another within a single station, and all of St. Petersburg seemed to glare at me from the up escalator when I was going down into the metro on a Monday morning.

I got lots of eye contact on the metro. Russians stare. I was not used to it. One night, a man in my subway car fell asleep on the shoulder of a woman he didn't know. She wasn't quite sure what to do, since it's not nice to wake someone up, and she and everyone else in the car laughed at the predicament. Eventually, during a stop, she got up very quickly. The sleeping man straightened up slightly, especially when the guy on his other side sort of told him to wake up. The sleepy guy then went back to sleep in a less bothersome-to-others position. The escalator-glarers weren't so bad when I saw them up close.

When I got back to the U.S., I had to reacclimate to the lack of eye contact.

That and walking around without my passport and visa, and not locking my backpack when I got on BART, and ice cream costing more than 25 cents per popsicle.

Now, in New York, there's no such thing as an irreversible transit error that will leave me stranded because I have disposable income and therefore I can call a cab.

The subway runs 24 hours a day, so I never have to rush to catch the last train home. But on the weekends, when the MTA performs its maintenance, lines flicker in and out of existence, and taking a line you haven't researched in advance will be Russian roulette meets musical chairs.

A few days ago, my boyfriend and I tried to travel between Brooklyn and Queens to visit a friend for brunch. Queens and Brooklyn each contain more than 2 million people, yet very few lines directly connect the two regions.

So, of course, when we tried to daisy-chain from the N to the 7 to the G, the 7 wasn't running, and we missed the announcement of the special shuttle bus, and we went on a wild goose chase after the L only to learn that it lived in faded myth and legend.

When we finally did get on that shuttle bus and the driver announced, "Don't sit down, seats are wet," I started suspecting ninjas.

We ended up being a half-hour late and took turns saying "aargh!" and comforting each other. But we called our friend, and she was understanding. She moved to New York from California a few years ago, and she's looking forward to showing us the town, one diner at a time. She waited for us and was glad when we arrived, and we had a good breakfast together. Outside the window, buses and subways carried their passengers on their many journeys, together.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.