Real or Fake, and Does it Matter? The MTA is New York City’s Twilight Zone 🚊🙄🗽

Chicken Over Rice is a column about New York through the eyes of Alex Wolf—a cranky millennial who lives in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @alexwolfco and her website

It’s very clear that the people who run the MTA get amusement out of it. Maybe it’s just me but, how could they not? I mean, they have so much power over the city. Millions of people at the mercy at their human error daily and for some reason, I get a weird sense they enjoy it. I don’t know if I’m paranoid, but when I stare at them, I swear I can trace smiles creaking on the edges of their mouths. It’s like they know how seriously New Yorker’s take everything else and enjoy how non-seriously they get to do their jobs right in front of our stressed-out faces. But then, parts of me wonder if I’m just overthinking it. Because there are these moments where I figure that most of the people who work for the MTA must be slow. Maybe they aren’t grinning because they like seeing us squirm, maybe it’s more of a distant grin. A grin that you make when you don’t really know what’s going on. 

There was this one time the train conductor on an R train was using the PA system in reverse. She was in the car closest to me. I was leaning on the wall in the train and could hear her in the control board. Every time she was making an announcement intended for the riders, the PA was off and I could just sort of hear her voice echo off the walls of the tiny room. Then when she was finished, the PA system would be on and the whole train could hear all the clicks and the white noise coming from her booth. “Next stop is Rector Street.” She said—to herself 

Credit: Giphy

Then there are curious moments that happen in the—for a lack of a better term— “customer service booths.” You know, the ones that usually sit parallel to the turnstiles. Don’t they always seem to be suspiciously smiling in there? Waiting to hear whatever bad luck occurred that forced you to walk up to one. Every once in awhile, the person sitting inside will feel compelled to make an announcement. With a clear strain in their voice, they will declare awkwardly that a train is coming. Thanks. I didn’t know that. Is there some sort of new MTA obligation to announce this now? Do they think it gives the station an aura of sophistication? That’s the problem with New Yorkers, even if you’re trying to help us, we’re smart asses. And even though I can clearly hear the effort to sound informative and serious over the PA, I swear I have not heard it done without it eventually trailing into chatter or giggling.

I know you’re probably going to think I’m lying, but there was this one time the PA came on over the platform and the woman said “toothbrush” and turned it off. And it wasn’t a “toothbrush” that got caught in the midst of a sentence. It was a boldly pronounced “toothbrush” as in I-am-going-to-confuse-the-shit-out-of-you-riders-as-you-go-about-your-day. Or “toothbrush” as in somebody-bet-me-$5-that-I-wouldn’t-do-it. The old couple next to me broke their attention from their books to look at each other and laugh. They know what they’ll be talking about with their kids over the FaceTime tonight.

And that’s really what MTA stories are aren’t they? Incidents that sound so peculiar that you share them half knowing people might not believe you because technically anything can happen on the MTA. You can just lie. For example, I’m waiting for someone to try to steal my phone while I’m standing by the train door as it’s open. Apparently, that’s happening nowadays enough that there are signs everywhere about it. Now, I’m always prepared for it. My hands clutch over my phone as soon as the doors spread. If someone tries it, it will be my moment. My thighs are clenched, waiting, ready to kick the shit out of anyone who tries it. People will look at me in shock and admiration at how quickly I responded. A few myths of the light-skin girl stereotype will officially be debunked and of course, now everyone on that car has something to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome. The question is, do I wait for this to happen or do I just say it happened? If it happened on the MTA, does it even matter?

Credit: Giphy

And I don’t know if it’s just me, but the MTA advisory copy, like the stuff we see on the stickers, signs and pre-recorded audio messages have gotten creepier over the years. As a kid, it was no food, no radio, no smoking. Simple enough. Now, I feel like I didn’t even realize half of this eerie shit was even happening on the train. For example “Drop something? Leave it!” is a sign that’s plastered all over the place. It has the already-hilarious looking stick figure dropping a yellow rectangle, which represents a phone, onto the tracks. Under the picture, it says “55 customers were killed”. Customers!? Customers? Whoever was in charge of these signs thought out of all the descriptive nouns they could use in the English dictionary, “customers” was the best fit? Shit. I didn’t even realize I was a MTA customer until you said it. But wait, let’s backtrack. Is this sign essentially telling me is that MTA “customers” are trying to retrieve their iPhones from the rat fest of the train tracks, and dying? What a way to go. I don’t know if signs like that do more good than bad to be honest. That one only reminded me how much I have to call all my fellow commuter’s sanity into suspect.

Then there are the signs that you can tell a smart ass wrote like “Poles are for safety, not your latest routine.” There’s really no point in being serious with the NY commuter is there? Is there a point in being serious with anyone here at all? You might as well turn this whole city into a joke. New York City is the national equivalent of a class clown. I mean, you have the world’s most talented writers, comedians and all-American assholes in one place. You can’t tell us what to do. Why does the MTA even try to pretend that they are organized or professional? It’s almost like the more serious the MTA tries to be, the funnier it is.

Credit: Giphy

The more I think about it, maybe it’s not that the MTA is playing tricks on us or that they’re slow. Maybe what’s happening is they are doing what all of us New Yorker’s are doing: living in their own world. The city is a mess and they are a charming part of that. I know it’s frustrating but, would New York even still be New York if the MTA got us to all the important meetings on time? This city is a mess. No one even ever listens to those signs you know. Men are still man-spreading and I see a breakdancing show on a train about once a week. People still pop open a tray of chicken over rice on the train even though you’re not supposed to and customers drop their phones on the track all the time. This city is a mess. Nobody is listening because people don’t listen to people here. We are all doing our own thing. That’s the point.  

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