The Commute, Part 7

5:05, Fifth Ave – 59th Street: “DBD?”

I look up. An elderly, Chinese woman is leaning over in front of me, holding an array of DVD cases which she fans out like playing cards.

“DBD?” she says again.

There are a few big-budget movies from last summer (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Captain America: The First Avenger”), an eighties teen classic (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”), a movie that hasn’t even been released yet (“Battleship”) and something called “Extra-Large Secret Agent”, which judging by my rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet is an action-comedy from Kyrgyzstan. I decline, and with a slight bow she moves on to the next passenger.

Another, louder voice can be heard from the back of the car: “Who want double A Powercells? Batteries, yo, two for three!” It is a lanky black man in giant, sparkling sunglasses and a train conductor’s hat, who looks to be the spitting image of Fab 5 Freddy. Behind him he is dragging a plastic milk crate along the floor, filled to the brim with a Dollar Store’s worth of assorted junk. “We got batteries, we got more batteries! We also got Band-Aids! We have blank cassette tapes, people! Only $1 a piece! Anybody hungry, we got popcorn!” The popcorn is packaged in red, white and blue cardboard boxes of the kind sold at Little League concession stands. When he gets a little closer, I see the tops have been opened and resealed with scotch tape.

Among his other, unannounced wares are a battery-operated, light-up yo-yo and a package of Clorox hand wipes, but I seem to be the only one paying close enough attention to notice. The majority of the passengers have their noses in guidebooks, flipping furiously through the pages.

“Now this is what I call a deal, and the police call petit larceny!” says the man with the batteries.

No one laughs. The tourists are in a tizzy, trying to make sense of what they’re seeing out the windows. Their guidebooks assure them that this is the stop they want to go to Central Park, but instead of “59th Street” like their books claim, the words “Fifth Ave” decorate the wall in mosaic tile.

“I don’t know,” says one woman to her husband and son. “We’re supposed to be getting off at 59th Street, but this says Fifth Avenue.”

“I think this is the one we want,” says the son.

“But it says ‘Fifth Avenue’,” says the dad.

And on, and on. Some variation of this conversation happens almost every time I ride the train. I have never had occasion to read a New York City guidebook, so I can’t tell if the fault lies with the books themselves or the people reading them. Meanwhile, the DVD lady and the battery guy meet in the center of the car.

“DBD?” says the woman to a passenger.

“Whoa!” said battery guy. “What’s that now? You got The Battleship? Let me see that!” He snatches the case from the woman’s hand and flips it over. The woman bows and holds out a hand. “Five dollar,” she says.

“Five dollars?!” says Battery Guy. “Tell you what. I’ll make you a special offer today.” He rummages through his crate and pulls out two packs of AA batteries, which he stuffs in the woman’s palm. “That’s a six-dollar value right there, for only five dollars! Now that’s what I call a deal, and my doctors call certifiably insane! Whoa!”

The woman looks pleased. She studies the batteries a moment before stuffing them into her jacket pocket and moving on. I look back to see what the family with the guidebook has decided. They are still on the train. Right as the doors are about to close, a man across the car from me says, “You know, this is 59th Street, if you’re looking for the park.” About ten people dash out of the car just before the doors slide shut, and I wonder why it is we locals always wait to the last second to tell people this.  

5:06, Lexington Ave – 59th Street: The terminus, at least as far as most Manhattanites are concerned. After this we will plunge beneath the East River and resurface in Queens, which might as well be the other side of the world to hear them speak of it. There is a mass exodus of people transferring to the 4, 5, and 6 trains, which will continue to take them further up the east side of their precious island. A tall, rather beautiful woman in a red cocktail dress, her obsidian hair pulled up in a French twist, is looking confused. She stands near the front of the car, gingerly holding the metal pole between thumb and forefinger, her brow furrowed in the manner of someone who senses that something just isn’t quite right. She eyes the mass of people exiting the train and turns to the couple seated on the bench beside her.

“Is the next stop 68th Street?” she asks.

“Queens Plaza,” they say.

Her eyes grow wide. The color drains from her face, beginning at the top of her forehead and working its way down to her neck, like a bathtub from which the plug has been pulled. “Queens?!” she cries, and bolts for the exit, just managing to avoid having her bag caught between the sliding doors. I wonder what exactly it is she thinks exists in Queens. I imagine it the way she must, like something from the margins of a sixteenth-century map, full of dragons and sea monsters.

A group of German tourists isn’t so lucky. They have spent the last several minutes consulting their “Entdecken Sie New York!” guidebook and the MTA subway map on the wall of the train, but appear no surer of where they are going than they did five stops ago. Like most people faced with uncertainty they tended towards the status quo, and so at each subsequent stop from the time they boarded, their little group of five began drifting towards the open doors, pulled like iron filings to a magnet, only to stop at the last moment, unwilling to give up the train they knew for the platform they did not. Once I read a story about a man standing at the foot of a mountain when an avalanche knocked a massive boulder loose. The man watched as the boulder came tumbling down the side of the mountain, trying to decide what to do. Unable to determine exactly what path the boulder was taking, the man could not decide whether to run right or left. In the end, he remained in the exact spot where he started, and by the time he realized the boulder was headed directly for him it was too late, and he was crushed to death. I don’t think accidentally finding yourself in Queens is as bad as being crushed to death. The woman in the red cocktail dress might beg to differ.





Photo Source: Planet Ware

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