Subway Gates

She climbed the steps at Lorimer Street with effortless self-absorption.  By the time she’d reached the top, the crowd disembarking from the L train had melted away, and she momentarily had the station to herself.

Except for me, of course, but I was watching from the other side of the bars, and feeling more than usually invisible.  She was pretty in a nonspecific but unmistakable way, pretty but not quite beautiful.  Was she returning from work, en route to meet a boyfriend, researching locations for a photo shoot, meeting friends for a boozy girls night out?

It was difficult to tell.  Her manner and presentation hung suspended from some awkward nexus of hipster, yuppie and streetwalker; none of those words sufficed by themselves, but taken together, they just about fit.  In a few years it would be simpler: she’d be a frustrated housewife, a hard-charging career woman, or some tenuous combination of the two.  But for now, arriving at the apex of her 20s without having yet caught a glimpse of the descent toward 30, the world was her oyster.  And if the world should give the slightest indication of preferring otherwise, you could be sure somebody – and probably the world as well – would soon be hearing about it.

When you arrive on the Canarsie-bound train, as both she and I had, the stairs deliver you to a point where you can turn to your left and exit through the turnstiles or walk straight ahead and push your way through the emergency gate.  The latter is technically illegal – unless it’s an actual emergency or you’re carrying or pushing something that won’t fit through the turnstiles – but in recent years, as subway traffic has increased and stations have grown more crowded, it’s become commonplace.

The drawback to the emergency gate – apart from the fact that you could theoretically get an expensive ticket for doing so – is that opening it sets off a loud siren.  The point of the siren is unclear; presumably it’s meant to alert the authorities to the fact that someone is Breaking The Rules, but these days, there is seldom any authority figure to alert.

Once you rarely saw a station entrance without a ticket booth, usually occupied 24 hours a day by an agent who would sell tokens – more recently, Metrocards – answer questions, give directions, and sometimes yell at or even call the cops on turnstile jumpers.  Today most of the booths are gone, a victim of  “cost reductions” (how, you wonder, did they afford them when fares and salaries were a fraction of what they are today?), you buy your Metrocard from a machine, and, strangely enough, you almost never see anyone jumping turnstiles.

If you asked people why they set off the emergency gate siren instead of exiting the normal way, they’d tell you it’s too crowded, that it would take forever to get through the turnstiles.  And sometimes this is true: one exit I routinely use at 79th and Broadway confronts hundreds of exiting commuters with a single turnstile.  Naturally the emergency gate comes crashing open the minute people start getting off the train.  I’ve opened it myself on occasion.

But such is not the case at the Lorimer Street stop.  There are at least half a dozen legitimate exits, and it seldom gets overcrowded.  It’s less frequent that people use the emergency gate there, so I was mildly surprised – but not really – when instead of taking five or ten steps to the left, she strode straight ahead, showing a slight hint of disdain, perhaps at the idea having to touch the gate herself instead of having it opened for her by an admirer, and set off the siren.

She swept past me on her way out of the station and I came close to muttering some vile words.  I stopped myself, not to spare her feelings, but because I’m none too impressed with a tendency I’ve noticed developing recently where I’m ready to speak bluntly and aggressively to people who annoy me on the subway, but only when they’re noticeably smaller, weaker or less intimidating than me.  Not wanting to see myself or be seen as a bully and a coward, I usually mumble my dark thoughts to myself before spending the next couple blocks block or two going over what I should have said to the offending party.

It’s not the unnecessary racket of the siren that most offends me – and if it were, I’d reserve my greatest ire for the city, who, if they’ve decided to no longer enforce the emergency exit rule, should disconnect the stupid things – and it’s not even the self-centered and/or lazy individuals who think saving themselves a few steps and a nanojoule of physical effort justifies subjecting dozens or hundreds of people to an ear-piercing, serenity-shattering record of their passing.

