NEW YORK — The last time Thomas Merrick paid to ride the subway in New York, the year was 1948 and the fare was 5 cents - the same amount it cost to ride when the subway debuted on Oct. 27, 1904.
Mr. Merrick didn't have to worry about fare changes after 1948, because that's the year he got a job with the transit system, which allows its staff to ride free. At 82, he is one of New York City Transit's longest-serving employees, currently working as a superintendent of station command.
During his 56 years on the payroll - more than half the subway's lifetime - his jobs have ranged from giving out change to monitoring for emergencies. Even so, when he discovered that the largest subway in North America will be 100 years old on Wednesday, he found it difficult to believe.
"I thought it was more than that," he says in an interview at his office in Brooklyn. "I thought this thing was a couple hundred years old. It's such a vital part of New York."
Few changes have affected the city the way the subway did. It urbanized New York and connected its neighborhoods, transforming once-rural Queens, for example, from a vacation spot into a melting pot. It caused much of the shopping and entertainment to move to uptown (think Times Square) and guaranteed fans of the Yankees - and later, the Mets - an easy, inexpensive way to attend home games.
The subway's reputation is still recovering from a low point in the 1970s and '80s, when crime and safety issues, such as derailments and collisions, dogged the system. Budget shortfalls are still common, but Merrick says major accidents are rare. And parents report that they are more at ease with their older kids traveling downtown by subway to hang out with friends at night.
"Out-of-towners and some New Yorkers will frequently be frightened silly of the subway ... but it's certainly not an unsafe atmosphere by any means," says Brian Cudahy, author of "A Century of Subways: Celebrating 100 years of New York's Underground Railways."
More than 4.5 million people ride the subway each day in New York. Even though the system is the largest in North America, it wasn't the first. Boston gets that honor, having opened its subway in 1897. The first city in the world to have an underground was London, which got its residents moving in 1863.
By the time New York got on board, lower Manhattan had an overwhelming need for a new system. After the Civil War, the city was growing faster than transportation could keep up. With no traffic lights, the narrow streets were a mass of pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, and poor sanitary conditions.
At one point, a shop owner even considered using his own money to build a bridge over Broadway in order to get patrons into his store.
"It was an incredibly difficult situation," says Lorraine Diehl, a New Yorker and author of a new book, "Subways: The Tracks That Built New York City." "You've got 800,000 people living on the island of Manhattan. Of those, 400,000 are living below 14th Street."
Elevated trains showed up in the late 1800s to ease the burden, but while helpful, they couldn't entirely meet the need. Even so, not everyone was sold on the subway idea.
Ms. Diehl reports in her book that the real estate industry was concerned about how all the digging would affect building foundations, and that customers would be kept away from stores.
In fact, the building of the subway, which began in 1900, did disrupt life for New Yorkers and shopkeepers.
One concern of subway advocates was how to persuade people to go underground to travel. They made the stations attractive and tried to allay fears about the air quality below the streets.
As it turned out, the response to the new transport was overwhelmingly positive. To celebrate opening day, couples even got dressed up, went to dinner, and then took a ride on the first line that traveled from City Hall up to Harlem.
Eventually songs and even a dance would be made in the subway's honor, and it would be featured in movies.
Over the years, traveling together in close quarters has tested the manners of New Yorkers. For a while, subway proprietors used ads in the cars to remind people not to litter and to keep their feet off the seats.
Today the rules of conduct are largely unspoken: Don't make eye contact, give up your seat to pregnant women (though being with child is no guarantee you'll be seated), don't block other riders while putting away your Metrocard (which replaced tokens last year).
Recorded messages reinforce one of the most important tips for riding the subway: Let passengers off the train first before boarding.
Merrick, who rides the J and A trains to work each day from his home in Queens, says the key is avoiding confrontation. "I try to have a [news]paper and keep my eyes focused on the paper," he says.
He owns a car, but - as might be expected from Metropolitan Transit's longest-serving employee - prefers the convenience of the subway, which runs 24 hours a day, and can take him from one end of the city to the other.
As the subway turns 100, he is emphatic about its role: "Can you imagine New York without the subways? I can't."