Some 3.7 million people ride them on weekdays. The routes feed into each other like arteries on an anatomy chart. They cover 236 miles, second only to the London subway. New York spends $130 million a year just for the electricity.
At its worst, the system is an octogenarian geezer that goes out more often than a trick knee. Uncertainty prevails. A crackly voice on the station loudspeaker making some unintelligible announcement is the dreaded omen of 30 minutes shot to hell.
Societal rot is here in all its awful vaudeville. Hundreds of the homeless inhabit the tunnels. Pickpockets let their hands browse amid the crowds. Ads on the trains themselves are a mosaic of personal misadventure: drug treatment, victim hot lines, laser therapy for anal warts.
The transit cops on subterranean patrol make up the sixth largest police force in the nation. The job is formidable. Besides muggers, drunks and gangs, there is the bloody debris of the pushed and fallen.
Two riders died on May 17 alone. One tripped while lurching for the Uptown No. 4. Another hit a concrete overhang as he hoisted himself for a thrilling look from atop the Downtown 6. A third rider lost a hand while hopping between cars on the Uptown 5. Service was disrupted for an hour as workers searched for a missing finger.
Then there are those fare-beaters. No other U.S. transit system reports even a fraction of the problem of New York. It is embedded in the municipal culture, as visible a part of subway life as derelicts taking a snooze.
Scams are abundant. Thieves get keys to out-of-use entrances, open up and collect fares from those who mistakenly follow. In 1987 and 1988, $4 million in tokens was stolen right out of the turnstiles until the collection bins were replaced with heavy steel vaults.
"Here at 116th Street hardly nobody pays," said Levi Bell, an occasional token-sucker indiscreetly working the B and C lines. He uses matchbooks to jam the coin slots. He sells the stolen fares on the street for 75 cents apiece.
"Yes, I know it's unsanitary," he says of his craft. He is a tall, older man with red lines in his eyes like the squiggles on a polygraph. "Hard times makes you do it. Anyways, I've kissed women that's worse."
The fare-beaters' best pals are the turnstiles themselves. Most are about 40 years old, mechanical sentries long obsolete against modern wile.
The transit authority has proposed to buy a $670-million fare collection system from Cubic Corp. in San Diego. Cards would replace tokens. Passageways would be narrowed at the bottom to inhibit crawlers, inclined at the sides to stop leapers. A light would flash when the machines were stuffed with paper.
"Yes, I've heard something about that," the token-sucker says. "It will be a challenge, yes. But you wait. This is New York. People will find a way."
The transit police have converted buses into mobile booking centers. Right on the street, the accused are checked for priors, their fingerprints taken, their photographs shot, their addresses verified.
Forms are completed: desk appearance tickets, arraignment cards, court availability schedules, prearraignment notification sheets, supporting depositions, field investigation workups, on-line booking arrest reports.
Four hours of processing await the alleged fare beaters. And there they go, out of the women's room and up the stairs onto the sidewalk, led in manacles two by two toward the bus. The crowds wonder just what kind of criminals the cops have got here: Hey, look--they've busted two guys in suits and ties!
Once inside the portable jail, most of the arrested men remain quiet. For them, this is just another hitch in a long run of woe. But the two in ties are different. They still can't believe it.
They protest. "Let's talk morals," says Richard Cendo, the sharp dresser with the outdated New York Times ID.
"OK, let's talk morals," says Capt. O'Hare.
"You're supposed to be providing a service. I can't count the times the trains have broken down on me. In the aggregate, the system owes me money."
"Listen, we handle an enormous volume of people. We handle 250,000 a day just coming through Grand Central Station."
"That means you have a larger economy of scale. You ought to be able to do better than other transit systems. But you don't. Look at Washington, D.C. There's never a line in Washington, D.C."
The captain considers this. He is likable and talkative, a heavyset man, 27 years on the force. "But the important thing about your situation is that you took something without paying," he says earnestly.
That is logic that appalls the attorney, Thomas McArdle: "Not pay. Not pay! Eighty per cent of this system is federally and state subsidized. I pay taxes. I pay a lot of taxes!"
"Yes, but you didn't pay the fare today," Capt. O'Hare answers.
"The line was so long it was going up the stairs. You picked the busiest time of the day on one of the busiest days of the year to make your arrests. Some would consider that entrapment."
"It wasn't entrapment."