April 15, 2009

I am beginning to think the subway runs on disappointment. When we emit the kind of brain waves we emit when we think the phrase, "aw fuck, really?," little receptors behind the eyes of happy students in Learn English Now advertisements collect that radiation, and it is sent back to switching stations in deepest Queens and pumped back into the system as electricity. And regular garden-variety disappointment doesn't work, either: it has to be the type that comes from being really perfectly dicked over just when you thought everything was going to be fine.

Two things that happened to me today that put so much disappointment-brain-wave electricity into the system that I should probably get a week of free rides:

- I dashed down to my morning (read: afternoon) train and just made it, with that satisfying interval of time between hopping on and the doors closing for good and the train pulling away that says "If I would've not hauled ass just then, past less motivated and at this very moment probably less sweaty commuters, I would still be standing on the platform right now." Feeling like a real transit cowboy, I took a seat a few feet into the mostly empty train car. One second after sitting down, I realized I had somehow picked the one empty seat that was covered in spilled coffee. There were so many other empty seats.

I started my day with a wet butt, and your day can really only be so good when you kick it off with a wet butt.

- Tonight, I was taking the train home in that confusing lawless time a little after midnight where a lot of express trains are running local but a lot of local trains that aren't supposed to be running at all after midnight are still finishing their routes, so the E train I was on I was relatively sure would take me all the way home, but then, where I'd normally switch to the local, a local R train was pulling in across the platform at exactly the same rate as our train. I had fun for a second looking at the other train going exactly as fast as ours, frame of reference making it look like we weren't moving and they weren't moving but everything else was (There's a reason trains are always used in metaphors about frame of reference, they illustrate the whole thing in a really nice way) and then I stopped having fun and thought, "Aw, fuck, if the R is still running, does that mean the E is still running express?"

Just to be safe I decided to hop the R train, as it would take me home no matter what. The subway always forces us to make these kinds of time-greedy split-second decisions, and because they have to keep the disappointment-circuits humming, they juke it so we almost always chose wrong. I got off the E just in time to hear the automated voice say, "This is an E local train." So it would've gotten me where I needed to go. Whatever, I thought, I don't want the people on the E to see me bolt off like I don't need them and then come rabbiting back all tourist-like. I got on the R just in time to hear the conductor come on the loudspeaker and say, "The E train across the platform will be leaving first." I knew full well that the R would take me home. I didn't need to be anywhere on time, I was just going fucking home for the night. I was attempting to save two to four minutes that did not need saving. But we are so often robbed of time by the capricious transit Gods that we will do dumb shit to save a few seconds even when we don't even need to.

Me and a couple other recent E-train transplants jogged off the R train and across the platform towards the E, and the E's doors shut just before we got there. It pulled away. We all ran back on the R before it, too, could reject us. The good old R, with its actual conductor on the loudspeaker instead of an automated voice and its Tetris blocks of yellow-and-orange seats, the kind that so conveniently kept spilled coffee cupped in one place until I could come along this morning and plant my jeans in it, the good old R let us back on even though we'd been so eager to abandon it when the shiny E was the hot prospect. We held in the station for a minute and then we started off towards home.

This evening's disappointment was, granted, not as long-term annoying as this morning's, but they both typify the sort of low-stakes, high-frustration disappointment the New York City transit system is powered by, where you think, because you're human and you want to control your own destiny, that you've somehow gamed the system and you, savvy traveler, will get where you are so desperately needed while others are stuck on the platform, when in fact there is only enough logic there to let you think there's a logic to it and make you feel a little complicit when the uncaring trains fuck you once again.

And you will go "Aw, fuck, really?" and the eyes of the Learn English Now student nearby will twinkle with a little blue spark and the energy of your disappointment will already be halfway to the switching station in deepest Queens, where it will help keep the system running pretty well for something more than a hundred years old that transports millions every day, but not TOO well, or we'd all be happy and the thing would shut down entirely.

Posted by DC at April 15, 2009 12:40 AM

Not in italics, but good enough to be. Well done.

Posted by: DJF

I agree with DJF. It was almost unreal.

Posted by: Derek


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