The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues
SEPT 2010 Issue

A Windy Path

PATH train photo by Tony M,
PATH train photo by Tony M,

Suburban commuter trains are disparate from city subways; this is true in most cities.  Unlike the city subways, the commuter trains have cushioned seats and there is a code of quiet. A ringing phone, loud talking, and that tinny headphone sound are all but non-existent on my train. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
At the terminus in Hoboken, I switch to the PATH train which is not, as some New Yorkers have been led to believe, a hard dirt path from New Jersey into the city but rather a century old cast-iron tunnel through which brand new trains run frequently from one side of the Hudson to the other in about five minutes. The PATH train would look familiar to New Yorkers: hard plastic seats, standees, fluorescent lighting, and subterranean.  I ride the 33rd Street train and get off at the first stop, Christopher Street.

Only here does my story of suburban commuter bliss takes its dark turn.

Because of the ventilation configuration of the PATH system which pushes air through the tunnel into the station, several of the PATH egresses are wind tunnels. Christopher Street is particularly egregious. Forced air is coming from the long underwater tunnel and smashing into the air being pushed from the uptown tunnel with only one way to go: into the single staircase on its south end. Like a tornado twisting, the steep stairs are built in a winding fashion, up which the recently disgorged passengers make their way, heads pulled in to their chests and tilted against the gales of frigid air as they ascend, like Admiral Perry’s crew, to the top.

Many mornings, at the summit, there is some lauding, “Man, I didn’t think we were going to make it today.”

 “Wow, that was rough.”

 “Why the hell can’t they fix this thing?”

It’s a bonding experience.

So you might expect that same wind to be a delightfully strong breeze in the sweltering summer, and that is true if you are not wearing a hat or a skirt. One day two years ago I was wearing both as I approached the entrance to the station. Starting down the stairs, the confluence of events which creates the wind began. Having only one hand free and mere seconds to decide whether to save my straw fedora and lose my modesty or vice versa, I hesitated a second as my hat blew off and my skirt flew up like the ghost of Marilyn Monroe somewhere around my ears.

A friend whose anonymity will preserve her dignity, told me, “Yesterday I did the ‘wrap your sundress three times around your wrist and press into the right thigh while walking sideways down the stairs’ routine. There’s no phone reception down there so people are looking to be entertained, i.e., praying you lose your death grip on your dress.

 “I thought, ‘Screw it, I should just wear pants.’”

It’s hard not to take it personally. Maybe this is Manhattan’s smack to the face of the outsider come from across the water, a reminder of who’s boss in this house.

E. B. White explained that there are three New Yorks: the newcomers give the city its passion and native New Yorkers give the city its solidarity while the third type, the commuter, gives the city its “tidal restlessness.”  White said commuters are “locusts” who devour New York each day and then spit it out again every evening.

(For the record, I eat lunch at the deli around the corner from my office but I swallow my food.)

I chose to leave New York ten years ago, after living here for almost twenty years. There are many reasons why I left: getting rained on while riding the F train, jackhammers under my window for two weeks of night work, the parade of waste management trucks banging at all hours of the night. Mostly, I wanted a screened back door I could prop open, point to the back yard, and say to my daughter, “Out!”

My Rockland County town square features a trough from which Gen. George Washington’s horse drank and by which once a tavern stood where, I presume, the general drank. This small New York town has had a track running through since locomotives were invented; one hundred years ago it was a vacationer’s railroad but now it’s a commuters’ rail. Sometimes, mainly in the winter, the train is late, but for the most part, the train folks do a pretty good job. There was one ride home several years ago disrupted for hours by a pedestrian being killed on the rails in a town up ahead, but that stuff is thankfully rare. Not to belabor the point, but there is a restroom on the train—not one you would use unless you needed it, but still.

For those New Yorkers whose commuting means the subway, theirs is a different story. The subways are notoriously late, unpredictable and crowded. A garbled mechanical voice announcing a “medical emergency” can mean an entire day has to be rethought. And, let’s be fair, whenever five hundred people are detained by a heart attack, who thinks about the one guy on his way to the hospital? Five hundred to one, those riders are hating on that poor bastard while not a few are wishing they had taken the time to use the bathroom before they left home.

The New Yorker and the commuter are distinctly different beasts. When I was the former, I disdained the latter. People who came from the west were “bridge and tunnel.”  The b&t were best identified by their choice of nightclubs. I am no longer interested in nightlife. Locusts like their sleep.


Katy Bolger


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues