I grew up in a small town. My parents came from a small town. I’ll probably die in a small town….no, that’s probably not true, dang it. I told someone here that my hometown had around 1,000 people and they couldn’t believe it. I first went to New York City at the ripe old age of 27. I had earned a PhD by then. I still remember finding the subway frightening, convinced I would be jumped the second the doors closed.
It doesn’t help that this is what city-dwellers tell you. It’s their version of “everyone carries a gun and rattlesnakes live in toilet paper dispensers” that small town folks tell visitors. What inevitably happens on the subway is that nothing happens. You get on, the train goes where you need it to and you get off. People mostly keep to themselves as we cram together for the ride. We can all read what you’re reading and hear your conversations and smell you and are often touching you but by unspoken agreement we all act like this isn’t happening. Sure, every city has a few quirks in their system but, at the end of the ride, a subway system is a subway system. I’ve ridden them now in New York, Washington, Boston, London and Santiago. I’ve ridden commuter rail through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago. It should come as second nature by now.
But it doesn’t. I sit through the orientations they give my students so I hear the advice: Don’t carry a bag! Don’t have your cell phone out! Don’t wear earphones! Carry nothing in your backpockets and nothing you can’t afford to lose! Don’t get on a crowded car! Don’t get on a car with just a couple of people!
So, I was my normal small town freaked out kid as I went to ride the Subte, Buenos Aires’ contribution to subway ecology. The end of the D line is a few blocks from the apartment so it was easy enough to find. I boarded ready to do battle with…the dozen or so folks who were all busy talking on or reading their cell phones. One guy was already asleep. Another was reading an accounting text. I managed a seat and, a few stops later, had an obvious local stand with his butt in my face (the joy of subways) and an iPhone half out of his backpocket. Basically, I saw locals breaking every rule we give our students. And no one died. Or noticed one another.
I was fortunate in that I had timed it so it was a slow period. I kept a seat all the way to my stop and the car was never really crowded. But it was fine. As it obviously would be.
My destination, and reward for braving the scary, scary subway, was the El Ateneo Grand Splendid. The Grand Splendid was a great theater that opened around the time of the First World War. It tracked through many variations until it arrived at today as a bookstore. It’s been open about 10 years and is fabulous. I wandered for almost an hour taking in the store which looks exactly like someone opened a bookstore in a theater. Finally, I realized the books I was browsing were all in Spanish and decided to check out the cafe, which is on stage. It was almost 5 so I debated beer or coffee for a few short seconds and then settled on a beer. Good thing too because that got me a bowl of peanuts. I noticed the coffee drinkers didn’t get peanuts. Suckers. The cafe had wifi so I checked in and took some pictures. The population looked to be locals interested in books and tourists interested in the theater/store. I’d have loved to be one of the former but the only English language books I found were spy thrillers that were obviously appealing to the low brow American tourist. They won’t get me that easy.
I wandered the streets, filled with shops, as I wound my way back to a station. It was nearing 6 at this point and the subway was much more crowded. I stood for the ride but, again, no one bothered me. It’s obviously a place in which a pickpocket could flourish. But, like most of our fears, they are more imagined than real. There are certainly bad folks out there but not nearly so many as we’re led to believe. And most of them have their own drivers.