Sunday, December 12, 2010
Why I Was Late
It started like any other morning. It was as cold as hell, and there were snowflakes in the air, and we don't get that every day. But on the whole, it was like any other morning.
I walked to the railway station in South Orange. I did not see Runner Girl, but that's the new normal. I saw Dog Guy. I bought my paper from the machine I like, not the other one, because the other one is gone now, and the one I like is the only one.
I went into the bakery and got a cup of steamin' hot joe, and sat there for ten minutes looking at the meager content the Star Ledger still provides and drinking the liquor of coffee beans mixed with the juice of a cow. This was civilized. They would do this in Paris. Admittedly in Paris it would be black coffee, avec a croissant, unfiltered Gitanes, and Le Parisien. But it's the same thing.
It was like any other morning.
At the usual moment I rose, tossed out the coffee cup, and walked through the station. How cold was it? It was so cold that the Indian girl with the short school uniform was wearing track pants under her skirt. Take it from me— that is cold.
I ascended to the platform. The Modigliani woman with the metal coffee cup was there. The five gay guys who talk together were talking together. The woman who looks like Alyson Hannigan was there. Wall Street Guy was there (I don't know what his job really is). I boarded the usual train and sat in the usual seat, and it left at the usual time. We made the usual next stop at Brick Church.
East of East Orange, the world changed.
East of East Orange. In the cut. We stopped. And waited for our destiny.
Around us, life went on. Up on the streets, people walked past, probably. Cars went by, probably. Hard to say, from down in the cut, whether they did, but why would they not? I looked out at the track. A few snowflakes swirled.
I finished the Ledger. Time passed. We were warm and we had seats. Our tickets had been checked and the world was peaceful. We were peaceful, unbothered by the vibration of movement.
More time passed. There is so much of time, and we can only rush forward through it. It was the only dimension through which were moving.
We were on the center track. A train flashed by on the side track, the diesel engine at its hind end roaring at us, and then all was still again. After an interval, an outbound electric multiple-unit passed on the other side.
Presently the Rear Brake passed through the car, saying we might be going to Hoboken.
Hoboken! The terminal. The end place. Where commuters go to cry.
More minutes passed. I closed my eyes.
An announcement came over the speaker system. A trainman was speaking softly. I think I heard that there was a train ahead of us that had been disabled and was now moving, and there was a disabled train behind us that was not moving. I wondered vaguely why they had not switched us to the side track, away from the disabling effect of this center track we were on.
And, the announcement went on, we would be making an extra stop today at Newark Broad Street. An extra stop? That bothered me. An extra stop. That sounded like trouble.
I checked the time on my cell phone. I was some 60 minutes into my 35-minute journey. Another train passed on the side track.
The train slowly began to move. If electric locomotives have an idle speed, that's what ours was doing. And not for long. We stopped again.
We were almost out of the cut now, and I could contemplate, parallel to our path, the mournfully inadequate section of old state highway that poses as Interstate 280 in Newark. Cars and trucks rolled by bumper to bumper at no more than 30 miles an hour.
I took the time, for I had the time, to study the crumbling concrete wall bordering the railway, and the power cables slipping off their carrier wires, and the rotting ties where water had accumulated on the track. I had never been able to do this, not at the speeds we were accustomed to on this stretch. It gave me a new perspective on the impermanence of the material world and the impact of time.
A different conductor on the speaker now let us know that there were a lot of trains together here because of congestion. And, I realized, there were a lot of cars and trucks out there on the highway because of traffic.
He also said that we would be going to Secaucus and Penn Station. Not Hoboken!
That sentence provided hope. Something to hold onto. A dream.
We all need dreams. I imagined that we would escape our sorry lot, hobbled between disabled and formerly disabled trains. I imagined that we could run free, directly to New York.
And we moved again. We slipped smoothly into the confines of Newark Broad Street station. And there we stood. We stood there for a little while.
I checked the time again on the cell phone. I would normally be at work by now. I had some things to do at work.
Yet another conductor on the speakers said that now we were going to be delayed. As if this would be a new development, the way he said it.
We would be delayed up to one hour because of a disabled train at Secaucus. "I am very sorry", he said in the earnest tone that only an Indian accent can impart. I believed him. He could do nothing about it. He was only the messenger. It pained him greatly to be the one who had to tell us this news. I felt his sadness along with my own.
But, he added, if we liked, we could take the opportunity to go to Hoboken on the train now arriving on track 2. Track 2. What civilian knows these track numbers of which he spoke? I knew the secret that track 1 is in the middle, and therefore track 2 would be on one side of it. Even I was not dead certain which side, but it stood to reason that track 2 must be the track for trains running toward Hoboken. The track that was not conveniently across the island platform but rather that other track with the side platform.
To get there I'd have to go down, cross under, and come back up. And would the train wait for us?
