Tag Archive | commuters

The mystery commuter on the QM20 bus

For about a year and a half, I have commuted to and from my job in Manhattan using an express bus, a more expensive but comfortable coach bus run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Most of the bus drivers who drive these buses hustle to get us through traffic and make good time getting into Manhattan from the Eastern reaches of Queens. A meek or extremely defensive driver is going to fail at driving and express bus, and fail hard.

And that’s been happening recently in the early morning on the QM20 line. One driver I have not seen but only heard about, an older gentlemen, is a slow-paced driver that is content to hang in the slow lane of early rush-hour traffic while his passengers fret about reaching work on time. I have spoken with people who have stopped riding the 6:45 bus because they cannot get to work on time if they ride it. In fact, the 7 a.m. bus routinely reaches Manhattan sooner.

Because the driver of the 6:45 a.m. bus is such a pathetic slowpoke, passengers that used to take that bus now flood to the 6:30 bus. There are now at least three times as many passengers waiting at the bus stop for the bus I take, which means the other stops are all more crowded as well. I used to be able to find a seat all to myself with regularity, now it’s nearly impossible.

Yet still people insist on putting their bags on seats, even knowing that they’ll have to move them at some point. It’s a gamble on their part, they’ll possibly get the seats to themselves if enough passengers decide not to ask them to move. I usually make it a point to make these rude people move their bags, though if they are an exceedingly large person then I will often pass them by because I’m a large person also and then we’re both crammed into our seats seething and miserable. There is one rude fat bastard on my bus line who does this without fail and sits in corpulent luxury every day.

Sometimes I’ll choose people who are polite and thin because I’ll have more room. There’s a man who uses his time on the bus to sketch drawings and I feel camaraderie sitting next to someone interested in the arts, even if I never talk to him.

This past Monday however, there was a mystery man and I felt I had to sit next to him. By mystery man I mean someone who had a black wool hat pulled down all the way over his face. This was not a ski mask (aka balaclava), but just a hat that normally sits on top of the head and over the ears. He had it pulled down all the way over his face, so that his head was just one monolithic orb of woolen darkness.

I was appreciative of the aesthetic and felt a kinship to it. I often wear a ski mask when I perform in bands, and have enough ski masks at home to clothe a paramilitary battalion for a decade. So I sat next to this man. He was a bit spread out but I managed to get comfortable enough and read the news on my work phone. I didn’t want to see the man’s face, wanting his mystery to be kept for all eternity or at least until the weather was warmer and one would have to be psychotic to wear a winter cap. But no, soon after we rolled into Manhattan the man woke up and pulled up his hat revealing the countenance of a middle-aged commuter.

I don’t know where the man departed the bus. I got off at my usual stop at Herald’s Square and made my way downtown, hoping to engage with more of life’s mysteries as the day wore on.

The Horror That Is The 7 Train

Speaking in 1999, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker said the following about New York City:

“Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing…”

Saturday Night Live’s Colin Quinn, doing the weekly news spot, said this about Rocker: “He might be a bigot, but he’s definitely been on the 7 train.”

Despite all the romantic notions you may have in your head about New York, there are some traditional New York experiences that are never pleasant no matter how much you romanticize them. Being mugged is never fun; neither is stepping in dog shit or having to smell a homeless person.

Another old New York tradition that is no fun is the 7 train. The 7 train is a human cattle car of endless misery and inconvenience. It perfectly combines all the incompetence of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority with the rancid overpopulation of our city that makes New York the cultural calling card of the dying American empire.

I live in Flushing, Queens and work in lower Manhattan. I have an hour-and-15-minute commute each way when things go well, but things rarely go well. I take a bus to downtown Main Street Flushing, which has a crowd density similar to that of Times Square, and board a 7 train that takes me to Grand Central, where I take either the 4 or 5 train (also no joy) to the Bowling Green station near where I work.

Today I managed to get down the overcrowded stairs to the train platform only to miss the closing doors of a not-very-crowded 7 train by seconds. The next express train arrived soon but sat on the platform for 10 minutes and didn’t leave the station until it was wall-to-wall people.

Sometimes the 7 train likes to quit on you and dump all of its passengers out a random stop. “This train is out of service! No passengers!” the conductor will announce. Sometimes the express 7 train decides to go local, sometimes without telling its passengers until they’re at a stop they didn’t plan on making. On the weekends, the 7 train doesn’t run any express trains at all and often will have large service gaps that will leave its passengers scrambling to shuttle busses or trying to find alternate trains to take.

In September, when the U.S. Open is happening at the U.S. Tennis Center, the 7 train is flooded with tennis fans who are clueless as to where they are going and completely unschooled in subway etiquette. Sometimes a perfect storm of passenger clusterfuck will happen and you’ll have Mets fans and U.S. Open fans cramming the same trains heading to the Willets Point station.

The 7 train will often stop service entirely or delay service torturously or decided it doesn’t want to run express trains at the height of rush hour. Often the reason the MTA gives passengers for this is “signal problems.” One winter I asked an MTA worker on the platform why express service was abruptly canceled and he answered, “It’s cold outside, sir.”

I don’t bother trying to get a seat on the 7 train. Those are the dominion of sharp-elbowed Asian women who push their way onto the trains before the unfortunate souls who have to commute to Flushing can exit. I actually prefer to stand. I’ll actually have more room standing and the ride isn’t that long. Besides, I sit on my ass for eight hours at work. I usually try to position myself directly between two car doors in the center of the car, where the crush of passengers will be slightly less.

It is often standing-room only before the trains leave its first stop, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to cram themselves on to the train at later stops.

The 7 train is one of the oldest lines in the city, so its rails are close together and the cars that fit on the tracks are narrow and without as much room as other trains. It is also the only subway serving some of the most densely populated parts of the city and it terminates (for now) in Times Square.

And the 7 train is about to get worse. The geniuses who run our transit system decided it would be a good idea to cram 15 pounds of ham into this 5-pound bag instead of 10, so the 7 line is being expanded all the way to 34th Street and 11th Avenue. This means more crowding on a subway line that can barely handle what its current ridership. Joy.

There are some upsides to the 7 train. Most of it is above ground, so you can see some beautiful views of Queens and Manhattan that you won’t see from any other train line. Also, while it is regularly packed to the gills, most of the riders are working New Yorkers who are not there to cause problems; you don’t have the thug element of the A train or the hipster abominations of the L line. Because the trains are so crowded all the time, you have fewer homeless and crazies. I have never seen a “Showtime!” subway dance troupe try to ply their obnoxious trade on the 7 train.

For all its faults, the 7 line has stood the test of time, and if overcrowding doesn’t bring it crumbling to the ground this year, someone will be bitching and moaning about it 100 years from now.

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