I awoke this morning to find that none of the many irritants in the world irritated me any more.“Great!” I said. “It’s about time”.It’s good that this has just happened, because today I have to go visit a friend who’s entered the hospital.Somehow, my friend has gotten severe pneumonia, and is now being kept unconscious with the hope that this will have a healing effect. I don’t question this logic. I’ve often thought that I could accomplish much more if only I were unconscious more often.
I am very lucky, I think, as I dress. Ordinarily, visiting someone who is unconscious would seem irritating to me. But not today.
I take the subway to the train station. There, I’m confused by the signs everywhere, pointing vaguely in this direction and that. There’s a lot of wandering blankly around on my part, without irritation. The ceiling is very low, and people are scurrying everywhere. I feel vapid, I notice.
I reach the place where you buy tickets for the trains. There’s a long line of people at the ticket windows, standing placidly with their luggage and children. I see that if I have to wait on this line, I’ll miss my train.
Well, it doesn’t matter, I think. My friend is unconscious, after all.
But then I notice a trainman exhorting the line of people: “Ladies and Gentleman,” he says loudly, with clear enunciation, and without contractions, I notice, which I think is odd on account of his plebeian accent, “if you wait on this line, you will wait for forty five minutes or more to get your ticket. But if you use our new ticket machines, you will have your ticket in two minutes.” As he says this he waves his arms at the ranks of unoccupied ticket machines standing like infantrymen. “All you need is a credit card, or a cash card, or a debit card, and you will have your ticket in no time,” he goes on.
The people on the long line stare at him silently. They’re giving him the lizard-look, which says: I don’t carewhat you say. You’re lying. If I use the machine something terrible that can’t be fixed will happen. I won’t get a ticket. I’ll lose my place on line, or maybe even worse.
As if in response the trainman continues to implore them: “Ladies and Gentleman, these machines are very efficient and easy to use. If you have any problem at all, one of our staff will help you. If you wait on line, you will miss your train, but if you use the machines…”
The people continue to look at him. But I trust the trainman completely, and head straight to a ticket machine. For a moment, it was very tempting to wait on line, especially because I can’t be irritated anymore.
I put my card in the machine, and it begins to give me instuctions. The trainman was right, the machines are very easy to use. This is an accomplishment, I think. Usually, these machines are confusing and novel, and irritate people.
But soon there’s a problem. The train I want to take doesn’t appear on the screen. I check more closely, but to no avail.
“Sir,” I say to the trainman, who’s still pleading with his unshakable audience, “can you help me, please? My train isn’t on here.” I note glints of satisfaction flickering like fireflies in the dead eyes of the crowd.
“Yeah,” the trainman says, coming over to me, “what’s the problem?”
“The train I want isn’t on the schedule.”
“Did you check the schedule?”
“Lemme see.” I step aside, and he stands in front of the machine.
“What train you wanna take?” he asks.
“The six o’clock to Norwalk.”
“Nnngh,” he says, scrolling through the schedule.
“That’s the Boston trai. It isn’t on here.”
“Right.” I notice that when he’s not exhorting crowds, he uses contractions.
“Hey, Nelson!” the trainman shouts. “What’s with the six o’clock to Boston?”
“Sold out!” comes the bitter, anxious cry from behind the thick sheets of glass that protect the ticket sellers.
“Sold out,” the trainman says to me importantly.
“Right,” I reply and shrug. I’m not perturbed. I put my card in my pocket and begin to walk away.
“Hey, buddy,” the trainman calls to me, “where you goin’?”
I turn back to him. “I’m leaving. My train is sold out,” I reply.
“Here, come here,” he says in cajoling tone of voice, and waves his arm at me invitingly.
“Why?” I say. I feel this is a natural question.
“Just come here. Stick your card in there,” he says, and gestures at the machine. I shrug and comply. What do I care what happens?
“Okay,” I say, “my card’s in there. But my train isn’t.”
“That’s okay,” he says.
“Oh?” He steps over to the machine, making a weird gesture at the line of people, whom have now turned their heads as one to observe the rest of the episode they thought had ended with another triumph.
The trainman punches some buttons on the machine.
“What kind of card was it?” he demands.
“An American Express,” I reply.
“Right, good,” he says, and touches the screen with his fingertips, which causes the screen to become another screen. His intent face glows blue. Soon, a ticket comes out of the slot like a tongue. He takes the ticket and hands it to me.
