A Day in the Life of New York City's Subway Helpers
Karen Bermudez and Jamel Bodison
In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.
This past May, The Wall Street Journal ran an article with the headline: “Worst Job in America: Responding to Irate Tweets from New York City Subway Riders.”
The piece profiled the person at the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) tasked with professionally replying to an astounding 2,500 tweets a day. (The most recent viral sensation came earlier this month when the New York City Transit Twitter handle earnestly replied to a rider offering fellatio in exchange for decent service.) It was the latest chapter in a 110-year history of New Yorkers openly venting to the public authority responsible for making their mass transit commute hell, underlying a key theme of life in New York: the MTA has a popularity problem.
Enter the MTA’s “Customer Service Ambassadors,” a group, launched in 2017, of 355 former station agents who have volunteered to be on the frontlines for a little bit more pay, taking the public’s ire head on at the system’s busiest terminals. Armed with subway maps and smiles aplenty, they wear bright, neon-orange vests inscribed with lapels that read “Hello, I’m here to help.”
It’s part of the MTA’s mission to humanize their efforts amidst a wave of criticism that its communication to customers of the daily drudge of unexpected service delays is subpar, to say the very least. And on a recent afternoon, VICE spent some time with two “Wayfinders”—Karen Bermudez, 52, and Jamel Bodison, 49—to hear what it’s like being the physical face of a thing so many New Yorkers love to hate.
Every morning at 6 AM, Karen and Jamel make their way to Union Square; Karen from Gravesend, Brooklyn, and Jamel from Harlem. Once they report to their supervisor, they’re given a daily safety tip and their eight-hour shift assignments, which include at least 15 different hubs, or a subway station that’s closed for months-long renovation, where they dole out alternate routes. From there, they take off to their respective posts, just as morning rush hour starts.
But if something happens—a train delayed or a line rerouted—as is often the case, they’ll get a call over their radios to get there immediately. Jamel gave an example: in late June, a 20-year-old homeless woman jumped in front of a 4 train in the Bronx with her baby in her arms. (Both survived, and the woman was later charged.) But the incident sent the trains into a tailspin, as power to the tracks had to be cut so workers could remove them.
“The trains are backed up. Now you have to know what bus; when the train's gonna move,” Jamel said. “So when we're there, a team of us, we can speak to each other, boom, boom, boom, and direct people.”
“It's going through a problem, and people are gonna get frustrated,” he continued. “But you won't have as many frustrated people.” I then asked what is it that they wish they could tell riders in those situations. “We have flying carpets,” Jamel said, laughing.
The misconception with delays, Karen added, is that it’s not just old infrastructure. Incidents like fights, sick passengers, train traffic, or even someone holding the car door open can push back a train’s departure. This then causes a chaos effect: the next train is pushed back by a few minutes, and the one after that, and the one after that, culminating then in more than a few minutes of delay—and a ton of late passengers.
Another major issue, Karen said, is when the elevators are out of service at their station. (A constant problem in the New York City subway system, as VICE has reported.) “Because then you get people with disabilities who come and the elevator isn't working,” she said. She recalled instances of carrying peoples’ bags and wares upstairs all day, and personally escorting senior citizens and people with disabilities to the train they need to get on. “That's a bad day,” she said.
Yet even when commutes go awry, Karen said the customers’ response has been surprisingly positive to their presence on platforms and at stations. “Before doing it, I was leery. You know, New Yorkers, I was a little worried—I didn't know how they were going to react,” she said. “You have a few [angry customers], but they're few and far between.”
When I asked why she thought that was, Karen said that she believes New Yorkers just want accountability—for too long, she said, the MTA has struggled with explaining why your train isn’t moving, or getting out the information that New Yorkers need so they can quickly change their itinerary. Even if that means just walking a block.
“When I have a bunch of frustrated people, I'm very apologetic. I'm saying ‘I'm really sorry,’ and ‘Tomorrow will be better,’” she explained. “Just that alone: somebody says they're sorry. Are you going to argue with them? How could you argue with them?”
“I wish this didn't happen, but I always apologize to people,” she added. “They know that we can't fix it.”
We spoke at the entrance to the Bowling Green station, steps away from the MTA HQ in downtown Manhattan—a perch, the two said, that has allowed them to meet Andy Byford, the new transit chief who has promised to overhaul customer service at the agency. And throughout our interview, they were stopped by a number of people. One passenger had a bent MetroCard that wasn’t working. (Jamel fixed that.) Another group—this time, tourists—asked Karen how to get to Canal Street. She sent them a block away, to the R/W at Whitehall Street. (“It's so much easier than telling them to get off at City Hall, and transfer to the 6.”) Other times, they would see a passenger visibly confused and stop talking to us to go help out.
“You don't turn off,” she said. “Like if I see confused people... I'll hear someone say that they're going somewhere, and they get on the downtown train and we're on the wrong platform. I'll say ‘No, no, no, you got to get on the train on the other side.’”
I asked Karen what attracted her to the job. She said that when she saw the posting online, she knew to apply. “This is the way of the future for a station agent,” she explained to me, as hordes of passengers let out from each arriving 4/5 train. Echoing themes of automation, Karen said that once the fare system fully shifts to “tap & go,” phasing out the physical MetroCard with contactless payment like London’s Oyster Card entirely by 2023, a primary role of the station agent will be rendered obsolete. Customer service will largely be what’s left.
“So I figured, ‘What better than to jump into this new position?’” she continued. “This is going to be my future.”
The only downside of the job, they said, is the weather; the stations can be excruciatingly hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Shelter is sought in the breakroom, which each station has with an A/C. But the position, Karen and Jamel told me, has more freedom and mobility than that of a station agent, who has to stay inside of the booth, even if a customer has issues at the MetroCard machines or looks completely lost. Often, it can be hard to hear them; like subway announcements, sound clarity can be spotty. The glass can feel like a barrier to human interaction that may be needed in a system that carries close to 6 million people a day.
“We can bring them over to the map. We can pass them out a map. We can speak to them a little more. We can show them on our phones,” said Jamel. “We can be there, and it's more personal and they can take it from you and just go with it. Plus, it makes some people smile and have a good time. It's a lot of fun, and you give a different light to what we do.”
Karen and Jamel showed off the devices at their disposal like prizewinners on The Price is Right. The smartphone that each Wayfinder is given has Google Translate installed, which comes in handy here—especially at the Fulton Street station near the World Trade Center, they said. “I have [used] it with Chinese-speaking people, Spanish-speaking,” Karen said. She later added, “I had an incident last week at Union Square where we had a woman who spoke Fujianese, which is not in Google Translate.” (The woman was later taken to the police precinct, where she received help, she said.)
Smiling, Jamel stood next to one of the MTA’s “On the Go” kiosks, which display ads, different destinations, service disruptions, and arrival times. “Sometimes when they're flustered, I'll give them a little history,” he said. He clicked the 4 line button, which flashed a fact: the train goes through the Joralemon Street Tunnel, the oldest tube in the system. “And they'll be like, ‘Oh, wow! 1908!’” he said. “None of us was around. Our grandparents weren’t even around then.”
Jamel said getting that gratisfaction of a “happy” customer is the best part of the job. I then asked him what is one thing riders should know about the subways, that they—the quite literal eyes and ears of the MTA—could tell them. He thought about it for a second.
“They're 24/7. We're always working to improve,” he said. “And there's always gonna be another train coming.”
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