In December of 1981, author Paul Theroux spent a week journeying through the NYC subway system, writing eloquently about what he saw. The NY Times published a lengthy piece from him on his experience in January 1982, in which he explores our underground and "discovers an 'alien land' that is 'beat up,' with patches of beauty... futuristic in a ruined and uncompromising way."
You can read the full story here, but below are some of the best quotes, mixed in with some photos and videos from inside the 1980s subway system.
- "The subway is frightful looking. It has paint and signatures all over its aged face. It has been vandalized from end to end. It smells so hideous you want to put a clothespin on your nose, and it is so noisy the sound actually hurts."
- A nod to low ridership: "'I haven't been down there in years,' is a common enough remark from a city dweller."
- "You can wait a long time for some trains... you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen, leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about." (That's a line he quoted from T.S. Eliot's "East Coker.")
- "Is it dangerous? Ask anyone, and, without thinking, he will tell you there must be about two murders a day on the subway."
- "New York's one-price token system is one of the fairest and most sensible in the world; London's multifare structure is clumsy... Tokyo's, while just as complicated, is run by computers which spit tickets at you and then belch out your change." (RIP Tokens.)
- "The subway is full of surprises. It has what are probably the longest rides of any subway in the world..." (True/False?)
- "The MTA is over a year late in finishing, but at least they know there's a problem."
- "It has the filthiest trains, the most bizarre graffiti, the noisiest wheels, the craziest passengers, the most macabre crimes."
- "The subway looks like a deathtrap."
- "The New York subway is a serious matter — the rackety train, the silent passengers, the occasional scream."
- "No one speaks... Avoiding the stranger's gaze is what the subway passenger does best. Most sit bolt upright, with fixed expressions, ready for anything."
- "You have to look as if you're the one with the meat cleaver. You have to go in with your eyes flashing."
- "The subway is like a complex — and diseased — circulatory system. Some people liken it to a sewer and others hunch up their shoulders and mutter about being in the bowels of the earth."
- A powerful smell. A rat. Twice the size of rats I've seen elsewhere."
- "Rule One is: don't ride the subway if you don't have to."
- "The subway is New York City's best hope. The streets are impossible; the highways are a failure; there is nowhere to park. The private automobile has no future in this city whatsoever." (LOL)
- "The subway is frightening — and what makes it even more frightening is the fact that it is so very easy for a passenger to get lost on it."
- "In every detail it is like a nightmare, complete with rats and a tunnel and a low ceiling. It is manifest suffocation straight out of Poe."
- "There is decay everywhere, but there is also a real determination to reverse that trend and get it going right."
- "'The smell of urine — it's really horrible at some stations,' said Robert Huber of the Transit Authority."
- "The most-mugged man in New York must be the white-haired creakylooking fellow in Bedford-Stuyvesant who has had as many as 30 mugging attempts made on him in a single year. And he still rides the subway trains." "The New York subway system is wearing out, and certain sections are worn out; a large part of it looks hopeless."
Travel back to that magical time...