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Think Global, Act Local

The 183rd Street entrance to the A train.
Walking into the station every day was making me ill. The paint was peeling off the deco facade and the waiting area by the elevators smelled like a pissoir. No one else seemed to mind, on the way from here to there, rushing, eager to get onto the air conditioned train, what did it matter? But I minded—a lot. I wasn’t in Paris and the odor wasn’t charming because of the Parisian pissoir flavor. And, in Paris, the deco Metro signs and facades are protected works of art.

Something is very wrong in a city—a country—where whatever historic landmarks we have are left to decay. At the very least, why doesn’t the community get together to find a makeshift solution, I thought. Budget restraints? Please.

Maybe it was because I was new to the neighborhood and the move had been a hard one. A filthy, neglected station entry: not to be tolerated. So I asked around: Anyone doing anything about this? It’s a friendly neighborhood and easy to talk to people on the corners, in the stores, in the park. A renovation was scheduled for the platforms sometime around 2016, I learned. As for the entrance, nobody knew anything. Smell bother you? Hadn’t noticed.

So I went online to find out who was in charge and wrote a letter cc’ing it to this person and that, as well as the Mayor and the Straphangers Campaign. The Mayor is a wealthy fellow who collects art-the city is a work of art, or can be, no?-and he rides the subway.

Such letters—of complaint and concern—are not easy for me to write. I get twisted up trying to remain polite, respectful, and positive. Years ago I studied mediation and conflict resolution and have never written an insulting word to a civil servant since. So I began with thank yous for keeping the trains running well, for all the repairs, for working underground when the sun is shining, and for speaking clearly into the microphones. A pleasant by-product of post 9/11 surveillance has been improved audio systems on the trains and in the stations. I thanked the MTA and the Mayor for that. And then I got down to business: Anything you can do about the peeling paint and smell of urine at my station? I know it’s just one station, and I am just one traveler, and so on.

Dear Reader, I received a phone call from the station manager two days later. And we had a very personable chat. And a week after that, the peeling paint and smell of urine were gone.

A local friend said: “That must have been some letter.” I didn’t think so. No, it was a polite, quite ordinary letter. I just had taken the time to write it.
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