About two weeks ago or so I was getting ready to leave for my train when foul weather on steroids blew into Brooklyn.
It was quite a sight from the 15th floor. The windows suddenly turned opaque as fog engulfed us followed by a hailstorm, which tapered off to torrential rain that kept me pinned inside long enough to miss my 6:04 pm train from Atlantic Terminal1, now the only straight through train from Brooklyn to Ronkonkoma2.
"No problem" I thought to myself. "I'll wait til this lot lets up a bit, then sprint for the A train to Penn Station and commute from there."
Which is what I did, or tried to do. When I got to Penn Station it was a scene out of some apocalypse movie3 with people packed shoulder to shoulder in every available space. There must've been at least two thousand heads I could see and that was just the in main concourse. And more people were pouring in at a rate of about two hundred ever minute or so as the subway cars emptied out.
The announcement that was being fed to everyone went as follows: "Due to a tree coming down on the tracks east of the tunnels all service out of Penn Station and Atlantic Terminal has been suspended". Periodically they added Jamaica to the list of places trains were not running from. The announcer went on to suggest everyone use the E train, but since the only point to that would be to go to Jamaica and she had told us there were no trains running out of that god-forsaken place no-one was eager to try it as an option.
The irony here is that what the LIRR announcer wasn't telling us was the most useful piece of information: that it wasn't "a" tree but about half the trees in Brooklyn that had been uprooted by tornadoes and flung onto the permanent4 way. Had that been said we would have been able to properly assess the commute situation and react accordingly, but we were dealing with the bloody Long Island Rail Road here and they have a policy of not passing on timely, accurate information5.
I have no idea why the bloody LIRR cannot get a bleeping grip when it comes to giving their customers information that will help them draw informed conclusions about their commute. Derailments that will take hours to rectify are called "Disabled Trains" which I'll grant is accurate as far as it goes but since they class every involuntarily motionless train as a "Disabled Train" is too broad a category to be actually useful to someone who wants to know whether they should plan on getting home or getting a hotel room. Describing the total devastation the trackbed had suffered that day as "a tree" was about as much use as a ham sandwich at a Jewish wedding.
Back to the scene of the crime.
I stood for an hour or so, wondering to myself how hard it would have been to spread the word across the MTA as a whole and, for example, start marshaling the subway trains so they didn't dump hundreds of people every minute into the mix. I mean, they are all supposed to be the same organization for bleeps sake. The incompetence in this lack of preparation alone is staggering. MTA bigwigs stand around spouting about the advisability of increasing the technology in stations by deploying cameras but they haven't fully realized the potential of the phone network and the PA systems they already have and have had for decades. We'll see how this stupidity was to spread the fallout to as many people as possible (presumably the MTA was working on the principle that if everyone was inconvenienced, when the average reaction of the public to their "solutions" was worked out it would be spread so thin it would actually make them look good.
I walked onto the E train platform and was confronted by a crowd even more dense, if that is possible, than was clogging Penn Station in a fire marshal's nightmare. It didn't help that the uptown E platform opens onto Penn in a chicane that is about two people wide. If people had panicked there would have been a people fall of bodies onto the trackbed. It was terrifying to see, let alone attempt to get past.
Once I managed to board a train to Jamaica along with several hundred others, packing the car shoulder to shoulder with literally no space between us, we set off and I started to observe through the windows the effect that the lack of any sort of integrated problem resolution was having.
You see, most of the people in the stations downstream from Penn Station, places like Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, are simply trying to get from one part of metro New York (where they work) to another (where they live). Imagine their surprise when their train pulls up, the doors open and there is no way anyone can board because people seem to be making some sort of attempt to get into the Guinness book of records. Imagine how their surprise turns first to puzzlement, then annoyance, then outright rage as train after train after train pulls this stupid trick.
It was obvious no-one waiting at the stations knew what was going on because they were beginning to shout to the crushed, sweating and extremely grumpy people in the trains, asking what the bleep was going on? Naturally, these requests were answered with irony most of the time - usually "Who the bleep knows?"
Now some of those travelers made very determined attempts to board, and fights were only an open door away most of the trip.
I'll break here to suggest that it might have made sense for the Subway part of the MTA to coordinate with the bloody LIRR part and inform everyone at the stations along the path what the hell was going on, along with advice on how to go about mitigating the lesser hell of the stranded subway commuter. Furthermore, it might have made sense to run trains that did not stop at Penn Station on the downtown side so that there would at least be a chance that the local commuters got some sort of service.
It beggars my imagination that for all the bleeping talk the movers and shakers spout about preparedness in New York, a basic plan for moving people in the event the subway was pressed into service in this fashion is still, obviously not in place. I mean, what would happen in the event of a terrorist attack6 removed Penn Station as a commuting option? It boggles the mind to think how empty the talk of preparedness is as demonstrated that day.
Back to the scene of the crime.
