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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Lonliness of the Long-Distance Uptown Commuter

Sunday nite the ceiling of the 181st Street 1-train station collapsed.

Here's a picture of the station, pre-collapse. (The picture, btw, is from
It's actually a beautiful station (ill-kept obviously--the fucking ceiling fell in), and this picture doesn't do it justice.

Going to work this AM wasn't so bad--I took a cab. What sucked was returning home at the end of the day.

Here's what you should probably know to appreciate this entry: The 168th Street station offers a connection between the 1 train and the A train. On a typical, non-collapsed-ceiling day, I wouldn't bother going over to the A. However, on this collapsed-ceiling day, I had no choice. To get to the A, you must exit the 1 train, walk along the platform to a set of stairs leading to an overpass above the tracks, cross the overpass, walk along a short hallway to a bank of elevators, take one elevator (or two, if you're an insane hobo with split personalities) up to the next level, walk along another hallway and then down another set of steps to the A train platform. Not ideal, but this process usually only takes a few minutes. Today, it took me nearly 30 minutes just to get to the overpass.

Here's what happened: We pulled into 168, and a garbled announcement said, "Due to the ceiling collapse at 181st, there are NO uptown trains beyond right here. You people want to go on, you got to transfer to the A, or walk your happy asses up to the free shuttle bus making all local stops."

No one in my car was surprised. We all knew this was our fate. So we wandered out onto the platform.

The station was hot. Stifling. And it smelled like armpits roasting on an open fire. Rather than handing out free breathmints, I honestly think stores in NYC should consider handing out free samples of deodorant.

There was a cute youngish guy in an Oxford shirt, with a brief case. I zeroed in on him, and decided to keep pace with him--not because I thought we'd have a fling, but because, in crowds, I always tend to pick out one person to gauge my progress; if he falls behind and out of sight, I'm probably being an asshole by pushing through the crowd too aggressively, and if he shoots ahead, I'm probably being too meek in getting thru, but if we remain more or less together, then I'm being civil yet insistent.

It's a game, really. And so Cute Oxford Guy was my playmate and point of reference while making my way to the stairs leading up to the overpass to the elevators going up to the A train.

I was listening to an interview with a documentary filmmaker while all this was going on. Her documentary was on "Up with People," and I was delighted to hear her call those chipper bastards 'cultists'. Turns out Glenn Close is the most famous alum of "Up with People." As I looked at the overpass, about four yards away and above me, I imagined the hundreds of slouching bodies trudging across it to the elevators suddenly bursting into a cheerful but forgettable song, then the weight of their cheerful forgettableness causing the overpass to collapse onto the tracks. How many people could that overpass take? 181st had collapsed--would the strain put on 168 cause the station to crumble as well?

Cute Oxford Guy had a transparent bandaid on his neck, just behind his right ear. Here's the thing about transparent bandaids: If you are bleeding heavily when you put one on, it's fucking disgusting because the cotton square over the wound absorbs your blood, spreads the blood out in an irregular pattern, like a Pollack painting made of body fluids. The bandaid is transparent, kids, but the blood remains visible, splotchy and gross.

Cute Oxford Guy and I were matching step for step going into the bottle-neck of the stairs leading from the platform to the overpass. The closer we got to the stairs, the closer we were pushed together. The tighter things got. Elbows were used. Curses were thrown. An enormous woman with a large bag decided to take the stairs at full-throttle, and used her bag as a battering ram, saying, "Fuck this. I'm getting the hell out of here."

She didn't get very far very fast. She encountered a compressed wall of flesh. The flesh looked like the Great Wall of China, going off into the distance, up hills and across meadows and into obscurity.

A guy behind me cursed in Spanish, then swooned. He was sweating through his t-shirt. One of his companions caught him before he fell, then lifted his arm over a shoulder to steady him, and together they soldiered on, one supporting the other. A blond chick with a hair-bun and thick glasses pulled out a book and calmly read Dostoevsky as she nudged forward. And Cute Oxford Guy, to my secret disappointment, pulled out his cell phone to check reception, even though we were nearly a half-mile underground. Idiot.

