Stand Clear

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By Mordechai Schmutter

Dear Traveler,

Thank you for choosing the New York City Transit subway system. The subway is, hands down, the fastest way to barrel through the sewers to get to any point in the city, taking a route that you would never take in a million years if you were the one driving (“Brooklyn to Queens? Why not go through Midtown Manhattan!”) while sharing smells with people that you would never get into the same room with under normal circumstances.

We know why you travel with us: because it’s better to stand uncomfortably close to perfect strangers in total silence and then lurch forward into them every time the train stops than to sit in the frustrating traffic of motorists, all of whom want to go in the same direction at the same times of the day, and many of whom think that you’re supposed to drive with the white line equidistant between your wheels.

The subway is the most convenient way to get to any point in New York, especially when compared to, say, the London Underground, which doesn’t come anywhere near New York, and instead claims to take commuters to places which are clearly made up, such as Piccadilly and Upminster. We’ve actually never been on the subways of any other city besides New York, but we assume that the rules are pretty much the same, only with less pushing.

A Brief History

Of The Subway

The subway was formed a long time ago by hundreds of workers digging blindly in the dark from opposite ends of the city and severely missing each other, some of them ending up as far off as Queens. This is why . . .

• Most of the tracks don’t line up with each other;

• You sometimes have to slosh through several miles underground to catch a “connecting” train;

• Sometimes the train gets totally confused and comes up above the ground;

• Some parts of the city have absolutely no trains, while some parts have several train lines that appear to follow exactly the same route;

• Some tracks end up in the middle of the ocean; and

• The trains seem to have been named by someone who had absolutely no handle on how the alphabet works.


1. Whenever you’re late getting anywhere, you can merely say, “I came by subway,” and everyone will understand.

2. Yes, the subway system is infested with rats. But there’s no need to worry about them, because of the alligators.

3. Stand clear of the closing doors. The conductor will say this every time he closes the doors, for the benefit of people who’ve never used doors before, or have never been in an elevator. This is mainly because he’s seen enough trains go by with the belt of someone’s coat flapping merrily alongside the car.

4. If you’re going to lean on the doors after they close (because, for example, your belt is stuck), make sure to stand clear when the doors open at the next stop as well.

5. Don’t get onto the train until the people already on the train either get off or tumble out backwards with surprised looks on their faces.

6. Don’t use the subway to transport your refrigerator during rush hour.

7. If you get onto a train with your dry cleaning, don’t worry. There’s plenty of space to hang it.

8. The platform on which to wait for the train is about five feet wide, with a dangerous drop on both sides, and every given number of feet there’s a staircase that is almost as wide as the platform. So if you need to pass the staircase, make sure to walk sideways and go as fast as you can so you get to the other side before you meet someone coming the other way.

9. If you’re on the way down the stairs and you see a train stopped at the platform, and you jump down the stairs and hurdle over several commuters, leaping right in before the doors close, there is a 99% chance that the train will take off in the opposite direction than you want it to.

10. If you don’t know where your train is going, there is no reason to panic, because the conductor will helpfully announce it over the PA system: “Foo foo ferna ferna fern. Stand clear of the closing doors.”

11. Most people will tell you that full train cars are safer than near-empty cars if you don’t want to get mugged, and near-empty cars are safer if you don’t want to get sick. And you have like three seconds to decide which car to get on.

12. If you get onto the emptier car, you’ll find out why it was emptier as soon as the doors close.

13. If you need to sit with your knees three feet apart, get a horse.

14. Don’t bring your horse on the subway. Nor should you bring your bike, for that matter. If you have these things, why are you on the subway?

15. If you wanted the seat next to you to be empty, and someone comes along and asks if he can sit there, you can sigh once, and that’s it. He doesn’t want to sit next to you either. He didn’t wake up and say, “Today I want to sit next to the most exasperated guy on the train.”

16. You should make a reasonable effort at all times not to fall asleep on the shoulder of the person next to you.

17. Even though the seats on the train seem like they were constructed mainly for this purpose, you should avoid staring at the people across from you, even if they’re weird. You should instead make sure to keep checking the advertisements over their heads, in case they’ve changed in the last 30 seconds.

18. If you must read a newspaper, make sure to spread it all the way open, so that the people on either side of you can read it as well. If necessary, you can hook your arms over their shoulders for support.

19. If you get on a train and don’t remember why you got on that particular train, every car has a subway map conveniently posted behind the only two other people in the car, who will try not to stare at you as you hang off the dry-cleaning bar, two inches from their faces, and try to figure out where on earth you’re going.

20. Yes, those spots on the platform are gum. All of them. No, I don’t know how many people have to chew gum while waiting for a train for the platform to look like that.

21. Never ask anyone how to use the MetroCard machines. Just stand there with a question mark over your head while a line builds behind you.

22. If you’re in line for a MetroCard, and the guy in front of you hasn’t moved his hands in like 15 minutes, you can move to a different line.

23. Your first MetroCard swipe will never work. They’ll claim you swiped it too fast or too slow, or that you swiped it backwards, even though you can swear that this is the way you swiped it yesterday. Sometimes they turn the readers around in the middle of the night just to mess with you.

24. Make sure to follow the person in front of you as closely as possible, especially while he’s going through a turnstile, so you can get stuck with him.

25. If you don’t know where you’re going, make sure to walk in confident strides as if you do, and then suddenly, in the middle of everything, stop and spin around several times.

26. If someone looks lost, take the time to help him, even if you yourself aren’t sure where you’re going. (Using this philosophy, I’m pretty sure I’ve steered hundreds of people into the ocean.)

27. If you love your music so much that you can’t go 15 minutes without it, make sure to bring a boom box, so that other people can enjoy it too.

28. Sometimes the train will stop in the middle of the tunnel, but the conductor will usually tell you the reason, so you’ll know how long you’ll be stuck there. “Foo foo ferna ferna ferna,” he’ll say. “Stand clear of the closing doors.”

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to

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