September 6, 2020
Cattle, not people! That’s what it felt like to me when I was riding the subways of New York City. Just when you think another person can’t possibly fit, at least a dozen manage to squeeze their way in. It’s kind of like the clown car at the circus, only not the least bit amusing.
The first half of my morning commute from New Rochelle in Westchester County into “the city” was quite pleasant. I’d buy a muffin and a freshly brewed cup of coffee at Britain and McCain’s, then hop on the Metro North New Haven line. At the time I worked on Church Street in the financial district of lower Manhattan. The 7:18 AM train was brightly lit, clean, perfectly climate-controlled and the seats were nicely spread out making for a comfortable and relaxing ride. I’d always see the same friendly faces, fellow suburbanites with their briefcases and newspaper tucked under an arm. A nod or a wave was all that was necessary; no need for casual conversation as everyone was looking forward to a peaceful trek to work. It was all quite civilized. It took 40 minutes to get to Grand Central Terminal where I’d then hustle to catch the subway to Church Street.
Grand Central – an awe-inspiring wonder of architecture and one of the busiest terminals in the world – has always been a whirling hub of activity with harried commuters scurrying about like so many little ants rushing to catch their train. Finding a seat on one of the countless subway trains was a continuous battle. Any shred of human decency was discarded at the terminal doors as people trampled each other in the hopes of securing a place to sit or, at the very least, a spot against a wall on which to lean. If you were unable to find neither seat nor wall, you’d have no choice but to position yourself in the aisles where you could hang onto the hand straps suspended from the ceiling or stand shoulder-to-shoulder like disgruntled sheep crammed in a stall with no place to go. And if anyone should stumble and fall, God help them because no one else would! Livestock on the road to the slaughterhouse; is it any wonder so many people were frustrated and disillusioned by their daily commute and in turn hated their jobs?
Most days there were unexplained delays and the 20-minute ride to Church Street took much longer than that. The unvoiced question dangled in the stifling air: how long will we be stuck this time? People would hang their heads in defeat and heave a sigh of resignation knowing they were at the mercy of the subway puppeteers. I stared at this sign for so many mindless hours I can still recite the entire message in both English and Spanish:
For people with claustrophobia, just being underground is a nightmare; similarly being jammed on a subway is a hellish experience, especially in the heat of summer. The worst part was when the train would stall in the tunnel and all the power would go out – no lights, no air conditioning, no nothing – just the overwhelming conglomeration of the stench of body odor, bad breath, urine and other bodily secretions along with the complaining gripes and groans, pisses and moans of those stuck in the train. And as if that weren’t bad enough, you’d suddenly become aware of the alarming feel of creepy, unwelcome hands fondling your ass or some horny pervert rubbing against you – and you were incapable of moving an inch. I recall being frozen in place praying for the lights to quickly come back on and the train to start up. For any normal person, being groped regardless the situation is a humiliating and despicable ordeal; having it happen while trapped in a dark, crowded, sweaty, smelly subway car is indescribably terrifying – enough to put anyone over the brink. I came close to losing it more times than I care to remember. Crying out “Get your filthy hands off me!” would generally elicit snickering, laughing or the occasional tsk of commiseration and disapproval.
That was the typical morning subway expedition; by the time I arrived at the office I felt like I needed a shower. When the workday was done at 5:00 PM, the mass exodus would begin and the subway horror show would start again. It didn’t take me too long to realize I couldn’t endure these conditions indefinitely and I discovered an unusual survival strategy; I started taking the train four stations deeper into the bowels of Manhattan from Church Street to Canal Street, a 10-minute subway ride in the opposite direction from Grand Central Station and further away from the comfort and serenity of the New Haven Line. My reasoning behind this backwards maneuver was really quite simple: Canal Street was the originating point for the trip to Grand Central and I would always find a seat. If I waited to get on at Church Street the train would already be full. I’d head straight for the somewhat secluded two-seater in the corner. I didn’t care how long the trip took, how crowded the train became or how many times we got stuck; as long as I was sitting in the corner I felt safe. I could close my eyes and pretend to be asleep or hide my nose in a book; I finished quite a few chapters on that 30-minute ride while tucked away in those coveted corner seats.
For some reason, though, I would inevitably attract the undesirables. Many a ponderous man would wedge himself into the seat next to me, breathing heavily and reeking of garlic. Why, when there were plenty of empty seats, would I end up with Jabba the Hutt plopping down next to me? I would stay put and do my best to cope with a most unpleasant situation. There was also the occasional sicko (although one is more than enough) who would position himself directly in front of me, his manhood at full attention mere inches from my face. Those were the times I prayed for death. If I could have hung myself from one of the ceiling hand straps I gladly would have done so, drifting off into unconsciousness while visions of Lorena Bobbitt danced in my head. Instead I would prop my briefcase vertically on my lap and hide behind it. By some source of divine intervention the lights never went out during one of those close encounters of the worst kind.
It’s been more than 40 years since I worked in Manhattan; I loved my job and the people I worked with but after seven years I’d had enough of the commute. Kudos to those who travel the trains for twenty or more years; I have no idea how they do it! I don’t miss riding the subway one bit and if I have to go into Manhattan these days, I drive. I’ll gladly take on any maniac behind the wheel of a taxi or a truck rather than deal with the neanderthal subway passengers. I’m just thankful my days of riding the New York City cattle cars ended while I still had my dignity and sanity intact.