The Almost-Empty Subway Car

The last time we flew out of JFK, we hailed a cab because it was 11F and neither of us had gloves on. In the event of me relenting and saying yes to getting a cab, it is usually my husband, patient, focused, and earnest who can step out of the crosswalk, and summon a cab when he doesn’t even want one.  This time, I was the one who saw it, coming from an unexpected direction. It’s a minor triumph when you need one. I threw up an arm and squealed, my hair flying and my bag falling off its wheels.
The sense of victory was short-lived. I was so carsick on the way there that I had to chant to myself and employ advanced breathing techniques: techniques so advanced I don’t even know what they were. I repeated, “I am nauseous. This is temporary. I am cold. This is temporary. I can smell exhaust. This is temporary. That shrill screech hurts my ears. This is temporary,” and so on, listing all of the discomforts, all the way there.
All yellow cab drivers are some kind of terrible, and many are worse than any you’ve ridden with before, lurching forward and slamming on the brakes as if that is the point of driving. The rooftop sign on the cab groaned and rattled like it was breaking and was about to fly off, and if it had I would have been disappointed because nothing would have gotten me to open my eyes. Nothing short of arriving and being dumped in the through lane of the airport terminal, shivering and squinting in the pale light.
This is the very next time, and we take the E all the way to JFK. We have the same suitcases, but this time we have gloves, so we wheel our bags to the subway.  The early morning wait on the platform always feels too long, and the first train that shows up is inevitably the A when you want the E. There are guys standing on the bumpy yellow safety strip at the platform edge, peering down the tunnel in anticipation of the right train. My husband waits as tidily as he packed, with his bags neatly stacked, his arms folded. He seems calm, but he checks his watch again and, tapping the watch with his other hand, gave me a significant look. I fuss with the telescoping handle of my aging bag, which never unlocks as promptly as I think it should and sometimes collapses on me, unexpectedly.
The E finally shows up and the car that opens its doors in front of us is empty except for one person, a woman with a lot of blankets, sleeping on the end bench, her things spilling out into a nest of greasy, ominous fabric. My husband takes a single step towards the empty car and I call out, “Uh huh!” and lunge for the next car, where we are the last on and miss the chance to sit.
If you do not know why you must never pick the almost-empty subway car, I will tell you that it is often because of a smell.
Before the next stop I see a spot mid-car, and we prepare to claim it. There would be a couple of seats more if there weren’t so many sleepers and manspreaders on this train, but they are stationed, one at each pole, like decorative statues in the commuter’s temple. Or gargoyles, with knapsacks. The rhythmic thu-thunk of the train wheels keeps the time of the imperceptible dance of the standing commuter. We move to the open seats as the train stops and the song is interrupted.
There’s an old, bearded guy with a shiny, bald head. He has two paper bags with him, on the seat. I make a gesture about sitting there, and he clutches the bags weakly, making a non-attempt to lift or move them to make room. I sit anyway, and he lets out the creepiest creepy chuckle. It’s for my benefit. My husband sits on my other side, and he and I communicate with blinks and leans. The shiny, bald bearded guy is having a grand time explaining in his own language that he’ll be fixing something, and I’m doing my level best to look anywhere but at him.
By the next stop there is a spot closer to where we stood when we got on. Our departure means the shiny, bald, bearded, chuckling guy now has room to eat, so he opens his foil dish of rice and cracks the top of a can of Budweiser. No one looks at him now. In the hierarchy of subway bad behavior, eating and drinking, though below smelling terrible, are way, way worse than manspreading or snoozing. There are many New Yorkers who will confront a stranger over this, interrupting the silent prayer of the commuter’s temple to speak their mind about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
I won’t look at the shiny, bald, bearded, eating and drinking guy because I don’t want him chuckling at me again.

To get to JFK on the E, you ride almost to the end, where you pick up the AirTrain. Just before we get off, we see the bearded guy earnestly brushing the sticky grains of rice off the seat and onto the floor. There they will be stepped on and ground into a gray mass that will be shortly unrecognizable, and yet still isn’t as bad as what you might encounter on an almost-empty car. 