No, what most makes me want to commit mayhem on these cretins is the transgressive impulse they seem to think they are honoring.  The worst offenders are not the suspects you’d expect to encounter if your sole prior experience with the New York subway consisted of multiple viewings of The Warriors, it’s 20 and 30-somethings who’ve  recently arrived in the city and are itching to do something naughty and “bad-ass” to demonstrate that they have finally arrived, that they have become not just real New Yorkers, but New Yorkers with an edge.

Irreverence and disregard for pointless rules have always been salient characteristics of the classic New Yorker, though maybe more so in films and on TV than in real life.  Many if not most old-time New Yorkers are still quietly grateful for the degree of order and safety that has returned to the city following its flirtation with urban Armageddon in the latter part of the 20th century.

They might welcome even a little more order: a cop, for instance, who strolls onto the scene while some blind-drunk post-graduate pukes his guts out on the subway and his erstwhile dorm buddies cheer and laugh uproariously at the sheer awesomeness of it all before they clatter off into the night at Bedford or First Avenue, leaving some hapless janitor to stand in for their moms and clean up after them.

They just don’t know any better, I tell myself, which is also what I was thinking about the dolled-up couple sitting across from me, self-consciously sipping tall beers from brown paper bags.  The car was crowded but not packed; it was during that brief bit of respite on the L between the coming-home-from-work rush and the going-out-to-party rush.  They were a flamboyant couple, yet still sufficiently young and recently arrived to be visibly insecure that their carefully constructed outfits weren’t achieving the desired admixture of standing out and blending in.

“You seem unclear on the concept,” I wanted to tell them but didn’t.  “Drinking from a paper bag is what bums do so they won’t get arrested.  It’s not a fashion statement.”  But I’m hopelessly out of date on that count; among the prosperous young denizens of the L train, it actually is a fashion statement.  As if to emphasize that point, instead of tucking his can out of sight when not drinking from it, the young man, sporting a gravity-defying and expensive pompadour that would be equally at home on magazine covers or in mug shots, gave it pride of place on the floor in front of him, and then tentatively glanced around to make sure all his fellow passengers had noticed.

The hell with the subway, I said; I’d done enough bristling at my fellow passengers’ foibles and affectations (no doubt they were taking note of mine as well, but I can never seem to catch them at it).  Tonight was warm, the warmest it had been since early December when winter fell upon the city with an unforgiving thud.  Springtime in February?  Maybe not quite, but close enough that I just wanted to walk for miles and miles, to take in the city as it began to poke its head out of its hibernatory rathole.

It was midnight; I stopped by the bookstore on the off chance that Aaron might be working late, and sure enough, he was.  “Do you want to walk half way across the bridge?” he asked.

“What am I supposed to do when I get to the middle?” I said.  “Jump off?”

“No, I just meant that I have to go to the city and thought you might want to walk partway there with me.”

“The hell with that,” I said.  I’m walking all the way there.  And maybe back, too.”

I remember a time when I wouldn’t have considered walking across the Williamsburg Bridge in the middle of winter or the middle of the night, but that was long ago.  A few years back, probably in March, when it was starting to feel really like spring, we’d said, “Hey, it’s probably nice enough to make our first bridge walk of the season,” only to get pummeled at mid-span by 50 mph winds and a barrage of ice, snow, and freezing rain.

But at least we’d had the bridge to ourselves.  Not tonight.  Even as the clock wound its way toward 1 am, it was crowded up there.  People walking, biking, skateboarding, coming from who knows where and headed someplace similar; the city exhaled into the night with a gentle sigh that propelled us on our languid and determined ways.

We took the right at Clinton Street, winding past and around the occasional knots of drunks and merrymakers who had strayed this far east of Ludlow, and crossed Houston into the East Village at Avenue B.  “There’s where my old building used to be,” I told Aaron, as I do every time we pass the corner of 2nd and B.  He’s heard the story a thousand times by now, but I kept telling it anyway.  Maybe in hopes that one of these times it will have a happier ending.

