"Subway Lives," by Jim Dwyer, 312 pages, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, N.Y., $20.
IN THE VAST hinterland beyond the Hudson River, the New York City subway system is as potent a symbol of mythic malevolence as we have. Most of us would rather cross the River Styx on a leaky inner tube than step down into underground New York at, say, 3 a.m.
Most of the 3.76 million people who ride it daily seem to feel the same way, if Jim Dwyer's book "Subway Lives" tells it right. Nobody likes the subway very much, but everybody loves to tell stories about it. Dwyer's are pretty good.
He's a prize-winning columnist for New York Newsday. In the 1980s he wrote a feature called "In the Subways."
His story ranges over the whole route: births, deaths, robberies, breakdowns, ghastliness, goofiness and graffiti, and, as it turns out, goodness and humor. Dwyer's "Subway Lives" are lived out over a composite 24 hours on May 12, 1989.
He calls the New York system the "world's largest and most untamed." A billion riders use the subways every year, less, in fact, than in 1946, when the fare was still a nickel and the automobile not yet paramount. Two billion passengers rode that year.
But everything about the subway still seems big, enormous, including the glitches and the goofs; the commonplace becomes bizarre; the everyday unimaginable. Petty crime is grotesque, major crime horrendous.
Token suckers emerged after a gadget was devised to eliminate slugs. The suckers jam the turnstiles which suspends the token in the coin slot. They then suck the coin out. Yeah, with their mouth.
Another species Dwyer calls "scavengers and bottom feeders" chew telephone wires. The wires to subway pay phones are out in the open. Chewers nip off the insulation and short out the phone, making it inoperable and unable to return coins when people find they can't make a call. The chewer than un-shorts the phone.
"It was like a slot machine paying off," says one rider who witnessed this amazing feat. "I considered saying something to the guy, but I figured, well if he chewed on wires, he might start on me next."
Toll booths were getting stuck up at a rate of three a day in the 1970s, Dwyer says. The booths are lucrative targets: They're like "miniature banks with full-scale cash bundles in them."
Every day New Yorkers buy $4 million worth of tokens from the clerks in them -- "three tons of cash a year," Dwyer notes. At 181st street in Upper Manhattan the clerk collects $3,300, at Times Square twelve booths collect $130,00 daily.
Clerks were moved into baby-blue fiberglass and steel fortresses in 1978. They conducted business from behind five layers of bullet-resistant glass.
These booths seemed impregnable until January 1979 when three young people angry at a clerk who caught them fare-jumping drained a five gallon can of gasoline into the change slot, then tossed a match. Two women clerks died.
Dwyer recounts touching stories, too: The simple tale of Ren Ruiz, "a 20-year-old man with the innocence of a boy of seven," who succeeds in making his first trip from his home near 207th street to his occupational training school on Houston Street all by himself -- from one end of Manhattan to the other, a feat a lot of Kansans wouldn't like to try.
Kathy Quiles begins having labor pains on the C line, "in the last car of a train with approximately 2,700,000 miles on it, after 27 years of running night and day." It's painted "a kind of deep red." It's also stalled over Jamaica Bay.
Kathy Quiles has her baby at 11.15 a.m. with the help of a subway guy named Joe Caracciolo, who runs something called the ornamental-iron gang. Kathy names her new son Joseph, of course.
And not everybody who talks to themselves on the subway is crazy. Denia Barche is rehearsing. She's an actress.
"Some days I have to play very emotional parts, and I cry," she says. "People come over to me and ask, Is there anything I can do, lady?
"I say, What's the matter with you, you never saw someone talk to themselves? I'm just practicing."