“There you go,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. “But this ticket is for tomorrow. I wanted today’s train.”
“No problem,” he says. He takes the ticket back, and scribbles some strange marks on it with his pen.
“There you go,” he repeats, and returns the ticket to me. The eyes of the people on line are bursting with queries they will never voice.
“Thanks,” I say again. “I can get on my train with this?”
“Yep, you’re all set,” he says, and returns to his exhortations.
I shrug, and walk away.
The station is jammed with people. I stand for a long time with my bag at my feet, watching the schedule board with many others.In the past, just standing among so many people would make me explosively frustrated with humans and the pointlessness of everything they do. But not today.
The schedule board says nothing about my train, other than that it’s on time. However, it’s now two minutes to six, and there’s no indication of where the train is, which track to go to. I look around and note that I don’t know where the tracks are, and I can’t see any relevant signs.
I decide to ask the helpful trainman what the deal is with my train. I walk over to him, where he’s still talking to the crowd.
“Excuse me, sir,” I say, “but , it’s almost six, and my train is nowhere to be found. Is there a problem?”
He turns to me with no sign that he recognizes me from moments ago.
“What’s that?” he says.
“Ahem, I say, it’s nearly six and my train isn’t here. Is there something wrong?”
“Huh,” he says. “The board doesn’t say nothing?”
“Only that it’s on time. But that can’t be quite true.” I point out the time by showing him my watch. He seems mildly affronted by this.
“Huh,” he says again. “Hey, Warren!” he shouts to a passing co-worker, “how’s it going’ with the Boston train?”
“Not very well at all, Roger!”the man calls out cheerfully, and continues on. The mob of people milling about clearly hears this happy admission. But they don’t say anything. They just get shifty-eyed, and look plaintive.
“I don’t know,” Roger says to me. I notice for the first time that his shirt has the name “Roger” printed on the pocket. “The train should appear on the board in a minute. Just wait for it.”
“Okay,” I say, and return to staring at the board with all the others.
Suddenly, a track number, five, appears on the board, and the crowd jolts into hurried movement. As this happens, a woman’s voice comes on the P.A and says mechanically: “The Boston train is boarding on track five, track five, track five. This train is sold out, only people with tickets marked ‘reserved’ may board this train…” I look at my ticket. It says “unreserved”. Am I allowed to get on this train? I wonder. I look over at Roger and consider pointing out this apparent snag. But then I shrug. What do I care what happens? I think. Of what possible import could it be if I get on the train or not? Or if anything at all happens, or does’nt happen? Why in the world would I ever concern myself with it?
I join the throngs of people heading fro track five. It seems the sole way to get to track five is to go down an escalator that is wide enough to carry only one person at a time. Standing on either side of the escalator entrance are two trainmen who are checking everyone’s tickets as they attempt to descend.
“Okay, come on!” They say to people agitatedly. “Go ahead!” – “Don’t crowd!” – “One at a time!” – “This ticket’s no good, didn’’t you hear the announcement?”
There is now a great blot of people squashed together around these guards. The people and their bags jockey for position, making little hitching motions around the floor. When someone moves forward an inch, the person behind them immediately moves forward as well, as though there’s some required distance that must separate everyone, and if it’s not maintained, we will all be nastily killed. To entertain myself, since I am becoming slightly bored because I’m not getting irritated, I decide to investigate my theory about the required degree of seperation.
I edge forward a tiny bit, even though the person in front of me has not moved. My transgression excites me a little. The person behind me, persons actually, two women who are babbling things I hope I never say, immediately move to close the gap I have created between us. I move again. This time I angle slightly out away from the desired destination, because, after all, the person in front of me is not moving yet. He’s not a part of my experiment. The women behind me immediately shift forward, again closing the space. I now notice that another apparent rule is to thrust one’s baggage up the ass of the person in front of you, as these women are doing to me. I shift again, and the suitcase drops from my buttocks. This time the person in front of me has moved, so I angle back towards the escalator. The two women shift with me perfectly , repositioning their baggage in my ass and nattering. We have now taken a nice , albeit short, trip together on our little human train. I note with warm interest, rather than my old fury, that these women are very cheerful, despite their wretched circumstances, despite the fact that I am unbearably near them, and their baggage is in my ass.
eventually, I reach the ticket guards, who have maintained their initial excitement. I hand out one of them my ticket.