Then up Avenue C, and another endlessly repeated tale about how in the “old days” things east of B were bad enough, and we never, not if it could be helped, walked in the direction of C, and never, never ventured past it.  The cheerily lit restaurants, bars and boutiques seemed to make a mockery of my “back in my day” lamentations, and Aaron humored me, as he often does, by noting that “It can still be a little like that today.”

I left him in the East Village, his evening rounds completed but mine far from finished.  Headed west past Tompkins Square and, in the absence of any other company, bored myself with the usual recollections of hanging out there at 3 in the morning because…  well, because I had absolutely nowhere else in the world to go.

43 years later not much had changed.  Energized by the walk and talk with Aaron, I was in no mood to go home, and the air, which unaccountably seemed to be getting warmer as the night wore on, kept drawing me through the streets without even bothering to ask my permission.

I wandered in the general direction of the West Village, picking my way past fugitive remnants of the winter’s blizzards: forlorn little patches of snow that would probably be gone by morning.  A week before they’d been turning the city into a giant obstacle and slalom course; now they were scattered and ineffectual, like old men feeding pigeons in the park on a day when even the pigeons have better things to do.

I crossed 6th Avenue and went into a lengthy rumination about the character and nomenclature of streets.  Why, I pondered, did I harbor a vast indifference verging on antipathy, toward 6th Avenue, while simultaneously nurturing a affectionate spot in my heart for 7th Avenue, a block to the west?

The two streets are not notably different from each other; the cars go up one and down the other, but I don’t drive, so it doesn’t matter.  Neither street is home to any favorite or unfavorite places of mine, and yet while 6th impels me to get across it and move on to greener or more illuminated pastures, 7th gives me a warm glow just thinking about it.  I mean, I don’t even walk on it that often – too much traffic noise – I just like the idea of it.

From there my crazy-quilt mind went on to evaluate nearly every street and avenue between 14th and Houston for its – how shall I put it? – resonance with my soul.  Did I just have a preference for odd numbered avenues, I wondered?  At first that seemed to make sense, until I remembered an inexplicable fondness for 8th Avenue and a vague disdain for 3rd.  The streets, too: 11th Street remains close to my heart all the way from east to west whereas I favor 9th Street only on the east side and 4th only on the west.  8th is tolerable, even pleasant, when it becomes St. Mark’s Place, but thoroughly repellent once it crosses Broadway, and stays that way until it dissolves into the generally almost charming Greenwich Avenue slicing diagonally through the Village.

I could go on – and have done – but fear no one apart from cartographers and numerologists would go on reading.  Suffice it to say that the foregoing demonstrates the scattershot implosions of my brain cells on a preternaturally warm Thursday-going-into Friday in mid-February, and watch as I lurk through the now nearly empty streets, my figurative whiskers twitching with curiosity and bewilderment as I examine the mysteries of the night.  I am a rat on a run, a bit of human flotsam drifting on an imperceptible breeze, an explorer and connoisseur of solitude.

I’ve been walking these streets alone for too long, I tell myself, not abandoning my rounds even on the foulest of winter nights when, even if I knew people who enjoyed wandering aimlessly, few if any would accept my invitation.  What am I hoping to see or find?  I don’t know; I’ve very nearly given up asking.  I’m grateful for the time spent walking with Aaron yet aware that his absence would have, apart from minor geographical details, scarcely altered my path.

What is it now?  2, 3, 4 in the morning?  I don’t bother finding out, but I know it’s time to go home.  I go back and forth over the wisdom and efficacy of retracing my steps across the Williamsburg Bridge or opting for the relative comfort of the L train, whose terminus looms near the point where I have wound up.

I have the energy and the time to make it back to Brooklyn on foot, but opt for the subway because it will give time to read a few more pages of the book that’s been banging around in my backpack all evening, and because I’m determined to get my money’s worth out of the new, vastly more expensive – well, $15 seems like a lot – monthly Metrocard.

One of the maddening nightmares of descending the steps to the 8th Avenue station is the knowledge that at any moment the train could pull out of the station without you.  During the daytime, not a big deal, but at this hour, it could mean a wait of 20 to 30 minutes, or longer.  One time, they shut down the entire line at 3:15 am, just after I missed the last train; this was years ago, before I had the knowledge or wherewithal to cross the bridge on my own.

