Morning Ritual

We pulled into Union Square and the doors slid open. Two-thirds of the passengers all swarmed the doors. There was no mad rush, however. How could there be? No room. But there was a press. An inexorable shove. Anxiety grew with every half second still stuck in the car. Every one of these ticks was one closer until the conductor would hit the switch, and the barnyard door would try to snap shut, about a hundred pounds of torque on anyone who hadn’t quite made it through. One second, two seconds, three, and any progress towards the waiting platform is impeded by the asshole with the book and the iPod blocking half the doorway.

Finally, I lurched free of the train, tripping and stumbling my way onto the hard concrete, issuing rote ‘excuse mes’ and ‘sorrys’ for all the heels I’d nipped, all the flip-flops my big boots had sent askew.

The air was disgusting in the station. There’s no nicer way to put it. Not when it feels like the mass of it hasn’t moved an inch since the start of summer. It had the odor of rot and feces and brake dust, sucking every breath out of you and moist at about ninety percent humidity.

All I could think about was making my transfer, stepping into another overcrowded train, but being able to breathe in the wonderful canned air those things pump into the cars these days. Fierce air conditioning, able to beat back the cloud even with the six doors of the cars opening and closing every few minutes. Able to defeat that station air, that tunnel air, that air I was now moving through, hoping I didn’t break into too torrid a sweat before the lights came around the bend, my train pushing ahead of it the only breeze that ever makes it down in the tunnels, and I step aboard.

But first came the stairs. First I had to make it up two flights of steps, about five feet wide, half that with people coming down the other way, to another platform above, running perpendicular to the one I’m on. But I’m not alone. That same crowd that was with me on the train is still here. A full load, all eyeing the same stairs. The visual effect of all of us moving towards the stairs at once is not unlike what you’d see in a cattle pen, the heifers trying to make their way up that thin ramp, into the trailer, or onto the killing floor. More than once I’ve waited my turn to climb those steps, patient but stewing inside and out, and pictured a man at the top: big rubber gloves way up past the elbows, thick galoshes, rubberized apron reaching almost to the floor, safety glasses and a hard hat, all of it covered in blood, ready to put the bolt through my temple.

Of course, the reality is never that bad. Not usually, anyway. At the top there’s another set of stairs that siphons off enough people to take away that close-in oppressiveness of the herd. Not this day, though. Today I round that bend at the end of the first flight, into thirty feet of grimy, white-tiled tunnel leading to the next set, and everything is stopped. I can see a hundred heads and not much else, all stuck for who knows how long in an awful place. Who’s going to be the first person who can’t hack it, can’t process the heat and press and the horror-show asylum look of this hallway? I thought to myself, please not me.

Up ahead people began to move. Up the second flight of steps and I could tell there was going to be a long wait for my train. People are packed in three deep on the platform, a lady cop fielding questions she’s got no answers for, vainly trying to direct the slow-moving human wave come from below that has only one direction to go anyway. People headed up the next set of steps, calling it quits, deciding to get the hell out of there and hoof it, forget they were ever down there, but I slipped off to the side, to follow the platform, hoping to find a clear space somewhere, down near the end.

Whatever sonofabitch designed that platform will never receive any awards from me. I’m convinced the man was a sadist, living on cheap thrills, picturing a couple hundred thousand people a day hanging their asses out over the tracks, dodging ten tons of screeching metal, just trying to walk down the platform.

The N/R train platform at Union Square is dominated by a series of stairways run up and down the middle, all leading to a concourse and exits above. To get past the concrete behemoths, you have to walk to either side, with only about three feet of clearance between the rising sidewall of the stairs and the long coffin of the track bed. It’s so obviously hazardous, I wonder how I don’t hear of people losing their lives there every day. And now, I had to walk that thin trail, weaving my way through a growing crowd, all watching for a long-delayed train.

Anyone who walks that space knows how far out they’re placing their safety. You can read it on their faces when you meet them coming the other way. One of you gets to hug the wall as you pass each other. The other gets to pray that no train picks that moment to emerge from the ether. Yeah, that choice puts a look on a person. Usually its one of those ‘you or me’ looks, like, “Out of my way or it’s gonna be your sorry butt that gets cut in two on the rails. Nothing personal.”

Anyway, I made it clear. Into sweet, open platform. Almost home free. But damned if the heat went from just plain oppressive to ungodly. So hot, so heavy, all I could picture were vast tropical wastes, or learning how to breathe underwater in a boiling cauldron. I caught myself repeating over and over again, “It’s hot. It’s hot.” Amazed that I could tell my breath out was cooler than any breath in. Any illusions I had about not breaking out into a sweat were gone. Great gushers soaked my shirt through in about two minutes.

I slowly paced back and forth. I can’t stand still in heat like that. My body can’t stand it, when the only thing it feels is dead air and rolling sweat.

I don’t know how long it went on. More people kept showing up on the platform. It kept getting tighter and hotter. And it was dead silent. No trains, no talking, only the sound of shuffling feet and newspapers being used as fans. Soon people would lose the energy to stand. Conversation was out of the question.

A small shift in the air was the first announcement that a train was near. Breeze built into gale and there it was, all lights and screaming brakes. Inside was the proverbial sardine can, so my heart broke a little, knowing the train was too crowded to fit any more people. I’d have to wait for the next one. Out it went, and within seconds the air died again.

I finally got on two trains later and had to crawl over five people to make it out at my stop. I shot through the turnstiles, bounded up the exit and gulped, free from purgatory once again.

And that’s what it was like to commute from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan, August 8th, 2007.