The Commute, Part 1

4:31, City Hall: I get downstairs just as the uptown R train is pulling away. This is a scene that has repeated itself approximately seven hundred times since I moved to New York. Accordingly, I curse out loud as I swipe my metrocard and push through the turnstile onto the now-deserted platform. The 4:30 R train is my white whale; catching it has become a peculiar obsession of mine, and I have tried all manner of things to make this happen, from cutting out of work early to ignoring every ‘don’t walk’ signal at every intersection I encounter, to no avail. Invariably, as I hit the bottom step, I see the final few cars of the 4:30 R disappearing down the tunnel on their way to Canal Street. It’s like one of those recurring dreams where you’re always running late for class or a business meeting.

Disheartening though it is, there are decided practical advantages to having the entire platform to oneself. There are still seats to be had so far from Midtown, and the experienced commuter knows exactly where to stand to have the best chance at nabbing one. The turnstiles at City Hall are located almost dead in the center of the platform, so I swing a left and walk all the way up to the far end, where the first car will eventually stop. As a rule, tourists tend to congregate near the turnstiles while waiting for a train, as there are few things more forbidding to the neophyte than the remote, shadowy corners of a New York subway stop. For all its history and renown, the New York subway system is–without a doubt–the dirtiest, ugliest, most decrepit metro system I have ever encountered. It has all the elegance of a Third-World sewer, the ambiance of a Detroit back-alley, and the structural integrity of an old Soviet apartment block. In 2009, the ceiling of the 181st St. station collapsed from deterioration. Everywhere one looks, one encounters cracks in the walls of the tunnels, rusting support beams and flaking paint. Garbage is strewn across the tracks and many of the platforms, giving rise to the current boom in the rat population the city is trying so desperately to combat.

Point being, the ends of the platform are where these hallmarks of decay reach their zenith, and therefore are avoided by the casual train rider. On this occasion I stake out my usual spot, directly in front of the second-to-last support beam. This will line me up exactly with the second set of doors on the R train. When I’m positioned just so, I reach into my bag and pull out the book I’m reading. Other regulars start filtering in now; I can feel their eyes as they glance towards my spot, confirming that it’s taken before settling for a less-prestigious place farther down the platform. One woman, blond and in her thirties, has become particularly aggressive of late. I see her coming out of the corner of my eye and instinctively dig in my heels and bury my face deeper in my book. A titanic struggle of wills ensues in which not a single word is spoken, a subtle progression of movements and body language resembling some exotic form of Japanese theater. It is a scene completely typical of New York, even as it runs counter to the (accurate) stereotype of the loud, obnoxious, outspoken New Yorker. It begins with the blond woman fixing me with a death-glare as she approaches down the platform. I respond by keeping my eyes glued to my book, going so far as to turn a page before I’ve even finished reading what was on the previous one, just to drive home how unconcerned I am with everything else happening around me. The blond woman stops in front of the third support beam, one over from me, and crosses her arms. She gazes down the tracks to see if the train is coming, huffs with feigned impatience, then looks in my direction once more. I counter by lowering my book and looking down the tracks myself, past the woman’s head, as if to say, “If there is anyone else in my vicinity, they are of so little consequence that I do not notice them.”

Now the blond woman raises the stakes. She puts her hands in her jacket pockets and begins pacing in circles, from the edge of the platform back to the wall, like a caged jungle cat that smells blood. After completing a few laps, she comes to rest just a few feet to my right, essentially defying any attempt to ignore her presence. My response is to remove a tissue from my coat and blow my nose as loudly and wetly as possible. She does not demur, and in fact inches even closer, crossing well over the boundaries of polite separation and impinging on my terrain. To check her progress, I take one step forward and to the right, leaving her no room to pass in front of or behind me without circling out around the support beam.

From off in the distance comes the screeching of metal on metal. A flickering orange spot on the tunnel wall grows longer and brighter, until finally the headlights of the next R train blaze into view around the corner. Realizing she has lost, the blond woman looks around and scrambles frantically to her left, then back to her right, before eventually settling on the no-man’s land between the third and fourth support beams. Stepping right up to the edge of the platform, I set a wide stance and square my shoulders; my position is safe. Several people jostle behind me for second place. The irony, as the train squeals to a stop in front of us, is that there are at least two-dozen empty seats on the lead car and everyone will be able to sit down. Still, one never knows–every day is different, after all–and as I settle into one of the prime seats right next to the doors, I am content that for the time being my domain remains successfully defended. It is one of the small victories that make living in this city bearable. As the familiar “bing-bong” sounds over the intercom and the doors slide shut, I prepare to zone-out for the next forty minutes.







Photo Source: 8 Asians

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