Every underground system seems to have the same smell. A warm blanket consisting of a mix of dust and grease and something vaguely metallic, a smell that you assume must be at least slightly carcinogenic, but then if it was, people wouldn’t go down there right? At least that’s what you think as you get caught up in the silently unimpressed and determined throng hastily descending into the metallic haze.
Due to some fairly poor travel planning, I managed to ride on the Paris Metro, The London Underground and New York’s Subway all within 48 hours of each other, and while each of those systems has vastly different attributes (and multiple lines with differing personalities) that same dusty, greasy, metallic funk permeates each one.
Train after train, sometimes barely a minute apart, day after day, year after year. Endless metal on metal, the weirdly harmonious electric wine as the train rolls to a stop, that pregnant pause before the doors sling open in an audio hail of warning beeps. Those things are also in every city, but unlike that smell, they’re all unique to the city above them.
Other differences include the pre-recorded announcements. London’s authoritative, yet calm and collected female voice wrapping her annunciation around ‘The Bakerloo Line’ contrasted with New York’s comparatively enthusiastic male voice, with its strange mish-mash of American accents that results in an awkward hybrid reminiscent of a time and place from another era that possibly never existed. His gleeful and slightly grandiose warning to, “stand clear of the closing doors, please!” almost sounds as if a part of him is hoping someone gets stuck, and certainly deserves that exclamation mark when written.
But it’s not just him under New York: It’s up to a female voice to inform passengers of upcoming stops. Together they’re like a couple, parents even, guiding you through New York’s sprawling subway, Dad sternly informing you to look out for suspicious packages, while Mum tells you that you’re now arriving at Union Square.
And then there are the maps: London’s iconic, rational grid of coloured lines that bear no resemblance to the actual distances involved, resulting in tourists catching three different trains, only to arrive four blocks away in real distance, subsequently making the movement of locals appear as if they’re bending time and space by comparison.
Meanwhile, New York’s grid, arguably iconic as London’s tube map, provides the means of navigation, this, coupled with the fact that subway lines are named by individual letters and numbers, makes a set of written directions look more like a complex algebraic equation. When the list of connecting lines at upcoming stations are announced, it sounds more like an episode of play school, where today, we’ll be learning the letters M… L… N… Q… and… R.
I could go on, the seating for example: The now ubiquitous and profoundly utilitarian wooden bench seats in New York, versus the sparsely placed, minimalistic seating of the Paris metro, versus London’s complete lack of seating, all in a way, give a glimpse into the personality of their respective cities sprawled out above them.
And it’s the ultimate source of that personality that makes for the most interesting aspect of underground systems. Marveling at the unspoken movement of masses of people, all knowing exactly when and where to stand, when to walk and which way to go, makes pausing to check a map feel as if you’re the literal spanner in the works, screwing up the seamless, choreographed flow of commuters as they push sideways past you, expressing their disdain for tourists with well timed groans and scoffs.
Their practiced movement through the system essentially casts them as human parts to a massive transit machine. What’s interesting is that those human parts sometimes start taking on decidedly non-human forms, like the way the last few commuters who cram into the door of London’s Northern Line during peak hour, expertly (and probably subconsciously) mould their bodies into a shape that perfectly mimics the profile of the bent doors wrapping over the carriage, so that they can slide closed unobstructed.
Somewhere along the way I’d overheard that the conditions in the London Tube were below the minimum requirements for the transport of livestock. I have nothing to back that claim up, but after traveling the Northern Line during peak hour on a particularly humid summer day, with a mass of half conscious robots playing human Tetris, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true.
The only way to really survive that particular train is to get yourself to the small open window at the end of the carriage, and stand close enough to get the slight rush of air coming through it, and it’s there that you’ll get that smell. That identical smell that’s in every city, born of electrical circuits and metal sparks and years of dust, blasted relentlessly through the tunnels with each passing train, where it then lingers around each station, welcoming the robotic, collectively automated crowd of commuters, train after train, day in, day out.