Out to Lunch

The point when I realized the A train wasn’t coming was after the third, loud and completely unintelligible announcement at the Chambers station. I turned to a guy next to me, and he said, “We gotta take the E,” and he started walking to the other end of the platform. I followed, but saw that I also had the option of the 2 or the 3, so I followed the signs through the labyrinth and got on an uptown 2.
“Next Stop, Chambers Street,” was what the announcement said, and then, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”
I had walked from the Chambers Street station of the A, C and E to the Park Place 2 and 3, and now I would be completing the triangle of no progress, more or less. I sat through the Chambers Street stop, and as the doors closed again, it said, “Next stop, 14th Street.”
I had wanted West 4th, which is a local stop on the red line, so I was going to overshoot my stop and be even later for my lunch date.
I don’t have many lunch dates in New York City, because I have about as many people to see for lunch as I have fingers on my left hand. Most New Yorkers have real jobs, too, so they don’t really have time for lunch. Not that I ever aspired to be someone who goes out to lunch all the time. Wasn’t that a thing, “Ladies Who Lunch?” Isn’t that something I never wanted to be?
Express trains are good for crying, because you aren’t interrupted by lots of people getting on and off, especially if you’ve had a rough morning, and a migraine pill, and some meanness you tried and failed to correct on Twitter.
I got out at 14th Street and headed to a southern exit onto West 13th Street. I made my way down two short blocks to West 11th and then made a bad turn and went two long blocks the wrong way. Asking Google maps where the restaurant was, I discovered I was now a half a mile from my destination, on foot. I called my friend, and she was very understanding, even about hating New York. “I don’t just want to live someplace else,” I said to her. “I want to burn the whole place down.”
She replied, “That’ll take some time.”


Lunch was brief and delicious and fun. I am grateful for my five fingers’ worth of New York City friends, even if I’ve borrowed them from other people or from other lifetimes. She directed me, squaring my shoulders even, and pointed me back to the 1. Even I can get the 1 right. It’s a local train.
On the platform I was asked by a confused and distraught traveller how to get on the 2 or the 3 going uptown. I explained that he could go out and up and cross the street and go down and swipe again or get on this train and switch at another station. As I did this, my train arrived, and as I stepped towards it the doors closed for it to leave.
Make no mistake: New Yorkers in general are helpful and kind and will give directions and shortcuts. But in an urban area with 17.8 million people, even if only 1% of them are complete assholes, that makes 178,000 complete assholes, and some of them might drive subway trains.
On impulse, I tossed my jacket between the closing doors of the subway train, the way you might interrupt the closing doors on an elevator. This is a stupid, dangerous thing to do because doors in New York City subway trains don’t work the way they do on elevators. They close on your coat or your bag or your hair or your purse or your arm, and then the train leaves. The driver had seen me helping that other passenger and saw me do the jacket toss, too. The door opened and I got on.
The other people already on the car might have had faces filled with concern or scorn or derision or relief, but I don’t know because I didn’t look at them. I focused on my phone and played Bejeweled, because no one needs scolding by strangers, and especially not today.
When I got off the subway, I was looking forward to a quiet afternoon writing in the apartment. From the 1 to our apartment it’s only a few blocks, and those blocks aren’t the most unpleasant in TriBeCa. As I walked, I fired off a couple of tweets about the subway train driver’s incivility and how I almost sacrificed my jacket to the 1 train, and I found myself distracted by a man standing on the curb, half-facing me, pantomiming pecking at an imaginary phone in his hand and making terrible creepy cheeping noises.  He said something derisive in his heavily French-accented English.
If my phone came with a flame-thrower app, I might be in jail right now.

