The Atlantic has published a story that says New York City subways are swarming with thousands of bacteria species including bubonic plague, anthrax and pizza toppings. This should not come as a surprise to riders of the New York subway, where it’s a delightful surprise to share a seat with someone who isn’t mozzarella phlegm.
Researchers used nylon swabs and cell phones to identify 15,152 organisms hanging out on railings, trashcans, seats and kiosks in New York City’s 466 subway stations. The amounts of bubonic plague and anthrax found pose “little” danger to humans, they said. Researchers also found plenty of helpful organisms, namely bacteria that eliminate toxins, such as manspreaders.
As a citizen of Los Angeles I read this story with interest. Beneath our chill veneer there’s an undeniable yearning for status. We’re proud to be the entertainment capital of the world. We know we have the best restaurants in the country. The best weather. The coolest architecture. The women are prettier here. The men, too. We even have the worst transportation system in the country.
This probably sounds to you, a rational human being, like a bad thing, but traffic is the ultimate city #humblebrag. Los Angeles has so many things to see and do that everyone is constantly seeing and doing them, even at 2 AM on the 405 freeway where I have been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic before.
When I read that New York’s subways were so popular that they contained major celebrity bacteria such as bubonic plague AND anthrax, I did so with a pang of envy. Having the most screwed-up transportation system in the U.S. is our thing, not New York’s. Underground metal tubes filled with millions of people in close proximity to bubonic plague sounds much worse than the 101/405 interchange at rush hour.
I was curious. How does LA’s subway system compare to New York’s? How far does the LA Metro have to go to close the Bubonic Plague Gap?
To find out I hopped on the red line at Hollywood and Highland, which is the site of a popular mall and tourist attraction where costumed superheroes brawl openly on the sidewalk for the amusement of police. They also hold the Oscars there.
When Chewbacca and Waldo have to step in, you know it’s serious.
Anyway, the Hollywood and Highland Metro station, where I started my journey, had a certain 1980s Akron, Ohio bowling alley ambience. It’s the kind of place a hipster can vape a PBR and think about authentic things made out of wood while feeling good about his neck-beard. The station was drab but relatively clean, much to my dismay.
I hopped on at one of LA’s most popular tourist spots during Grammy weekend, and there were plenty of seats available. This does not appear to be unusual. Los Angeles’s subway system serves around 9.5 million riders per month or roughly what New York City handles in less than two days. Why such low numbers?
Part of the reason is that LA’s subway system does not go directly to the one place everyone in the city needs it to go—LAX, not to mention Beverly Hills, Century City and the beach (almost there, though). Our subway also doesn’t conveniently connect a great many homes and jobs, which is the point of a subway. City leaders plan to solve this problem by building large residential and commercial buildings along an earthquake fault line, because apparently we’re governed by the mayor from “Jaws.”
The red line car I rode from Hollywood and Highland showed some wear. The seats and walls were carved with gibberish or possibly gang tags. There were gum and crumbs on the floor. Surfaces were scuffed. Recently I rode both Hong Kong and Singapore’s very modern and clean subways. You knew while riding on their subways that you were in the year 2015. In an LA subway car the year could be 1982.
In the New York City study researchers discovered bacteria related to cucumbers, kimchi, sauerkraut, chickpeas, sausage and mozzarella cheese—all foods that were obviously carried beneath the surface by riders. The only food I saw on my trip to the Valley was a giant slice of cheesecake. At one point a Metro employee stepped onto our train, looked at the cheesecake-eating woman quite seriously and said, “If you’re going to bring that on the train, you have to bring enough for everyone.” Then he laughed and walked off.
Before we pulled away from the North Hollywood station - and in LA Metro’s defense this is not uncommon behavior in American train stations everywhere - I watched a man remove his shoes, fling them away and massage his bare feet in the open the way a weary traveler would in a hotel room. His body language said, “It’s the people who don’t fling their shoes and massage their bare feet in public places who are the idiots, not me.”
I took all of these as hopeful signs that LA’s subway system could someday get some light, non-threatening bubonic plague going and we as a city can reclaim our civic birthright. LA wants a subway so popular it contains trace amounts of anthrax. Frankly, it needs it. You now have another reason to leave your car in the garage, Los Angeles.
Joe Donatelli is senior editor of Playboy.com. He is covered in sausage and mozzarella bacteria. Twitter: @joedonatelli. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.