We eventually got to Sutphin Boulevard, the E train stop at Jamaica. It is a voluminous station with cathedral ceilings and wide, long platforms. What it doesn't have is an adequate number of stairways and escalators to evacuate the occupants of those platforms to the upper station before the next train disgorges another few hundred into the mix.
Or tries to.
Luckily I was let out right by a staircase and so was able to ascend straight away at the shuffling pace of the crowd. As I did, I looked back. The people at the rear of the platform were standing still, and judging by their expressions had been doing so for some time. A riot in the making right there.
Once in the upper station it became apparent that the same design criteria for the stairwells from he platform had been used for the street exit, to which two policemen were inexpertly directing people to use by shouting at them.
I have found over the last 26 years that when it comes to the bloody LIRR there is no situation so bleeped-up that the NYC police cannot make infinitely worse by the attitude they bring to the stranded, uninformed commuters simply trying to get home despite the bloody LIRR.
Better yet, no police had been posted at the top of the stairs to tell people not to try pushing their way down the jam-packed staircases (you have to tell New Yorkers this even if the evidence of their own eyes is that doing so would be a monumental waste of time and moreover a threat to their lives because here in what is reportedly the most cosmopolitan city in the world people are dumber than the stuff that comes out of a cow's rear end). This meant that the cops were screaming in both directions. The upshot of this was that no-one was paying attention to them at all.
Which made them shout louder
I finally got to the street and ran along the face of Jamaica LIRR station looking on the nice new video boards that adorn the staircases up to the platforms for a likely train East, and found a Huntington train was boarding from one side of a platform and a Babylon train from the other. Either would get me out of this hell to somewhere I could apply money to get me back to my car in Wyandanch.
The Huntington train was packed so full that there was literally no room to board any of the cars, and the Babylon train was almost at that stage, so I jumped aboard the latter and found a place in the plenum up against a wall so I could at least lean against it. It was by then about 8:15 pm and the train was posted to leave at 8:10 pm 7 but as I looked at the new-fangled train destination display hanging from the station canopy the time changed to 8:20 pm.
More people got on, until at 8:20 the doors closed. We were, by then, packed nose-to-nose.
Five minutes later the time on the board changed to 8:40 pm and the doors opened again.
more people pushed their way aboard and some inside pushed back. Arguments began in each doorway. Because the train was on a single track, there were platforms on both sides of the train and the doors on each side were opening in order to double the chances of violence breaking out. There were, of course, no police officers to be seen.
At a few minutes before 9 pm a man in a suit began remonstrating with everyone that he could see a gap in the trains crowd and if everyone would just move he could get in. Some pointed out that the "gap" he could see was in fact merely a gap in the sea of heads caused by three women who had decided to sit on the floor8 but he didn't believe them. Then he forced his way into the train despite being told there was no room, with the result that he was squashed into the corner formed by the closing door and a bulkhead.
The train finally moved.
The seemingly endless trip to Babylon was spiced up for me by the agonizing pains in my legs (my sciatica had kicked in about 15 minutes before the troublesome man got on) and the repeated plaints from the troublesome man that we could all move back and give him more room. By now everyone was telling him to please be quiet. As we were leaving Jamaica (finally) a train pulled into the station from the West. Somehow he got the idea trains had been running from Penn Station, the clear implication being that all these people were being idiots by coming to Jamaica for no reason and crowding him out of a seat. The announcements that could clearly be heard contradicting this view had no impact on his stream of whining. Soon the idea seemed to morph into one in which this train had started life at Penn Station. Why this made any difference was lost on me, but it annoyed the living crap out of everyone.
The train gradually emptied out as we made local stop after local stop until I could, with thee stops to go before journey's end, get a seat. Already sitting was The Whiner who was still asking everyone who would acknowledge him whether or not they had boarded at Penn Station. Every single person who responded did so with some variation of "Of course not! There aren't any trains coming out of Penn tonight", but he seemed to believe everyone had formed a conspiracy to conceal the truth from him.
As I say, a night for madness.
Eventually I got to Babylon where Mrs Stevie would pick me up, but she got a minor dose of the same idiocy I had been subject to: it took her three times longer than usual to make the journey because some idiot was giving someone else a tow, would not exceed 20 mph and would not pull over to let the mile-long jam of traffic behind him subside a bit.
I took Friday off.
- or Flatbush Avenue as it used to be called before they spent a fortune in granite wall panels for it↑
- Yes, no sooner had they spent all that cash on the station than they canceled most of the useful trains running in and out of the damn thing. This is probably, in the convoluted thinking of the bloody Long Island Rail Road, a great way to save money on station maintenance↑
- I am not kidding: I saw the same scene in "2012" when people were futilely attempting to get onto the arks↑
- Unless Amtrack equipment is to blame. Then you get encyclopedic updates every four and a half seconds↑
- The catch-all disaster role-playing scenario of choice for NY emergency services these days↑
- This makes sense when you calculate the times by the secret formula used by the bloody LIRR dispatchers. To decode it you need imaginary numbers in order to schedule imaginary trains↑
- Madness, but it was a night made for the mad↑