Barcelona #4: Montjuïc

There is of course what a person could do and then there is what a person should do and then there is the limp little fact of what a person does do. Today’s limp little fact is that in the presence of the Traveling Companion doing what he did yesterday (sleep until late afternoon), I did the same (sit around the hotel room) without the presence of mind to order coffee, go get coffee, or do anything else at all. I know I will be sorry on my way home that I spent a vacation in as nice a place as this doing very little at all, but there it is, the limp little fact that most vacations are for loafing.
Outside, it is perfectly sunny and 57F. The locals are wearing boots and buttoned overcoats with mufflers wrapped carefully around their throats. For about 3€ you can have a café con leche and a ham and cheese croissant, and it will be the best you’ve ever had. You can then sit at your tiny table and read and pick at crumbs on your plate for as long as you would ever want.  Outside, everyone looks like they’re freezing, but they’re over-reacting.
Once I harassed my Traveling Companion enough to get him out of bed, we took the subway to Montjuïc, an urban mountain park in western Barcelona. The subway beat us last time, but this time we mastered it. The ticket kiosks only accept my cash and not my credit card, and consumed all of my smaller bills and coins, but we got our tickets and got to where we wanted to go. The menuing is pretty one-dimensional in these kiosks, offering baffling pictures of the various tickets available, and most of it is so poorly translated into English as to remain unknowable. From the Paral’lel Stop (which really does have that peculiar apostrophe), you can transfer to the funicular railroad which lifts its passengers to a point about half-way up the mountain. From here, you transfer to a cable car, which requires more tickets but round-trip is an option for once.
Half-way up, we visited the Fundació Joan C, a museum displaying the breadth and depth of Miró’s work, from sketches, collages, pen and ink, and sculptures to the bulk of his efforts: paintings. I always loved Miró; his work was so free and slightly surreal and experimental and just cool. My Traveling Companion found his work to be one-dimensional and really not very interesting.  Me:  “Oh, I love this!” Him: “Meh.” At least his admission to that museum was free.
Next, we took the cable-car up to the top of Montjuïc, to the castle on the top. I did not know while we were visiting that there is a long history of executions held there, from anarchists and Catalan nationalists to Republicans and Fascists. The spot offers commanding views of most of Barcelona, including the port and the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia. Best of all, there were magpies in the trees.
Yesterday in my boredom I read a book about the basilica we had visited the day before. Today I am back to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I haven’t gotten very far.  My father used to claim that he and his buddies wanted to go to Hungary in 1956 to fight the Soviets, not unlike what Orwell and Hemingway did in Spain. I am almost certain my father never seriously wanted to go.

Barcelona #1

My traveling companion and I arrived in Barcelona yesterday. We took the train from the airport (aeroporto), the up-side of which is that it is the most inexpensive option. The down-side is having the shacks and graffiti-covered hulls of buildings you see from the train as your introduction to the countryside of Spain.  And of course, this being Spain the lovely colorful subway map that comes in all the travel books and is posted on walls seems to have essentially no relation to the lines as the trains actually travel them.  We simply scratched our heads, argued a bit, and got on the train everyone else got on. What a relief to see that our stop was only number four (of course, when I say “our stop” what I mean was the connection we were going to attempt, which was in Spanish on the train and is in Catalan in all of the guidebooks).
At some point on the train a man with an accordion appeared in our car. When this happens in New York, people make eye-contact with you and roll their eyes theatrically. Here in Spain, local folks went into extreme no-eye-contact-mode, and the tourists smiled at their traveling companions with a half-wink, “Say, this never happens in Tokyo!” In New York, we have yet to have a man with an accordion get on our subway car, though we have had the rapper and fellows with guitars. I love music on the train, even when the musicians are not talented. It’s obviously people like me who keep these folks in business.  I usually let my Traveling Companion keep the Euro change in his pockets, but I had to intercept the 2 Euro coin from him; he is a true believer in tipping street musicians of all kinds.
Triumphantly we got off our train into a packed underground station with flights of stairs and tons of people, some wearing party masks, and one of them carrying an unhappy, meowing cat in a crate. We made our way to the huge paper posters of train schedules to discover that they were written in some sort of cuneiform script. Here, our triumph ended, and we ascended to the street.

At this point, you see, we were utterly unable to see how you switched to the subway train line, so we walked. Emerging on Passeig de G
ràcia (which also has a Spanish name, Paseo de Gracia), we immediately encountered an enormous Sunday political rally, complete with flags, party stickers, neck-kerchiefs, loudspeakers, a lingering helicopter hovering above, soldiers, police, and thousands of strolling, well-dressed people. My Traveling Companion wanted to know what they wanted and why they were assembled. I had no clue. Many of them waved a red banner with “CCOP,” which is probably Catalonian Communists. I have a history of encountering communist party rallies, and happened upon one the last time I came to Europe, near the open air market by our hotel in Venice.  This time, my Traveling Companion would never have tolerated me taking a picture, so I didn’t.
The hotel was not too hard to find. As in Italy, the street signs are attached to buildings at the corners of intersections so it took us a few blocks to verify that we were headed in the correct direction. I brought along an orphaned AT&T iPhone in case of emergency (Verizon phones are based on shorter string technology and do not stretch across the Atlantic Ocean), and turned on this phone to use the compass.  I was right about north (a skill I cannot always count on, but did inherit from my father). The iPhone is being covered by “Orange” wireless. Tempting to make some calls, send a bunch of texts, etc., but once I saw a $3000 mobile phone bill. 

