Tag Archives: mta

M Train, 5:11pm

I’m on my way home. I read a book for a while, one I can’t decide if I like or not. Then I tire of trying to figure what side of the fence I’m on and clamp headphones to my ears. The book is replaced with a Jean Shepherd radio show from 1966. I know where I stand on Shep.

In this episode, Shep talked (among other things) about one of his first radio gigs: hosting a remote from a funeral parlor on the south side of Chicago. One of the funeral parlor’s employees would play hymns on a Wurlitzer organ, with Shep occasionally interjecting a pitch for the sponsor’s services. In his retelling, he promised his audience the tale was the god’s honest truth, even raising his right hand as if swearing on a Bible. It was the radio, of course. The audience had to take his word on that gesture as much as they had to on the truthfulness of his story.

I’m standing near a door. A young man seated in front of me gestures, trying to get my attention. He might have been doing it for a while. I was so wrapped up in Shep’s funeral parlor tale I wouldn’t have noticed. I yank out one headphone, but don’t quite catch what he’s saying. So I yank out the other headphone, but his words are no clearer. I ask him to repeat himself.

“Elmhurst?” he says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the station we’re about to leave. It is in fact Elmhurst Avenue. I don’t know why he won’t turn around and take a look for himself out the window to his back, but I confirm that yes, this is Elmhurst. The doors have already closed. If Elmhurst was his stop, he’s too late to catch it.

But it seems it’s not his stop. He says something that I can’t quite make out. It unsettles me because I can’t understand why I can’t understand him. He has no thick accent and he speaks clearly. And yet, something about the way he talks interferes with understanding. His words are slow to register in my brain. I ask him to repeat himself.

“[BLANK] got shot here on Saturday,” he says. “He was killed.”

I can think of nothing to say except, “I hadn’t heard about that.”

“It was on the news,” the young man says. His voice remains flat and distant. The look on his face matches. He’s not trying stir up sympathy. He’s disseminating cold, raw information that he feels I should know. He could be telling me when this station was built, or how many people live in this Congressional district.

I paraphrase myself, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard about it.”

“It was in the papers,” he says. “In the metro.” He adds corroborating evidence, but maintains the same level of emotion: zero.

My stop arrives. I line myself at the door, anxious to leave. The young man speaks again. “Woodhaven?” he asks, investing the street name with only the slightest hint of a question mark as he jabs a thumb toward the platform behind him. He says Woodhaven like it stands for a complete phrase all the world should know how to respond to.

“No, this is Grand,” I say. The doors should be open by now, but they’re not.

“Woodhaven?” he asks once more, as if he hadn’t heard me.

“Woodhaven’s the next stop,” I tell him. But he keeps staring at me. He doesn’t want to know where he is. He wants to tell me more about what Woodhaven signifies to his mind, what information it conveys to him that he must share with this train, and he says something. I hear words and I see his lips move, but none of it makes an impression. I’m sure what he says makes sense, but not to me.

“Woodhaven’s next,” I say as I rush out of the train, though I know it’s not what he wanted to hear. And then I add, “Sorry,” as the doors close. I couldn’t leave without saying that I could not help him.

Respect the Baritone

I live in a Bus Neighborhood. All subway lines are too far away to make walking an option, so if you want to get anywhere and you don’t want the trip to last 3 hours, the bus is mandatory. The buses that serve the neighborhood are always overcrowded at rush hour, because they’re the only ticket in and out. When a bus arrives at a stop, no matter how packed it is already, people claw their way on as if it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, because there’s something both terrifying and humiliating about getting left behind by a bus. Watching it chug away from the curb, engulfing you in its exhaust, telling you that you’re not good enough for the bus.

Last week, on one brutally hot afternoon, I emerged from a subway station and jogged toward my usual bus stop. The bus stop isn’t immediately visible when I get above ground, and it’s also on the other side of a very busy street, which always presents the infuriating possibility of arriving just in time to see my bus leaving me behind. That did not happen this time, but what did happen was almost as enraging. As I neared the queue for the bus, a guy chugging toward it in the opposite direction cut into the line a split second before I could assert my I-Am-Here-ness.

