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5 Things You Didn't Know About the NYC Subway (not relating to that mysterious smell)

by Tess Baldwin, Hunter College

Ah, public transportation. In the wake of skyrocketing oil prices, it has become a welcome alternative for people across the world. New York City's subway system registers as one of the largest and most complex. However, we all have heard horror stories of the underground world. Thefts, incredible crushes during rush hours, leaky roofs, train cars without air conditioning... the list can go on forever. But rest assured, the NYC subway system has tricks up its winding, extensive sleeve, tricks that can make even the most hardened commuters, sweaty, tired and just a bit uncomfortable from the person across the train staring at them, appreciate the uniqueness of the subway.

1. Connecticut Turnpike Connection

tokenOne of the lasting public images of the New York Subway is it's icon token. The tokens were first introduced in 1953. The tokens were adopted due to the fare increase to fifteen cents (the fare had remained at five cents for 44 years, almost bankrupting the subway system in the progress); the fare collection machines at the time couldn't handle both a nickel and a dime. However, people were determined to avoid paying the fare. Tokens were also used for turnpikes, and it just so happened that their tokens from the 1980s fit perfectly, and fooled the fare machines. It is thought that this error occurred because the Connecticut Turnpike tokens and the New York Subway tokens were made by the same manufacturer. This virtual "token war" continued for a few years, until Connecticut took out their tolls. The subway system phased out tokens in 2003.

2. Manhattan to Manhattan

One of the oddest things about the system can be seen when you are riding the 1 train, which goes from the southernmost tip of Manhattan to near the end of The Bronx. In its journey, it goes over the Harlem River, but here is where one of New York's greatest idiosyncrasies can be seen: this connection features the only place in New York where you can travel from a Manhattan station over a bridge and water to another Manhattan station. The station on the mainland is on ground that was once part of Manhattan. In the early 20th Century, a ship canal was built, leaving this area an island, surrounded by the river and the ship canal. When the river was filled in, the area became a part of the mainland and, as one would believe, The Bronx. However, the residents campaigned to remain under Manhattan's jurisdiction, and this area is today considered politically Manhattan. The next stop on the northbound train, six blocks away, is contained in The Bronx.

3. Media! Media!

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The original architects of the subway loathed advertising and countless people have had much to say on the subject in the hundred-plus years since. Advertising is seen in every station and is featured in the cars. However, the subway system has been represented in all types of media, from "Take the A Train" and the famous "Subway Series", to backgrounds on Sesame Street and, most recently, influencing the new Grand Theft Auto game. In can be argued that almost any movie taking place in New York will involve the subway in some way - it is that much a part of the lifeline of New York City. If a movie is being filmed, crews usually use an abandoned station (of which there are many to choose from in the system). The famous Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3 is currently being remade and features stars such as Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini. A popular staple in train cars for 30 years were the Miss Subways, women who graced placards with their images as a form of advertising. Interestingly, the program featured women of all backgrounds, artfully reflecting the diversity of the city from the 1940s to the 1970s. The new incarnation, Ms. Subways, coincided with the centennial of the subway in 2004, although it only lasted one year.

4. Right out of 1904

There are 468 stations in the system, but several more have slipped beneath the radar, glimpsed only through the windows of a passing train or by noting grates, tiles or columns that could indicate where a station used to be. Several stations have abandoned platforms or areas, which are there for all to see. The subway, which was once comprised of three separate systems, features a few relics of the past for each system. People often wonder about the ghost stations, and why they were abandoned. Some, such as the once-heralded "crown jewel" of the original system, the City Hall Station, were closed because of low passenger volume, while others were closed because of close proximity to other stations (usually due to platform lengthening when longer train cars were needed). There are a few that are just mysteries, such as the lower level of the 42nd St. Station, shrouded in speculation. Few people have seen an abandoned station up close, but they, like any other forbidden entity, draw attention nonetheless.

5. Art Cards

ALICE2.jpg

To an untrained eye, the subway stations themselves are just places to wait for the train, but they are awash with art and, often, music. There are many unique stations within the system. Many stations feature art from well-known artists, thanks to the Arts for Transit program that helps make the commute more colorful. In the system, you can find flowers, birds, fossils, eyes and even Alice in Wonderland. There are also posters from this program in the subway cars, appropriately known as art cards. In addition, many of the original stations feature beautiful tiling and plaques, put in place so that the stations would be light and airy and would encourage people to travel underground and relieve surface traffic. The Arts for Transit program also sponsors a music program, which features some really talented musicians who make the subway a more pleasant place to be.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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