I was near the rear of the train. I was the first person off. I quickly descended the stairs to the street that crosses under the railway. I turned left, and I expected that after passing under two tracks, I would turn left again and find a stairway up. Simple. But no. That's not how some fiend designed this station. I stared dumbfounded along the base of the blank concrete "Chinese wall" railway embankment. There was no stairway at all.
Then I turned and saw. It was across the street. I'd have to cross the busy street and take the stairway they had placed on the other side. The street was full of crazy Newark drivers on their way to work. There was a crosswalk and a traffic signal with one of those placebo buttons that was supposed to change the light. I ignored it and waited for a break in traffic.
I ran up the stairs. The short Hoboken train was way up near the front of the platform, and I was coming up at the rear. I ran. I can run short distances without even breathing hard. I like to show this off. I ran to the train and got on.
The train actually did wait a few minutes, and so some people got on who cannot run as easily as they would fall off a log (which I am told is easy, though I have not fallen off a log).
But then the crew started trying to close the doors. They were announcing to people that "there's a train right behind this one", the lie they all learn in conductor school. Maybe this time there really was a train right behind that one. After all there were a lot of trains around, because of congestion.
A journey via Hoboken adds about 20 minutes to my time. I always have to roll the dice on this choice. Will the Penn Station route will be delayed more than 20 minutes? If so, go to Hoboken. Often it is hard to say. This date it looked like a sure bet.
While they were getting the doors closed, the train that I had been on left the station. No!
But a mile out, at Harrison, we passed it, standing still, and then we even passed the train in front of it. Heh heh. Losers.
The trip to Hoboken was blessedly uneventful. We did not stop for employees at the Meadows Maintenance Center. We did not even stop to wait for a track in the terminal. We went straight in. And most wonderfully, we came in on track 14, the special track, the only one with platforms on both sides. That speeds up unloading since at Hoboken you have to disembark down steps to old-fashioned rail-height platforms.
"Tickets will be cross honored."
The seasoned commuter knows these words. It means that theoretically we can enter PATH Hoboken for free by showing our passes. In practice, it means we can just enter PATH Hoboken for free, since they don't really have enough staff on hand to look at all of our passes. An official person was writing something on a clipboard. Maybe it was those strokes in groups of five to count how many of us he thought there were. Maybe it was just notes for his blog.
In the PATH station, there were no trains on the two tracks for 33rd St trains. Strange. Then a train came in, and we heard an announcement that the train would only discharge passengers. It was going out of service. What new hell was this? But then I realized the answer was simple. By now rush hour was over. They were starting to send some trains to the storage yard.
Moments later, we were permitted entry into the next train. I got off at 14th St. I like to change there. It's a straight shot down the south sidewalk of 14th St one long block to the subway at Seventh Ave. And that's an express stop on the subway.
As I waited to cross Sixth Ave, a metal star spun past my head and embedded itself in the side of a van double-parked on Sixth. No! How did they find me, so far from my normal route and normal time?
I sprinted across Sixth Ave. A taxi was accelerating forward to beat the light, but I evaded it. I had no time to wait for the light that was about to change. I ran down the sidewalk.
A few stores down, an elderly black man was picking up a newspaper from a sidewalk rack. His eyes met mine, and he shook the paper behind him in a way that I recognized. Seconds after I ran past, I heard the unmistakable sound of the ninja hitting the sidewalk. My ally had of course hooked his foot on the ninja's. I glanced back and saw that he had managed to fall on top of the ninja, and was making out that he was having trouble getting up. I kept going.
Sounds of shouting made me look back again, and since I had lost myself now among the the crowd of civilians on the sidewalk, I dared to pause. The driver, a large man, had leapt out of the van and was standing above the two on the ground, gesturing wildly and shouting things in a language I could not identify. It was turning into a thing.
It was probably just an opportunistic amateur, but I didn't know. I shot off away from them as fast as I could run, way beyond my normal running pace.
By Seventh Ave I was dead tired. They would expect me to take the Seventh Ave subway. I considered running on to the Eighth Ave line. But I just couldn't run any farther at this pace. Damn the years. I pulled out my Metrocard and went down the stairs and through the iron maiden.
An express train came in the moment I reached the platform, and closed doors as soon as I boarded. This was good. I stood with my back to the doors and scanned the other passengers in the car. I wonder when I do that whether people take me for police, or retired police, because they do that too. These people looked all right. There was a "homeless" man in the corner seat with a headband in today's color but I gave no sign. The "workman" with the battered metal toolbox bore some watching, but he got off at Times Square.
By 96th St I was content that all was well. Except the time. The time! As I waited on the platform for the local I checked my cell phone but it said only "searching for service". Searching for service. Aren't we all searching for service?
I arrived on campus one hour and 50 minutes past my normal time. I ran to a meeting that had started 20 minutes earlier.
As I sat down I made some slight comment about the trains being late.