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Nina In New York: The “Subway Shuffle” Is No Laughing Matter

Straphangers wait for trains at Penn Station (credit: Getty Images)

Straphangers wait for trains at Penn Station (credit: Getty Images)

NYC Is A Strange Place

A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York.
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By Nina Pajak

Thank you, New York Times City Room, for writing about a bit of city minutiae which daily has a profound impact on my day: The so-dubbed “subway shuffle.”

If you ride certain lines, you’ll know exactly what this is without any further explanation. But for those blissfully removed from this daily dance, I’ll elaborate.

Many subway lines follow the same routes through much of Manhattan. And in the mornings, very frequently, two trains making many of the same stops will arrive on facing tracks at about the same time. This leaves commuters scurrying like rats back and forth across the platform in a frenzied attempt to get on the train leaving the station first. It is always at least one of the following things: frustrating, demoralizing, sweaty, stressful, and occasionally gratifying.

For me, the subway shuffle takes place between the B and the D trains. Here’s how to do it:

1. Wait for subway to arrive, sweat profusely. Watch useless A and C trains come and go in succession.

2. D train arrives. As doors are opening, B train pulls in across the platform.

The following choreography can vary and is known to become somewhat complicated.

3. Stand in doorway of D train, knees soft and ready to spring into action. Look around nervously as you await announcement. Attempt to position yourself so that one ear is trained to the D train and the other is picking up frequencies from the B.

4. Hear no announcement, or a completely unintelligible one.

5. Remain frozen in place with dozens of others, trying quickly to do a risk analysis based on how often the first train to arrive is the first to leave, and whether it’s reality or perception that the local train tends to take precedence. Look around to assess the strategies of others. Do they know something you don’t? Does that woman look luckier than you? She’s wearing very nice shoes and her silk blouse remains crisp and unblemished—perhaps you could learn a thing or two from her.

6a. Ultimately decide to stay where you are, and inevitably hear the ding of the closing doors of the B train a moment later. Consider sprinting, decide against it.

OR

6b. Decide if you’re on the D train, it’s inevitably going to be the other one. Hurry across the platform in a way that conveys your urgency without making you appear like a total jerk (like those creeps who shove everyone as though we’re not all doing the exact same thing). Arrive on B train just as doors close on D train. See step 7 for further instruction.

7. Stamp foot, curse, grit teeth, count backwards from ten. Suddenly become consumed with rage and panic at the idea that you will arrive to work roughly 90 seconds later than you otherwise would have, which now feels very important.

OR

8. Hear the announcer on the opposite train say the magic words: “7th Avenue is next. Stand clear of the closing doors.” Nine times out of ten, this is your indication that this train is going first. One-tenth of the time, see step 7. Intensify reaction by roughly 50%, as this time you were tricked.

OR

9. Miraculously, the announcer on your train enunciates all of the following words, in sequence: “The B train across the platform will be going first. This train is being held in the station.” Unfortunately, this announcement comes just in time for a mass of people to sprint across the platform and for about half of them to make it in. The doors slam in your face. Now you must sprint back to the other train, lest it happen again and you find yourself doomed to repeat the whole sequence. Again, see step 7.

OR

10. You actually find yourself on the train leaving first, whether by fate or a destiny of your own making. Grasp the pole as the doors close, and watch the sullen faces and hangdog expressions of the people in the losing train, and join your fellow passengers in a surreptitious moment of relief and elation.

It may seem like a small thing, but step 7 is no way to start out the day.

Are you familiar with the “subway shuffle”? Share your story below.

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Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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