Let’s suppose you’re at Septa’s
station running to catch the Market Street El because you’re headed to 34th
and Market for an important event. You hop aboard an idling train but as soon
as the doors close behind you there’s an announcement that the train is an
express to 69th
There’s no choice now but to ride to
and take a return train to 34th Street.
You wonder: why wasn’t the announcement of an express made when you were outside the train instead of inside?
After the long haul to
you discover that the 69th
Street station platform is
packed with disgruntled commuters. Unusually large numbers of people are
waiting for return trains to West Philadelphia
Has there been a bomb scare, a suicide attempt, a breakdown of the system? Nobody seems to know what’s going but in a
sense it doesn’t matter. In a matter of seconds a train headed back to Center
City opens up. You board
the train with the massive crowd while casually noticing that there are several
homeless people sound asleep throughout the car. Center City
Then: A woman’s voice garbles some sort of information over a Septa loudspeaker. The garble is a result of poor diction and a lousy sound system. The unintelligible announcement is repeated but the fact is the speaker is too close to the public address system so the message sounds like a scolding mixed with heavy breathing.
Why can’t Septa provide voice diction lessons to the people it puts behind loudspeakers and intercoms?
A collective groan rises up among the passengers as the public address garbler manages to get out six clear distinctive words: this train is out of service.
A working train eventually pulls up. Once inside, you notice that several seats inside the train are occupied by sleeping homeless people although it’s only . One homeless guy has his legs in a garbage bag. Another man is spread out over two seats and he has a large shopping car6t stuffed with his belongings. One empty seat has been urinated on. That familiar city subway stench is in the air. A white guy in dreadlocks goes from car to car selling bags of Swedish Fish. A small wizened toothless woman, her skeletal face evoking near death experiences, does a drug induced snake dance in the middle of the crowded train.
Adam Gopnik in a 2016 New Yorker article entitled, ‘Let Us Sleep on the Subways!’ writes that not so long ago “there were lonely cars at lonely times,” but today “the subways are packed at 4 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon.” The numbers, he says, are daunting.
Gopnik attributes much of the growth in
’s ridership from the
rapidly growing neighborhoods of New York Brooklyn. “To put it in plain
English, in the unending tsunami of hipsters traveling to and from what were once
quaintly called the outer boroughs. A generation has mastered the trains.”
Gopnik writes that most of the people sleeping on
subways are the stoned
or homeless. The same is true in New York , of course. How many
valuable commuter seats do these chronic sleepers take up? My guess is ten to
fifteen percent of each car, especially on a Sunday morning when you’ll spot
more deep sleepers than at any other time. Some of the homeless are not asleep
but sit and ride the El for hours in a semi-hypnotic state. It’s doubtful
whether the sleepers have Sopite Syndrome (a nuero disorder where symptoms of
fatigue follow short periods of activity). Most are using the trains as a
temporary home. Philadelphia
The sleeping homeless exacerbate the problem of trains so overcrowded that Market-Frankford El stops like Girard have trains whizzing past and not stopping to pick up passengers because there’s no room for them.
transit police go car to car to wake up the deep sleepers. Former NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton stated that “subways
are not for sleeping.” His sentiments were seconded by Mayor Bill de Blasio who said,
“I know people have gotten out of work and are tired, but we are going to start
waking people up.”
This would include commuters who take cat naps.
Gopnik attributes this universal tiredness to “the perpetual-motion machine that services today’s errand-driven economy.”
Septa would be wise, perhaps, to add sleeping cars where the perpetual-motion homeless can join commuter cat nappers and the chronically stoned. Speaking of being stoned, there’s not a square inch of the city where you don’t smell that rancid odor of mind destroying marijuana, a smell that is quite different from the sweeter and far more pleasant smell of weed in the 1970s.
Sleeping on the subways has been an urban problem for as long as there have been subways.
The New York Times in 2018 ran the following headline: “As Homeless Take Refuge in Subway, More Officers Are Sent to Help.”
Elle Magazine in 2016 ran the following story: Why Does the Subway Make Me So Sleepy?”
Then there was Edmund G. Love’s Harper’s magazine feature, Subways Are for Sleeping, in 1956, where the author details the day-to-day life of a NYC vagrant, Henry Shelby, a university graduate who once held a high paying job in
Fired from his position and locked out of his hotel room for non payment of
rent, Love asked Manhattan
how he managed to look so clean and well dressed while being homeless. Shelby talked about the 65
cent baths at Grand Central Station, how he sleeps in libraries, how he took
one change of clothes (he had two) to the cleaners every other day so he always
looked presentable. Shelby
“Vagrants are rarely molested in
museums and galleries,” Love wrote. “ New York is apt to smile and say this is because
the guards can never distinguish between a legitimate bum and an artistic one.
They never disturb a person like him because they never know when they are
trying to eject an artist who is holding a one-man show on the third floor. “ Shelby
In the 1950s there were thousands of men and women in various stages of vagrancy wandering the streets of
. One estimate was 10,000 to I million.
Many carried sandwich boards, worked as roustabouts on the waterfront or washed
dishes in restaurants. New York
Love’s book inspired the 1961 Broadway hit, ‘Subways Are for Sleeping,’ with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, starring Carol Lawrence.
In cities as big as
and New York , the homeless sleep everywhere,
including Starbucks. Philadelphia
A friend told me about his recent visit to the Starbucks by Macy’s. “Usually it's crammed with customers sipping their brew and hammering on their laptops,” he said, “This time, I found the place nearly empty around although a covey of homeless people huddled in a few chairs in one corner. I've heard that Starbucks has experienced this nationwide once they opened their doors after the unfounded accusation of racism here in
broke after the two guys were removed from the Starbucks in the Rittenhouse
area. “ Philadelphia
“It drives home the old adage, there's a reason for rules!" he added.