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12 things real New Yorkers don’t know but are too afraid to ask

There's no such thing as a "stupid" question.

Will Gleason
Written by
Will Gleason

Even if you've lived in New York your entire life, there are a few things that somehow manage to slip through the cracks. And just like that co-worker whose name you totally don't know, it's way too late to ask now. Here are some answers to a few of those most pressing questions from public transportation to famous museums. Do you want more great stories about things to do, where to eat, what to watch, and where to party? Obviously, you do, follow Time Out New York on Facebook for the good stuff.

1. What’s with the different color street signs?

Back in ancient days (the 1970s) signage was pretty lackadaisical—Queens signs had blue letters on white, white on green for Brooklyn, while Staten Island and Manhattan chose green on yellow. Then the 80’s came, and conformity took hold: white lettering on green—the highway standard—became the decree, with white on brown reserved only for designated historic streets. Keep an eye out though, every once in a while you might still spot an old sign, or a green sign with the Statue of Liberty which dates from Lady Liberty turning 100 years old in 1986.

2. What’s the deal with that giant countdown clock in Union Square?

Ah yes, the “Metronome.” That giant board of digital numbers on Union Square South has confused tourists and locals alike since it was installed in 1999. The first seven digits explain what time it by counting from midnight (military style), while the last eight digits explain how long until it is midnight again, while the middle digit represents a hundredth of a second. So if it reads 202126574333803, the first 7 numbers explain it's 20 hours, 21 minutes and 26.5 seconds after midnight, or 8:21:26.1 PM, while the last 7 numbers explain it's 33.4 seconds, 34 minutes and 3 hours until midnight. So useful! 

3. How the hell does the Select Bus work?

New York's Select Bus service is the city's form of rapid bus transit meant to improve the speed of public transportation. It differs from regular bus service in that you pay at a station (you can use your Metrocard and it's the same price of a normal bus ride) so that every single person doesn't have to pay while boarding, slowing down the bus. Once you pay, you're given a receipt—hold on to it, you can be fined without it. SBS lines also feature dedicated bus lanes, higher capacity vehicles and Traffic Signal Priority, which gives the buses priority at traffic lights.

4. Why do only numbered trains give arrival times?

In the old days there were multiple subway systems. The numbered trains (and the S) were part of the older system, that is now designated as the A division. These lines have a built in signaling technology that make it possible for more accurate reads on how far away the trains are, while the lettered trains on the B division operate on a different system.

5. When can I get into a green taxi?

Any time you're in New York and out of Manhattan (that's Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx) you can hail one of these Boro taxis. Where it gets tricky is on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan. On the East Side, anywhere north of 96th street is fair game, but on the West you need to head a few block further up, 110th to be exact. 

6. What’s that stuff dripping out of air conditioners? 

Having a strange liquid drip on you while you're walking down the sidewalk on a hot summer afternoon can be far from pleasant, but luckily the mysterious mixture is not exactly toxic. For the most part, the drips from air conditioners are condensed water vapor from the air inside the building, making it very similar to rain. In rare cases, however, the water can remain inside an air conditioner for an extended period of time and gather bacteria. So close your mouth while you're looking up.

7. What’s up with the statues on top of the Brooklyn Museum?

Strangely, these figures are completely unrelated to the names of famous men located directly below them. Daniel Chester French designed the building in 1909 and installed the 12 figures to represent different stages in the history of civilization—Ancient Greece or Imperial Rome, for example—rather than a specific person.

8. Why is Times Square called a “square”? It’s actually bow-tie shaped.

Unlike Union Square or Madison Square, Times Square is basically just a glorified intersection. Broadway intersects Seventh Avenue at such a tight angle, that the "square" in Times Square refers more to the dictionary definition of a "public gathering place" than an actual square. It's really more to do with consistency than an accurate description. (Before the New York Times moved into the area, the intersection was known as Longacre Square and was the heart of the city's carriage industry.)

9. Why do MetroCards have holes in them?

When you swipe your card to get on to the subway, that small hole tells the card reader what direction the card is being swiped so that it knows how to read it. If it doesn't detect a hole in the right place, then it knows the card is being swiped in the wrong direction.

10. Coney Island isn’t an island. Why do we call it an island?

Because it was originally an island. The summer amusement hot spot used to be a small island separated from the rest of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek. In the early 20th century, the creek was filled in to allow the construction of the Belt Parkway before World War II. The creek was filled further with the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1962.

11. Do pigeons actually carry diseases?

Unfortunately yes. Yes, they do. The New York City Health Department warns against three human diseases that can be found in pigeon droppings: histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis and psittacosis. The first two are fungal diseases that only pose a risk at a very high level of exposure to droppings—symptoms can include fatigue, fever and chest pains. Psittacosis is a bacterial disease that can be caught from inhaling pigeon droppings, but don't panic, NYC generally has less than one human case of the disease a year.

12. What does “grade pending” actually mean?

Wait a month to eat there. But seriously, it means that a restaurant did not receive an "A" on a city health inspection. They're then given the option to hang a "Grade Pending" sign in their window until the venue is reinspected or it has the opportunity to be heard at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings Health Tribunal to argue its case (maybe the dog ate their cleaning supplies?).

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