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Coming of age in America

New York’s centenary subway still takes us in new directions

By Leigh E. Rich

The New York subway turned 100 this week. That’s a lot of years and, some here in Colorado might argue, a lot of miles away.

Not so anymore.

New York City has been its own character in this bitter-but-not-sweet political farce that has become the 2004 election season.

Home to this year’s Republican National Convention—the first time the GOP has ever held its get-together in the Democratic bastion—George W. Bush’s team has paraded about familiar New Yorker faces (Giuliani and Pataki, to name a few) and reiterated now well-worn claims tying America’s Big Apple tragedy to the war in Iraq.

And the Democrats have done just the same, with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton rallying the battle cry at Boston’s Democratic event and, even yesterday, World Trade Center widows Kristen Breitweiser and Monica Gabrielle stumping on the steps of Colorado’s capitol for the Kerry campaign.

Whether one cheers or jeers at these political maneuvers, since Sept. 11, 2001, New York has seemed a lot closer—and America a lot less safe.

But rather than focusing attention on New York as a reminder of the nation’s vulnerability, the centennial birthday of the New York subway offers hope—even in these politically trying times.

On Oct. 27, 1904, “150,000 people paid a nickel each to ride … the fastest city transportation in the world,” according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Web site. What’s more, it was built in just four years underneath an already bustling city of more than 3 million people.

No wonder NYC is often considered to be America’s capital in more ways than one.

The revamping of one city’s foundation without significantly disrupting day-to-day life up above is a testament to human ingenuity and is almost as great an American symbol as the distinguished bald eagle.

Today, in a brand-new century, we continue to face subways that need building, and New York has proven it can be done.

No, I’m not necessarily talking about FasTracks, though it is a shame that Denver must now recreate the wheel of mass transit it had once started more than 100 years ago and lost to the machinations of “progress” in the 20th century.

Rather, I use the symbol of the subway to urge our electors and our leaders to contemplate the seemingly Herculean tasks breathing down our necks as menacing as the Nemean lion, the nine-headed hydra, the centaur, the monster Geryon, and the underworld watchdog Cerberus all rolled into one.

There is Iraq, and no matter who is voted into office come Tuesday, the construction of a democracy sits squarely on America’s shoulders. Whether we agreed with the president in September 2002 or agreed to disagree or agreed at first and disagreed later, we are there now. And a “subway system” must be built that will take Iraq in a new direction.

Then there is the economy. And with it the question of American jobs and American education. It’s great that the president, as he’s explained during the debates and in his countless visits to Colorado, wants to invest in community colleges, Pell grants and the No Child Left Behind Act. What could be more American than leading individuals to the very bootstraps by which they can pull themselves up?

But access to even college education doesn’t help the engineer or the computer programmer who already has a four-year or master’s degree.

We need to reconsider the foundations of our capitalistic system and, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, possibly renovate from the ground up.

Tax cuts for big corporations and the wealthiest citizens won’t necessarily trickle down to the rest of us on the lower levels. As I once told a friend, who loved the fact that he could fly first-class and avoid the long waiting lines that us plebeians have to meander like herded cattle, admittance into the luxurious life also comes with entry into a higher tax bracket.

No, it’s not fair, but when was life ever? And perhaps an overhaul of our cultural mores is required to finally transport us to that “kinder, gentler nation” we were once promised during another campaign.

And neither last nor least, there’s health care.

Bush and Kerry, and frankly, the third parties, all have plans that show both promise and concern. Health savings accounts sound like an American ideal. And access to the same health care that U.S. senators and representatives receive seems more than equitable.

But would either work?

As a Ph.D., with all of my limbs intact and no chronic illnesses of which I’m aware, I’m one of the advantaged. I even have a job—though I spent more than 16 months looking for full-time work beginning in 2003. And I have no husband or children rooting me in one place or whose needs I must consider.

But like most Americans, I have no surplus from check to check to invest in an HSA. I have student loans and rent and parking and food bills that seem so much higher than in years before.

Health insurance via my job seems to be my only choice right now.

So where’s the solution? How can health care be a right, and not a privilege, for all who are here?

I’ll admit, I’m one of those crazy goons who thinks a national health program might be our only answer. Heck, America almost had one at four different times in the 20th century, and even two bills were proposed in Congress as recently as last year.

But as a health researcher, I also know we must shift our foundational thinking. Effective health care can be as seemingly simple as a pap smear or a condom or diet and exercise.

Whatever the next administration chooses to do—and whoever is leading us—our only choice is to build a system underneath the one we have now.

And without disrupting what goes on at street level. 

Rich, L. E. (2004, October 29). Coming of age in America: New York’s centenary subway still takes us in new directions. The Colorado Statesman, p. 2.

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