Sunday, May 9, 2010


I was getting a couple of rolls in Kings supermarket. They keep loose rolls in a bin, and you probably know the rules. You're not supposed to touch the rolls. You can protect your hand with a piece of tissue paper they provide, or you can use the metal tongs.

I went for the tongs. They're a little tricky, because if you pinch the tongs too much the roll can shoot out the end. I dropped a roll, inside the bin, and started over.

A helpful young clerk, seeing this, suggested I could use the tissue paper.

"No, you're not seeing the sport in it," I told him. He looked puzzled. "That would be like telling a golfer that it would be easier to walk to the cup and drop the ball in. Of course it would."

"I am using the tongs because it is more difficult."

He was smiling a little. He started to turn away.

"Look," I said. I raised my left hand to shake the tongs a little bit. "I am right handed."

Life can be boring. Obviously that has some value. One time years ago Merrill Markoe reviewed the new season's television series and tried to give some reason to watch each one. For one show, the best she could do was to say: "Life is short. Watching this show makes it seem much longer."

But let's not get too bored. You need to find the sport in things. Make things more difficult than necessary. Make the ordinary into a game.

Going to work in the morning, I like to ride the last car of the train, because it's the least crowded car. Somewhere I saw an old photograph of commuters waiting at a station. The caption pointed out that the people were forming clusters evenly spaced along the platform, and commented that any commuter can tell you why. Yes. I need to know where the door is going to be when the train stops.

There's an obstacle on the course. At the country end of the platform is what they call a "mini high", a section less than one car long where the platform is at car floor height. The rest of the platform is only slightly above rail level and you have to climb up stairs to get into the train.

It makes a big difference whether the last door is on the mini high. If you wait there, and the train stops forward of the mini high, you can't just walk along the platform. You have to move back from the edge and use a stairway, losing precious time and putting yourself at the back of the crowd at the last door.

I'll tell you the secret. Only three of us seem to know this. The train has two engineers during the week, and they stop the train at different points. The Monday to Wednesday engineer spots the last door on the mini high, but the Thursday and Friday engineer doesn't. It's consistent. The three of us are always at the right place.

Sooner or later the engineers will change assignments, and we'll be in chaos until we figure out the new pattern. But it's been a pretty good few months.

Should we tell the other commuters? I'm not sure it's sporting.

There's another train game on my journey home too: how to find the track at Penn Station as early as possible.

Amtrak makes it a game already. Some railway properties lack imagination and put each train on the same track every day, unless something prevents it. I occasionally pass through the Long Island Rail Road area in Penn Station, and once in a while I've heard an announcement telling commuters that a train is not on its usual track. And I think Metro North makes Grand Central Terminal just as predictable. Their commuters can practically sleepwalk. Not us Jerseyites.

Amtrak's Penn Station operations team seem eternally surprised as trains arrive. Each day is a new beginning. They arrange the Amtrak and N J Transit trains differently every time. It's a time-honored practice carried over from the earlier management of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It's nice to see traditions honored.

I wonder if this goes back to when the station opened in 1911. Maybe somebody forgot to provide timetables to the staff on the first day, and they had to assign tracks on the fly as trains came in, and they said to each other, "Isn't this fun? We should do it like this every day." It could have happened.

By now, they could have software generating a neatly printed list of track assignments based on the timetable, train lengths, and equipment moves. But isn't that like dropping the golf ball in the cup?

How much better it is to clear one's mind each day and just see what trains show up.

Now I understand that a train like the Lake Shore could only be handled in this way. That's the train from Chicago that has been known to run more than 24 hours late. When it comes, it comes. But N J Transit?

Some mornings, when our train is standing still at the station approach waiting to move in, I think of the scene that must be playing out. "What? Train 6614? Again? It was just here yesterday! Oh, all right all right, let's see. First of all, do we have a track open anywhere where there's an outbound train boarding on the other side of the same platform?" And if one can be found, they find it, and we move in.

But let's not overanalyze. The ways of Amtrak are like the ways of heaven, not for us ordinary souls to know.

Let's focus on train departures at Penn Station.

The standard is that the public will be told the track ten minutes before departure time. We are rarely told earlier. Can we beat that?

The purpose of the game is to get a good seat, or, sometimes, to get a seat at all. To do this, you want to learn the track before it is announced, and go down to the platform. Almost as good is to guess the track and be close to the stairway when it is announced. But we will concentrate on knowing the track ahead of time.

I like to ride the first car, going home. One reason is that there's an exit stairway at the front end of the platform at South Orange, and it's the shortest path home.

But there's another advantage. The lower station mezzanine on the Eighth Avenue end of the station is where the crew rooms are. If you ignore the nice place N J Transit has created on the Seventh Avenue end, and wait in the godforsaken depths of the former arrivals concourse I'm referring to, you have a shot at finding your train early.

For one thing, you'll get to recognize the engineer and conductor. When either of them show up and go down a stairway, HA! that's where the train is. You just need to stand near where they come out, and follow them. By the way they don't know where the train's going to be, either, until a few minutes before the public announcement. It is a closely guarded piece of information.

We've got a whole team working the plays for my usual train. There are at least a dozen of us regular riders. We have a spot where we meet. I won't say the exact location.

We know the engineer and conductor by name. They'll quietly say the track to us as they walk past, or, wave to us when it's on a high-numbered track and they won't be walking past. The conductor whistles quietly sometimes to catch our attention.

One of the group has an unnamed contact person he can reach by cell phone. Sometimes we get the track that way. No one asks the source.

Once the secret has been passed, if it's a little early, one or two of the group stay at our meeting place a few minutes longer to let others know. I have been a beneficiary of this kindness. They don't speak the track, but hold one hand close in front of their body and indicate by fingers. It's like the catcher calling the pitch.

One day not long ago we were still waiting, less than ten minutes before departure, still with no word. The conductor came by.

"It's going to be a short turn, that's all I know." He said it quietly and walked away.

Finally the engineer came out of the crew room and walked toward us. Now we'd know. He stopped and said hello and commented on how the weather had been.

"What's the track?", one of us asked.

"Oh. I was hoping you guys knew," he replied.

That day the track was announced three minutes before departure time, and all of us, including the engineer and conductor, had to take off for the stairs. I think it is a credit to the N J Transit breed of commuter that we collectively boarded an all-seats-full rush hour train fast enough to permit departure on time.

That's how we play the game.

Next time: The Black Whale.

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