Spying the right subway exit
July 7th, 2009

subwaymapIn 1968 I moved from El Paso, Texas to New York City. I quickly sold my car and became dependent on the New York City subway system for transportation. At first I was completely lost a lot of the time. Particularly confusing was roaring through tunnels and then stepping on to a platform where crowds rushed in several directions. In West Texas knowing where north and south were was the key to wayfinding. In the NYC subways, those directions have become uptown and downtown, which only roughly correspond to surface directions based on north and south poles.

For a while during this period I dated a lawyer who had been trained as a spy. I told him of my troubles with subway directions. He told me to relax: “No one,” he explained, “has a conceptual picture of the New York City subway layout, except Russian spies.” He said there was a school in Moscow where all spies in training were required to master in detail the layout of the system. The rest of us, he told me, just learn enough to get from the places we are to the places where we need to go.

And now, four decades later, there is a better answer. The New York Times reports today that an iPhone app is available with maps of subway platforms. The report begins with this test, which I passed after a couple of years in the City: “One way to know whether you have become a true New Yorker: do you stand at just the right subway car door? If you get on at the perfect spot, you’ll get off at the spot nearest the exit you want.”

I suppose the Moscow school ended with the Cold War. Now spies would probably use the iPhone app anyway.

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