11
Apr
09

Rat Race to Nowhere

It is morning rush hour, and commuters are coursing through the hallways and platforms like blood-borne pathogens heading for the heart.

A train pulls into the station, its wheels squealing loudly, distinctly. It’s one of the old E trains. A mass of people begins to push through the open doorway before passengers have time to exit. Swimming upstream, the passengers are able to eventually push their way through to freedom.

A guy a couple of people in front of me enters the crowded train and stops in the doorway. He wants to be close to the exit to give himself the greater advantage when he reaches his stop, whenever that may be. There’s nearly room for two abreast to pass through the doorway, and for all he cares, people can just slide past him. It’s not technically a problem, right? Until a second person decides stop in the doorway for the same reason.

I have room to avoid him, but I bump my arm against him and graze him purposefully with my bag. It helps calm me to imagine him dropping and scratching his iPod or getting a smudge on his clothes from leaning against the door.

By and by, we approach my stop. Others, too, are exiting here. I can tell when people ostentatiously begin to stir around me. Several move toward the door. Someone gently nudges me from the side. Maybe it’s an accident; maybe she wants me to move. I take a step closer to the door. I’m getting out here, too. Hold your damn horses. We’re all in a hurry, lady, but don’t you worry. We’ll all get off this train, I promise you.

The doors slide open, and I feel the woman trying to get around me to my left. She is smaller than me, and I can see her black hair as her head comes out around my upper arm. I take a half step to the left, hold my left arm out a little further from my body, and she pushes against me harder. I push harder back, but not enough to stop her. It’s not worth making a fuss. I just want to clarify my existence, hoping I’ll embarrass her for the unnecessary contact. She makes it through the doors before me.

I glare at her as she awkwardly dashes toward the stairs in her uncomfortable shoes, hoping she’ll turn around to see the rude creep who was tying to keep her from getting off the train. Really I’m laughing to myself. We’ll see how far she gets. I continue at a calm pace behind her and dozens of others.

She never does look back, but it delights me to see her swallowed up in a crowd of frantic commuters whose hurry is equal to or greater than hers. In the end, her reward is to be no more than two people ahead of me on the stairs.

On the landing we all veer right to take the escalator to the next level down. There’s a short fence jutting out from the escalator entrance meant to corral us and prevent people from jumping in line in front of others. The desire is for order and forced politeness, and the majority of us is willing to comply. We round the far end of the corral, but two guys slip in through the gap between the far end of the fence and the handrail conveyor belt. They end up right in front of me, craining their necks to find a way past the people in front of them.

The idea is to stand to the right so people can pass on the left. But there are so many people at this time of day, no one is standing to the side. We are all walking down the escalator, and everyone’s progress is slow. The guys try to press past the others, but to no avail.

At the landing, they take off like broncos and meet further resistance when they reach the final set of stairs down to the platform. Again, I end up right behind them.

When my connecting train approaches, I see there are a couple of open seats in the car nearest me. I don’t imagine I’ll be lucky enough to get one of them, but I figure we’ll see what happens. It’s a little like roulette, whether the train stops with a door right in front of you or six feet to your left or right.

This time, I’m one of the first to board. I have a shot at a seat. Someone in front of me is milling about confusedly, and I can’t get by. A woman approaches the seat, and just as she turns to sit, a younger woman wearing all white literally runs up behind her and steals the seat in one swift motion. If the older woman hadn’t noticed, she might have sat on her.

The woman in white glances up for a second. The other woman turns on her adversary and raises her voice for us all to hear. “Oh, I see. You need that seat? Go ahead. There you go, honey. It’s all yours!” Her friend tugs at her arm to discourage her from saying more.

The seat stealer looks at her quietly, blankly and then stares into the space between herself and the floor.

I am filled with something like hatred for her. I want someone else to speak up and say something. I keep my eyes on her for several stops. I wonder if she’s avoiding eye contact with everyone on the train.

After a few stops, the irate woman now long gone, a space opens up next to the woman in white, just a little too small for a person to fit into. But before long another woman turns to present her back side to the row of seated passengers and, without so much as an “excuse me,” wriggles herself into the tight space. She can’t even sit back all the way. This new woman is an obnoxious cow, but I briefly I feel some schadenfreude over the woman in white’s obvious discomfort.

Leaning forward with her oversize purse on her lap, she fumbles with a magazine or newspaper and holds it out in front of her. Forgeting her surroundings, she allows the straps of her bag to flop down to both sides, hitting her neighbors in the face and chest before landing limply in their laps.

It is obviously annoying to the strangers. Every move she makes causes her purse straps to rub against them, but neither of them makes any move to stop it. My allegiance begins to change. Could it be that I have some sympathy for the woman in white? The purse lady is actually worse than she is.

I long for a confrontation. Why do we take such pains to avoid talking to fellow passengers? To avoid touching them? Why do I never make any confrontation?

My exit comes before either of theirs. I never get to see how it ends. But it never really does end. The players in these little scenes of denial only change. They never quit.

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4 Responses to “Rat Race to Nowhere”


  1. April 14, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I have made a mental note to myself everytime I make that harrowing transfer downstairs to write a letter to the MTA asking them to adjust the railing to prevent people from sneaking in between the rail and the escalator. It’s totally frustrating, and will never stop until it is made physically impossible. Between that and people not moving back on the bus, I’ve started just walking to the station to maintain some semblance of sanity.

  2. 2 Byf
    April 24, 2009 at 1:48 am

    Eric, you are a journalist!

  3. 4 Biatchy
    October 28, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    It’s like you crawled into my head and explained my old commutes to downtown Manhattan. Only, I am insane and I will say something.. which 1 out of 10 times, will become a shouting match on the train.(It feels good at the time, but immediately after, you feel like the biggest jerk) I dont miss it.


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