Of course, I had the fear that this guy would be The Cutoff, that one last passenger after which the bus driver slams the door shut and moves on. How many passengers can get onto a bus is left to the driver’s discretion. Some drivers let people occupy every molecule of available space, while others rigidly enforce the “stay behind the white line rule,” and this guy arriving just ahead of me made me worry the next bus to arrive would fall into the latter category. But getting beaten to the punch in the bus line was more galling because the man who did it to me was lugging a baritone.

You’re probably familiar with the baritone if you ever played in school band. They’re like tubas that were blasted with a shrink ray. They’re made primarily for marching bands or kids who can’t make the full tuba commitment. Baritones are technically portable, but this man was planning on bringing this thing onto a crowded bus, where sardine-can conditions make handbags deadly weapons. Adding further desperation to his overall mien, the baritone was beaten up, dinged and tarnished, with several sizable dents in the bell. This was a baritone that had been down a few dirt roads.

Initially, I was furious. How inconsiderate was this guy? He didn’t even have a case for the thing, just cradled it against his chest like a huge, brassy child, the enormous, injured bell barely clearing his head. Given a jam-packed bus, crappy road conditions, and the typical skills and safety of an MTA bus driver, he could actually kill someone with this thing.

But then, I began to soften a little, because it occurred to me that no one in their right mind would bring a baritone onto a bus if they had any choice in the matter. I realized that I probably hadn’t seen a baritone since high school, and had a wave of Band Geek nostalgia. And I wondered, where had he been playing this thing, and why? It’s gotta be rough trying to make a living as a working baritone player these days.

The bus pulled up and was, of course, already well full. The line slowly pushed its way inside. The Baritone Man somehow managed to fish a Metrocard out of a pocket, then turned to see the bus’s standing room already completely occupied. By now, I’d done a complete 180 with my feelings. I pitied him. Here it was, a scorching, muggy summer day, and this man was trying to bring an enormous blunt brass instrument onto a jam-packed bus where the AC is being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of sweaty, angry humanity on it. This, I figured, will not end well.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The aisle between the seats is usually an impenetrable thicket of shopping bags and hate, but for Baritone Man, it parted like the Red Sea. The passengers willingly–gladly, even–moved to allow him to move toward the back. Not only that, but once he reached the back of the bus, someone offered him a seat. And there he sat, comfortable and unperturbed, for at least the duration of my trip. When my stop arrived, there he still was, baritone nestled in his lap, happy as a clam. It was one of the most endearing, yet weird, things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In all my years living in New York, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone offer a bus seat to anyone else, no matter how elderly, infirm, or feeble they were. When my wife was pregnant, you couldn’t have made someone give up their seat for her with a million dollars and a shotgun. There is a certain mentality that takes over when you ride the bus, which essentially boils down to This is horrible, so we’re all gonna be horrible to each other here.

I used to think nothing could pierce the flinty Darwinian shell of the New York bus passenger. Now I know better. If you want to melt the collective heart of an angry, sweaty MTA bus, bring your baritone.

Safety Announcements, MTA Style

Moments after I boarded the bus this morning, the driver picked up the intercom to make this announcement.

“HEY! There’s a fire at Flushing and [garbled]. We gonna be rerouted down Metroplitan. You need to get off somewhere along the rerouted route, YOU LET ME KNOW, OKAY?! Don’t be yellin and screamin at me!”

Five blocks later, she made the same announcement, almost verbatim. Not a single head moved, either time.

I like the fact that the primary goal of her announcement was not to give us a heads-up that the bus was being rerouted, or that THERE’S A FIRE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, but to not hassle her because of either of these facts. And that no one seemed to notice or care anyway.

It’s a hell of town…