Train, in Vain

Please use all available doors. Stand aside of passengers entering and exiting the train. Please stand clear of the closing doors.

How many times do I hear this? How many hours of my life do I spend on the F train?

How many times do people refuse to obey these simple rules?

My favorite times are when the conductors call people out, when they scold them and talk to them like they’re four years old. Usually they deserve it.

One morning last week, while we were stopped at West 4th, headed south, a man stepped between the closing door. He was asking people outside the train a question. He turned back inside and asked someone else a question. I presume the same one, though I couldn’t hear him. I was just coming to attention, out of that staring-into-nothing, looking-for-meaning-in-subway-ads commuter’s haze, just becomming aware of the people around me.

No one was responding to him. It was like he was invisible. Or crazy. Or some other ignorable species. But he was real, right there, holding up the train, stopping us from getting to work.

“Please stand clear of the closing doors!” the conductor said emphatically over the intercom.

The man continued to stand there. People began to show their exasperation, including me. I heard several sighs.

Answer him, you idiots, I thought. Let’s get going.

“The reason the train is not moving,” explained the conductor with false calm, “is that there is a passenger holding the doors open. Please stand clear of the closing doors!”

He asked his question again to someone sitting nearby who just sort of dismissively shrugged and shook his head. The man turned to me. He was dressed like anyone else. He didn’t look homeless or dirty or crazy. He seemed foreign, maybe, but his English was clear.

“Does this train go to Canal Street?” he said.

Is this all he wanted? No one could answer him this simple question? Everyone this far south on the F train at this time of day, with only four stops left before Brooklyn, should know that we are not going to hit Canal Street.

“No,” I said. “No it doesn’t.”

He relaxed his shoulders a little bit, went a little less stiff, widened his eyes. “Thank you!” he said.

I got the impression he was emphasizing this. Thanking me, to set me apart from all the others. I was at once pleased with myself and annoyed with everyone else who had ignored him. Would they rather simply be annoyed with him for holding the doors than to give him a hand and help ourselves in the process. His tone made me feel like I had just shown him the greatest kindness. It was kind of embarrassing. I had done nothing — apart from take 12 seconds to notice the people around me. Now, if I’d told him to transfer there for the A, C or E train, that would have been something

He stepped aside, the doors closed, separating him further from us, and the train lurched into motion.


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the untallied hours

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