Inch by inch in the suffocating , fragrant heat, we made our way to the stairs, then up them, then onto the overpass. Beneath us was nothing except a plummet to the train tracks. On the overpass, there was an indie concert feel to the crossing as we all tried to match the beat of our steps to one another's, and sweated, and were closed in, and were in vague mortal danger because of the restricted space. Each of us depended on the other to keep sane and safe. One nut-job could cause chaos. One outburst, and there'd be a mosh-pit.

Across from the uptown-train platform at the opposite end of the overpass was the downtown-train platform, which was choked with hundreds of optimistic people waiting for a downtown train. Solid people, just like our overpass. These people were on a different path, obviously, but they were a part of us. Stairs led down from either side of the overpass into the claustrophobic hell that was the downtown platform.

Our path was across the overpass and into a hall leading to the elevators. And the elevators would occasionally open, and a stream of people would push their way out of the elevators, into our escaping mass trying to get in, and these people were salmon against the stream, and because the downtowners could not see the downtown platform, they were still under the impression that they had a chance to catch the next downtown train. Which they did not. And we uptowners didn't bother to tell them because we were too busy pushing toward the open elevators.

So the closer we uptowners all got to those elevators, the more dangerous it got. The elevator doors would open, and 30 or so downtowners would rush out of the elevators, push through the uptown crowd as if their asses were on fire, force themselves along the short hall to the downtown platform, and realize holy fuck there was no way to shove themselves onto the downtown platform. So they'd stand in the hall or at the terminus of the overpass, blocking our way to the elevators leading up to the A train and the shuttle bus. Tempers flared. Space was violated. Worlds collided.

The large woman with the large bag snapped first because a thin woman with a stroller--but no baby--wanted to go downtown, and heard a train rumbling in, and did what New Yorkers are trained to do: she bolted. Despite the China Wall of smelly sweaty flesh coming at her across the overpass, the thin woman with the stroller decided to run to the already stuffed downtown platform to catch the train she could not possibly squeeze herself, or her stroller, onto. And when she bolted, she smashed into the large lady with the large purse. The large lady with the large purse said, "Oh hell no," and began striking out, immediately and indiscriminately, with her large purse.

This caused Cute Oxford Guy to go into hero mode. He lunged forward, splitting the swooning guy from his support companion, to tackle the large lady, but missed and landed on the stroller lady. The blond chick took this opportunity to work out some aggression, and bopped the Cute Oxford Guy on the top of his head as he lunged. Since she had thick glasses, you can imagine how thick her book was. The smack of her book dropped Cute Oxford Guy like a ton of subway-ceiling bricks.

I turned off my iPod, so I could hear things a bit better.

Down the hall, another elevator opened, and more downtowners took a gasp before plunging into the sweaty group of uptowners trying to get on the elevator.

The large lady with the large purse decided the woman with the stroller was the least of her worries, and began pummeling Cute Oxford Guy, who was on the ground. His neck wound was bleeding again, and the transparent bandaid was even less transparent than it had been. The red cotton square couldn't absorb all the blood. Meanwhile, all of us were shuffling forward to the hall, to the elevators, to freedom.

And sweating. All of us, sweating.

I got grazed by the swinging purse a few times, and someone elbowed me in the ribs, then apologized, then stomped on my foot. An elderly man leaned over the overpass wall and looked down at the tracks below, as if considering his options--flight or fight. Cute Oxford Guy stood, and the woman with the childless stroller pushed on, fiercely, her legs straining against the relentless flow of the uptowners. When she got far enough out of the elevator hall to see the downtown platform clogged with people, she said, "Well fuck this shit! Goddammit," and turned to join us on our quest to the elevators, where she had just come from. The blond with the book whistled a few notes from "Anatevka," laughed to herself, continued reading.

In the end, we all made it out alive. I don't know how. But I'll always be haunted by what happened that day, in the 168th Street station of the 1 train. And I'll never forget the smells, the heat, dread, the controlled anger. I'll never forget Oxford Guy, and his many wounds; I'll never forget Swooning Guy, nor his companion/savior supporting him; and I'll never forget Large Lady with the Knock-off Louis Vuitton bag, swinging it around and around her head, beating back the savagery of the Woman with the Childless Stroller.

And Blond Chick, hair in a bun, armed with Russian literature. I'll remember her most of all.

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