Besides, I felt like a hero when I found the hotel (for about five minutes). We had to wait for our room until 3:30 pm, about 4 hours. We went and got delicious croissants and cafe au lait around the corner (being too simple-minded to be able to order anything more substantive). The wait for the room was actually excruciating! Stupid details of the timing of check-in and check-out are always so dicey. My Traveling Companion did not sleep on the plane but fell asleep waiting in the lobby and still sleeps now.

Our room is as strange and wonderful as I expected. Modern in the extreme, with three levels, two rooms and two baths. They have the bizarro key-in-the-light-switch deal here, which makes sense but also adds to the initial confusion of figuring out a room. The other hotel guests include a squalling baby and several commandeering adult men, who seem like they are in our room when they talk in the hall; this is never more startling than when you are sleeping off a headache and an overnight flight in coach. Housekeeping persistently knocked around 6 pm and I had to shout genuine nonsense at them to make them go away.

I logged on with the “free wireless,” which is 60 minutes worth of wireless, free every 24 hours.

We will rise soon and go eat tapas around 9:30 pm, enjoying sitting outside under a heater, listening to our fellow diners chatting in French on one side and Korean on the other.  We will enjoy the communal aspect of the Euro-zone, where our waiter will bestow the most marginal service imaginable, and expects no tip, and we will bask and eat in a plume of second-hand cigarette smoke. There will be fried white anchovies and a decent glass of red wine even though I will ask for white, and it will be a privilege.

Noob York

Today was Friday. A maintenance team of fellows speaking all manner of languages (save English) was expected at one to take another crack at the stopped toilet.  The dogs needed to be out of the way. We needed to be out of the way.
We walked down to West 25th to drop the dogs at doggy day care, and stopped nearby at a forgettable corner “coffee” shop for a late breakfast. It was not Starbucks, which is only for true, on-the-road emergencies. I was served a delicious bagel and cream cheese and fresh squeezed juice, which was nearly ruined by the presence of dreadful see-through tan beverage known in this city as “coffee.” The “coffee” in New York is so consistently bad I have nearly given up the stuff, having gone now from a connoisseur to a sad, furtive junkie.  
After a hurried meal where I growled unnecessarily at my companion, I let him choose the destination: a museum from the list of larger museums we had not visited yet. I am not a fan of the biggest museums, finding their bigness too big to take in, and their sprawling labyrinth floor plans unnavigable. No museum can display everything related to a subject, yet the larger and more grandiose the institution, the greater pretensions of completeness. I might find the gray squirrels entombed in their taxidermed glory, lifeless, dusty but where are the red or the black? The sugar gliders? Chipmunks? Maybe they are there, too. Maybe we just missed them. A frantic search ensues. But the Italian tourists are taking photos of themselves posing in front of the jaguars, and we are in their way. We always move along.
My son picked the American Museum of Natural History, in theory a nice change from the art and antiquities we have already seen at the Morgan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Frick. I knew we could take the subway there: the B (or was it the D?).
We got on the subway at 23rd and 6th, headed uptown. This was a Bronx-bound train, the M, so we would have to change to the B (or was it the D?) in a couple of stops. We hopped off, and on again, making the switch to the D without missing a beat. Just as the doors were closing a young guy with chin-length black wavy hair and a black guitar got on our car and began to sing and play.
He started with the Flaming Lips “Do You Realize?” which he played serviceably despite his insertion of his own harmonica bridge, and moved into “Rocky Raccoon” for which he got a dollar from us and one from another rider. Then he moved down the car with “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” It was at this point that we realized the train had gone express, and we were roaring through subway stops without doing the thing that trains are supposed to do at subway stops: stopping.  72nd, 81st, 86th, 96th, and 100th had already flown by.  Before it was over, we would be at 145th, where we would go up and down another flight of stairs to the downtown B and travel another five stops to 81st as intended. 

Our favorite thing at the museum was the skeletons. My son complained that the place smelled of babies. We left after not that long, and by the time we were three blocks from home, I felt the unmistakeable feeling that I was coming down with the strong and sudden virus that knocked my husband out last night in the middle of dinner. Today’s lesson: it should have been the B.