Sure enough, as I’m halfway down the stairs, I hear the warning bell, meaning that if I’m lucky I have between 30 seconds and a minute before the doors slam shut in my face and I watch the safely seated passengers look smugly out at me stranded on the desolate platform.

But no, I make it to the bottom of the stairs and the doors are still open.  I’m brimming with confidence now, so much so that I make the mistake of assuming I have time to choose either the car to my left or the one to my right.  A brief stutter step as I go first one way and then the other, and bang, the doors have closed and I am locked out.

I stand there silently looking up to the heavens as a blend of prayer and despair washes over my soul;  thankfully the motorman takes mercy on me, and reopens the doors for an instant.  Taking no chances, and even though it’s not the car I prefer and which will deposit me in front of the exit gates at the other end, I gratefully dart inside and take the first seat I see.

I’m safely on my way home, but oh, woe: this is the car that’s always occupied by Annoying Guitar Man.  He knows only three songs (granted, that’s up from one a year or two ago), and insists on singing them repeatedly, but with a different technique than that employed by most buskers, who usually hop on at one stop, play a quick song, then pass the hat and get off before they wear out their welcome and/or the cops arrive.

Not Annoying Guitar Man.  He wanders up and down the car doing some atonal strumming until he spots some marks, typically tourists or people who look new in town, and makes a production of befriending them before asking if they’d “like to hear a song?”

Who’s going to tell him, “Actually, no, I don’t want to hear a song, and in fact, why don’t you go ply your trade in another car?”  Well, I will if he comes near me again, but he’s smarter than that, and almost always gets the go-ahead to deliver a blandly inoffensive (well, except to me) rendition of one of his three songs (all of which I’ve heard multiple times on one late-night trip or another).

Then, song done, and an aura of good feeling pervading his corner of the car, to the point where people might be forgiven for thinking, “Wow, this isn’t an anonymous steel subway car filled with strangers deep beneath the frozen heart of the cold, hard city, it’s a little rolling oasis of light, warmth, camaraderie and musical merriment!”  Which is of course when he hits them up for money, and practically guilt-trips them off the train if they don’t deliver.

Ah, who am I to complain?  I’m sure he brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, who will consider the couple of bucks well spent in exchange for a story to tell the folks back in flyover land or the outer boroughs.  Me, I’m just jaded, or else – my preferred explanation – I’d prefer to read my book in peace.

But just like that the song and the ride are over.  Only a handful of us get off at Graham Avenue, and the stillness of the station at this hour, apart from the rumbling and whining and clanking and banging of the great iron monster as it prepares to depart for Rockaway Parkway and Carnarsie, is breathtaking.

Until, of course, some portly, slightly inebriated hipster/yuppie/frat-boy-in-exile barrels past the uncrowded turnstiles and makes an ostentatious point of opening the emergency gate, looking back to make sure that everyone knows it is in fact he who has made this defiant and thoroughly superfluous statement against the system.  He hauls himself up the stairs, and the siren echoes through the deserted station long after the last of the stragglers has gone.

4 thoughts on “Subway Gates

  • February 24, 2011 at 6:00 am

    How lucky you are to live in a city with public transport. Don’t be such a grouch. People are self-entitled assholes everywhere, not just in the city. There are annoying people everywhere. I would love it if my city would wake up a realize that we need a mass transit system beyond the laughable and unusable bus route system we currently have.
    I’m being hypocritical, because I am a world-class complainer, but I thought you might like a little perspective on how putting up with the public on public transportation ain’t so bad.

  • February 24, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Saw the length of the post. Asked myself if I wanted to commit to reading something this long. About subways. So fucking glad that I did because it was amazing. Good writing can transcend even NY subways…

  • February 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    @Mel – ditto. Larry, as I read that it felt like I was walking through the city and riding the train with you. Thanks for the post.


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