CORRECTION APPENDED: The piece originally mistakenly identified Far Rockaway as being in Brooklyn. It is in Queens.

My suburban Chicago childhood did not involve much mass transportation. Most of my travel experience involves the back seat of a caravan. I’m not sure I ever took a bus, except to junior high school, and that hardly counts. I rode the El exactly two times, both 20-minute trips to Wrigley Field, and I sometimes caught a commuter train downtown, but it was a smooth ride populated by men with briefcases. The only sound was the rustling of Chicago Tribunes. It smelled like soap.

These experiences did not at all prepare me for the New York City subways, which I had always imagined as grimy tunnels full of blight. This summer, I found out that I was mostly right.

For three months, as a reporting intern for one of the city’s dailies, I rode the uptown 1 to Washington Heights, the Queens bound 7, the D to the Bronx, the shuttle train between Grand Central and Times Square, the downtown 5 to catch the Staten Island Ferry as well as dozens and dozens of other routes.

The most surprising thing about the subways is how safe they are. At the beginning of the summer, I was baffled by the number of small children I spotted. Any parent who brings their infant into this subterranean horror film set should be forced to put the child up for adoption, I reasoned. It turns out I was wrong. New York Police Department records show that you only have a 1-in-714,000 chance of being a victim of a crime on the subways. There were only a few murders on the subways last year. That may seem like a lot to a Midwesterner, but it’s not when you consider that 4.9 million people ride them each weekday.

The New York subway system may also be one of the most diverse places on earth. A trip on the D train from Coney Island through Manhattan all the way to 205th Street in the Bronx reveals more nationalities, creeds and colors than pro-affirmative action University of Michigan administrators could ever dream of.

The system has its fair share of problems. More often than you might imagine, I spotted pools of blood on the tracks, fresh from the suicides of people who likely could not bear the thick humidity of the underground platforms for another moment. The stations are filthy and routinely smell of urine, feces and spoiled meat. There’s a lot of inappropriate oogling and brushing up against and even indecent exposure.

By the end of the summer, I felt like a bona fide straphanger, though I knew the 87-year-old woman standing next to me drinking a cup of coffee and reading the New York Post without losing balance as the cars lurched around a dark turn would not consider me one.

I once rode an A train from Penn Station to the end of the line, Far Rockaway, Queens, which is only on the standard subway map by virtue of an inset. The trip took me almost two hours.

I sat and read the paper and watched people come and go, lugging paintings and FAO Schwartz bags and beach chairs and stuffed suitcases. I watched the beggars and salesmen filter in and out of the car. Two teenagers announced that they were selling M&M’s for their baseball team, which made me wonder for the 20th time that summer whether any of them were raising money for Little League or actually avoiding a summer job flipping burgers. A middle-aged man with bright eyes got on and sang a song he had written about Jesus. Afterward, he asked for donations. “A scrap of food or something to drink would be much appreciated,” he said as the sun lingered over the Empire State Building behind him. No one gave him anything. “God bless you anyway,” he said. We had been blessed. We traveled on.

When I arrived, my editor told me we were abandoning the story, and I got on the next train back to Manhattan.

Underneath Brooklyn, a man hawked illegal DVDs. “Your favorite boy wizard in the most compelling installment yet,” his deep voice boomed. “That wacky donkey, princess and ogre are back at it again in Shrek the Third. And you can own it for only $5. Or how about something for your husband? That renegade cop John McClane saving the world from criminals. Three for $10!” No one bought anything from him either.

Then a pair of men set up a boom box in the aisle. “Own this collection of Bob Marley’s greatest hits,” one said. “Only $3 for 17 songs.” The woman to my left frowned and buried her head in a Spanish-language newspaper as the man to my right reached for his wallet. One of the salesmen switched on the boom box. I still had an hour left on the train, and I was out of reading material. The only thing to do was to sit back and listen. The opening chords of “Redemption Song” filled the car.

Karl Stampfl is the editor in chief of The Michigan Daily.

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