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NYC Subway Workers Keep 100-Year-Old System On the Move - 2004-07-21

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the New York City subway system. With almost 7,000 subway cars serving almost 500 stations, it is by some measures the largest metropolitan transportation system in the world. VOA's Adam Phillips introduces us to a few of the more than 27,000 workers who keep this modern miracle on the move.

Midway through his journey from Brooklyn's Rockaway Parkway station near the Atlantic Ocean to Eighth Avenue in Manhattan 24 stops and half a world away, train operator Ricardo Gomez looks cool and calm behind the controls of his 14 car stainless steel subway train. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have red-blooded passion for what he does.

"Oh, I love driving trains. There is no feeling like it - to have that much power in your hands," he says. "It's a good feeling. Like when you come the stations barreling in, just applying that brake and feeling that you have control of stopping that train. It feels like you know what you're doing!"

It's conductor Kenneth Shaw's job to call out the stops, to open and shut the doors of the train, and, most importantly, to watch out for the safety of those in the train and on the platform.

"Anything is dangerous that is moving ? Anything can get caught in the doors. Something on your person. Something that's hanging. A strap or a bag. Or when you're walking away from the train and the door is closing, a heel could fall off and you could fall toward the train. And that's what we're there for to make sure of your safety on the platform and on the train. That's our job," he explains.

But Mr. Shaw says that sometimes passengers ignore or even actively resist his warnings.

"You know how New Yorkers are! They are different than any place else," he says. "They are more confrontational. When you go someplace else, people are kind of nice and friendly. But New Yorkers are, like, in-your-face type of people. So this is what you're dealing with."

Off the train, many other workers keep the transit system running smoothly. When it snows, Lisa Prince shovels train platforms. The rest of the time, she mops and scrubs.

"Right now, I'm cleaning out the sink and the men's toilet. It's an all right job. It gets a little frustrating sometimes, because you've got to clean up behind somebody. You did our children when they were growing up, and it's enough," she says.

Which is probably not the most pleasant job...

"No, it's not," she says. "You just want to keep your mind off of what you're doing. It's a very large subway system. Got a lot of people coming through here every day. It's very busy at times. It's just like being a little robot back and forth."

But, she does get respect from some of the system's patrons.

"From the customers, I get a lot of compliments that I'm doing a good job," she says. "It makes me feel good? that my work is not done in vain. Sounds good, right?"

Outside, in fresher air, the attendants who work in the glass and steel booths are the subway workers New Yorkers interact with most. Vielka Griffith has been at the job for 13 years.

"I've been all over. West Fourth Street. Stillwell. Brighton Beach. Sheep's Head Bay. King's Highway. 125th? I love my job," she says.

Ms. Griffith's job has changed in the past few years. Gone are the brass turnstile tokens she used to sell. Today, customers pay their fare by swiping an electronic card through a slot on a computer before passing through the turnstile. Still, Ms. Griffith continues to work hard.

"An eight-hour period consists of counting revenue, bagging revenue, helping people, providing information as well as doing light maintenance on the machines. We do electronics more. So even though we don't do tokens anymore, it doesn't mean we have less of a job to do," she says.

Ms. Griffith says that no matter what job someone does in the subway system, it helps to be a people person.

"You get droves of people who take mass transit and you get to see them all go to the beach, hanging out, school kids, people going to and from work," she says. "All of daily life comes through here. Problems. Happiness, Everything comes through."