“Thanks, you’re okay!” he says loudly, after a glance. then, “hold on! This is no good, this train is for reserved onl! You can’t…wait a minute.” He glares more closely at the ticket, apparently noticing Roger’s scribble. “Oh,” he then says, more quietly and with some disappointment, and perhaps disapproval, in his voice, “Alright, you’re alright. Go ahead!” he then says with his old vigor.
I descend the escalator to the bottom, and the train is there before me. I look at my ticket. There’s no indication of where I’m supposed to sit. in fact, the ticket holds little information other than Roger’s scribble, incomprehensible to me, and the fact that I am unreserved.
I walk down the platform to another train worker, a burly woman whose French-policeman’s style cap is cocked in a way that makes her look jaunty, while her expression is tense and slightly sweaty.
I hand her my ticket.
“Business?” she says in a businesslike way, before she looks at it. No one has asked me this before, and I have no idea what she means, so I start musing about weather or not going to see my unconscious friend is business, feeling it probably isn’t, but, if it isn’t, then what is it? Tourism?
“No, this is no good!” she shouts as she looks at the ticket, “this train is…hold on.” Her brows furrows. “Oh,” she says more quietly, almost affectionately, as if relieved she doesn’t have to be nasty to me, and hands the ticket back. “Your’e okay. Just go right on this car and sit anywhere you like.”
I get on the train, thinking that Roger gas a lot more power than I would have accorded him based on appearances.
The train is much more plush than the subway, but seems just as cramped. I pick a seat at random and settle in next to the window. I put my bag beneath my seat, and look at my ticket. “Unreserved” it still says.
The train is fillinf up, and soon we’re ready to depart. I notice that, despite being sold out, the seat next to me, and others I can see, are unoccupied.
An announcement comes over the P.A.: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this train is sold out! If your ticket says ‘unreserved’, you cannot ride this train. If you stay on the train, you will be put off at the first stop we come to.” This is repeated several times. I look at my ticket, particularly the word “unreserved”. I wonder if this announcement impacts me in any way. Why should I care if it did? I think/
Soon, we are moning. Another announcement comes on, pointing out that the snack bar is now open. This causes a line of people to form down the center of the train. They loom over me and chatter. One fat woman talks to her fat, male child in an insulting wayfor which he looks too old. I look to see if he is angry with this prattle. He doesn’t look bothered at all.
There’s only one person working the snack bar, and the line moves very slowly. Each person who successfully makes it to the bar, returns back through this clot of people, which causes a lot of awkward shifting around. I notice that the food they return with doesn’t look the least bit appetizing, but more importantly, it doesn’t look any different from what one would get from a vending machine. They seem to be queuing up for the privilege of having a real person hand food to them. The stiff plastic the food comes in crackles in their hands as they smile for, step on, poke at, and apologize to, one another.
I wonder why these people are willing to stand in line for so long, when this food is all they get for it. Are they so hungry? But, what do I care what happens? What do I care what people do? I think that probably this line of people will be there the whole trip, since it moves so slowly, and is constantly refilled. This turns out to be true.
Soon, a ticket person comes through checking tickets. It’s the same woman that was on the platform, I see. She has to fight her way through the snack people. When she arrives at my seat I hand her my ticket.
“No, no, this is no good!” she says, with the same fervor my ticket seems to cause for everyone who sees it. I consider keeping this ticket with me for the rest of my life, just presenting it to everyone I encounter and watching them burst into excited denials. She goes on: “This train is for reserved tickets only! This …hold on. Oh. You’re okay. You saw me earlier, didn’t you?” I nod.
“You’re fine,” she says reassuringly, and coldly tears the ticket in half. I flinche a little, surprised, and expect the ticket to make a little squeal of pain. She hands me the piece that says “unreserved”. I nod again, and turn to the window. She proceeds to the next seats, in which two young men that are dressed like dangerous criminals, but I know they’re not, are sitting. They hand her their tickets.
“Hold on, guys! she says. “These are no good for this train…”
I placidly look out the window. We’re now clacking through the garrote of seamy, metal buildings, ropes of traffic, and smokestacks belching flame, which encircles the city. I watch it all roll by for a while.
The P.A. system clicks and a voice comes on. I notice it is the woman ticket person’s voice, and she seems irked; “Ladies and Gentlemen, this train is sold out! It is for reserved passengers only! If your ticket…” she says, as I hold my ticket and continue on toward my unconscious friend.