Can you be in early? my boss asks the other day. Sure, I reply with my brightest can-do smile while on the inside I cringe. What he doesn’t know is that I try to [be early] every day. But… I take the L train to work and therein lies the problem.
The scene on the L train platform at rush hour is never a calm one, but I know my effort is truly doomed when from halfway down the stairs I see a three-tier pileup of commuters. It’s a daunting spectacle—the density of the herd I mean. The people themselves are the salt and pepper of the morning with their gossip and their garments. It’s your typical motley crew of twenty, thirty and forty-something Brooklynites. Some are fresh-faced, others are still half asleep; some, it’s clear are passionate about their day ahead, and others, I surmise, just need the paycheck. Regardless, each and every one needs to get across the river.
We wait. I squirm my way through those who have been there already, trying to get closest to the edge, in with the earlier crowd. I tell myself that I will need to push. I don’t have a choice. I must board the next train. A recording comes over the loud speaker. It’s a woman’s voice, programmed to sound friendly: “The next—Manhattan-bound—L train will depart in approximately—two—minutes.” The first wave fits. I have not succeeded. They’ll make Manhattan by quarter of. I will not. There are huffs and puffs and a shuffling of feet. Curses are exchanged on both sides of the sliding doors:
No one else can fit. Wait for the next one lady. A red-faced girl who stepped in steps out. She is late. I feel her pain.
Move in people, we on the platform think and sometimes say aloud. There’s a ton of room. Right there and there and there. They don’t move. They’re in. Their ride is secure. They’re forgetting our desperation. The idea of New York camaraderie is tossed by the wayside during these morning hours. It’s dog-eat-dog once again.
We continue to wait. The voice comes to the loud speaker again, this time with a hopeless message. The—Manhattan-bound—train now arriving—will not stop.
This is the story of the morning. This is why early almost never happens.
Third time’s a charm. I’m city bound at last. We’re packed tight like sardines in a can, only upright. We share air, the dozens of us, breathing in one another’s breath. No such thing as personal space here. There’s a woman in front of me. I wonder—oblivious or selfish? Her head is in a book and as her eyes move and her head turns, her ponytail whips me in the face. Wisps of her flaxen hair stick to my lip gloss. There is no room in such cramped quarters for reading today. She doesn’t realize this? A man to my left. Doesn’t look like he’s showered—greasy skin, musty-smelling clothes. I’m close enough to a woman on my other side to see that the stitching on her jacket is ripped. Another’s face is so close I can see the blemishes hidden under a layer of makeup. And someone had eggs and onions for breakfast. Someone else bathed in powder-scented perfume. My position in the middle provides me with no bar to grip, so I sway with the crowd. I’m safe—they keep me standing. A man falls into me. He has a bony back. Next I fall into a girl. Luckily she has a pillowy front. Sorry she says, even though it is me that is unbalanced. We share a smile. It’s all we can do. We know this is not a joyride.
This is morning on the L train.