It’s my least favorite part of the week, requiring me to take the red line down to FiDi at rush hour. In the past couple of years, I’ve made significant problem with rageaholism—both real and imagined. For one thing, I’ve radically cut down the number of times I shout at people on the West 4th stop stairs, and I barely ever deploy my elbows as a passive-aggressive cowcatcher in the bowels of Penn Station on the way home from work, anymore. One terrible reality, though, continues to test the limits of my equipoise: the 32nd Street red line. That’s right, I said 32nd Street, not 34th. (For all I know, 34th is just as bad, but it’s not where I get on, and that’s the reality I live with.)
What’s so bad about it? Oh-ho-ho, where do I begin? You basically have three options to enter—bad, worse, and terrible. If you’re a total rube, you’ll get sucked into the black hole of the Penn Station entrance under MSG marquee. That will be the last anyone hears of you, because finding the 1/2/3 train from here is, though promised by the periodic signage, is not actually possible. Eventually you will lose hope and enter a fugue from which only the lucky few will emerge somehow findings themselves at their destination—a row of red line turnstyles. The shrewder souls will cut their losses and track their way back to daylight (if they can).
On the northwest corner of 33rd Street, next to the Halal/hot dog/roasted peanut carts, a more realistic, though in equal measure more absurd, option exists: a single revolving cage turnstyle through which clueless tourists cram and jam their way off the downtown 1 with oversized rolling suitcases, ignoring the exit door subjecting the opposing crowd of hopeful card swipers to an endless wait. When the family of tourists finally clears out, you will discover the incompetent swipers who have been standing in front of you the whole time, waiting their turn to put the card through equally slowly five times before you rip it out of their hands and swipe them in with the slightly faster speed required by MTA readers. If you’re taking the downtown 1, you’re in luck—your journey ends here. But not everyone is so lucky…
Oh, then of course there is the simply “bad” option. For those who brave the stretch of 32nd Street that lies between 6th and 7th avenues on their way to and from work, panhandling, or whatever penal assignment they suffer through to have landed here, the little entrance on 32nd Street can, at times, be tolerable. You know what you’re dealing with, so you can prepare accordingly—the overwhelming crowd of Long Island commuters pooling on the northeastern corner of 32nd and 7th, kicking their hoofs as they stare you down, getting ready to charge as soon as the light turns. You’re no novice, so you flank or dodge them with bullet-time Matrix moves. You even know how to make that left diagonal, pierce the thread of reserves coming up behind them, and dive into the surprisingly spacious entrance tucked in across from a mediocre pizzeria.
Your troubles are over! Salvation is near! Think again…If you’re taking the 2 or 3 (regardless of direction), you have yet to endure the toughest test of all—the fires of Mordor itself—in the walk up that staircase. No strategizing will help you here—much like the final level of the video game, supreme skill will do nothing for you compared to sheer luck. If you happened to come at that perfect moment when the trains just passed and the next arriving trains afford a five-minute respite, you have won the lottery. But if you’re the rest of us, the other 364 days a year, you will round the corner into a bilateral wave of catastrophic, running from a Godzilla-panicked crowd descending like a 10-storey wave, engulfing you and everything that stands in its path. No cow-catcher will help you here. No amount of reasoning or bargaining with the individual members of this mob will help you—for they seized to function as individuals the moment they left that train—the same moment they lost their souls. (They will regain their humanity once more when they reach their homes, hearths, or connecting trains, the color returning to their cheeks, the memories expunged and their consciences cleansed—for such is the curse that haunts the heart of a New York City commuter.)
Many is the time that I have snapped when faced with this scorched-earth raiding party. And, on occasion, I’ve done better than most—shoved, punched, slapped, cut, and bitten (OK, not yet) my way through this human net to catch that downtown 2 or 3 that I really need to get where I’m going on time. When you master the art of being a temporary jerk, you can jostle your way through without repercussion—the train itself is holding its arms out to you, the promise of lukewarm shelter and standing room occupancy ringing out at you with the closing doors. I’ve done what I’ve had to in order to make that train. I’m not ashamed of it, and I don’t regret it. The silent horrors are between me, my conscience, and the darkness of the night.
But there comes a time when the terror of this human blob is too much—and you cross the line of small crimes into the no-man’s land of unspeakable atrocities. This past Tuesday I was on the brink. It was the perfect storm—clueless tourists tooling around the 33rd Street entrance, an oblivious Korean man standing in front of the single turnstyle without any intention of entering, and, of course, the human lava gushing down at me out of the mouth of the 2/3 platform. I could see my train even though I couldn’t—there, in the distance, just behind the 45 people coming determined to crush and trample everyone in their path to get off that platform 5 seconds faster than their neighbor.
I pulled out all the stops—charging up the right side, stiff-arming these linebackers like a desperate halfback looking for the Promised Land, my phone and man purse tucked into my belly. I knew I’d left a couple of victims behind me, but the train door was within reach now. I howled with the anticipated triumph, but it was premature—I ran into a wall of tired officer workers who, like all natural formations, are devoid of sympathy and morals. It was impenetrable and my howl turned into a wail. I was ready to turn back to these assholes and lecture them condescendingly about two-way staircase traffic when I realized that I suddenly weighed a few ounces lighter—one iPhone lighter, to be exact. One foot on the platform, I smacked my empty coat pockets and looked back hopelessly. What I saw amazed me—the unholy horde of barbarians had suddenly parted, standing silent, their eyes cast downward toward an object powerful enough to break the curse—at least for a minute. This amulet, universal and sacrosanct to one and all, lay there, inert, awaiting retrieval from my hands—like King Arthur’s sword in the rock.
Quickly I collected my iPhone from beneath a lady’s heel, suspended in the still air just inches above the surface of the black 4S. And then it was back in my pocket, and time resumed, the mass of zombies resuming their perpetual assault on the ascending fools and on good manners and humanity. The train was missed, but another one would be there in two minutes, and my phone, now past the 2-year contract, was intact. I marveled at this display of organized humanity and felt my commuter rage evaporate into the sweet air of a downtown express.