Remember the subway rides of youth? Downtown to buy fireworks in Mulberry Street, or uptown to the Stadium for a Sunday doubleheader, rooting for Mantle to connect from either side of the plate. Or, in the heat of summer, all the way out to Far Rockaway, and the blessed beach. (One of my oldest friends began making this trek on the IRT from 96th Street unaccompanied by an adult at age six.) The rides were long, the trains were noisy, chewing gum and playing “twenty questions” soon lost their appeal, and eventually one resorted to the only distraction left: reading the subway ads.

Trouble was, there wasn’t much to read. Quite a few signs forbade one from spitting, and had, perforce, the opposite effect. Then, as now, there was a peculiar symbiosis between subway trains and advertisements for hemorrhoidal relief. The raciest ads were for one or another brand of beer or cigarettes. The closest one ever got to sex were the remarkably unflattering photos on the posters for the annual Miss Subways Contest. Frankly, that wasn’t very close.

Times have changed, though I only noticed quite how much after becoming a father. I was returning from a weekend on Long Island and got off the LIRR at Woodside, clattering up the stairs to sub it into Grand Central Terminal. Once aboard the train I concentrated on my immediate concern, holding my three-month-old son in his baby seat on the floor of the car. Having just finished his maiden train ride comfortably ensconced on a passenger seat, he was at first bemused by the subway’s somewhat stronger ... aura. But he soon delighted in the warm vibrations beneath his seat and began to enjoy himself immensely. Our fellow riders were unfailingly kind, rewarding my every clumsiness with a smile of indulgence. I was lulled into a sense of some security—and then my eyes inched upward.

Hemorrhoid ads are still very much with us. And the promotion of cockroach genocide is also a matter much on media planners’ minds. Exhortations to smoke and drink are on the decrease, however, perhaps in part because of the stiff competition from anti-smoking, antidrinking and anti-drug ads. Miss Subways seems to have abdicated altogether. There were Spanish 800 numbers for gambling info, soap opera updates, and lovelorn advice. There were condom cartoons advising one what to do were one sleeping with a man, provided, that is, one were a man also. There were additional cartoons advising passengers what to do if involved in various other sexual or narcotic promiscuities. There is a mini-series that asks the question: Will Marisol’s boyfriend break their love asunder or wise up and use a rubber?

And then there were the sex ads. You can call 800 numbers. You can call 900 numbers (a cunning ploy since many commuters will do so, if at all, from work, and thus pass the exorbitant cost of such calls onto their public or private sector employer). You can get “messages,” “fantasies,” unspecified “services,” anything at all, it seems. The opportunities are endlessly on parade. Not even in yesteryear’s subways would one have ever associated the word “solicitous” with MTA service, but finally the Transit Authority has earned the right to it. In yesteryear, if memory serves, soliciting was a crime, even on the subway.

Of course the MTA would deny such a charge, invoking the usual blather about free speech, entrepreneurship, and the need to maximize ancillary revenue. But the truth is that the Transit Authority has inflicted a whole new realm of prurient product lines on its captive audience.

And for the straphangers of tomorrow? After completing my brief survey course of Subway Erotica 101, I looked down at young Pierce grinning and gurgling in his seat. One isn’t asking for a Mozart exactly, but any sign of precocity is usually welcome. At that moment, however, I was happy that my baby could not yet read. In the weeks since, imagining the conversations we are in for while riding underground five or six years hence has been enough to make me wish he never had to see the inside of a subway car again.

Is the MTA out of its mind?


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