Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign.
Navigating New York City subway trains is a challenge for any newbie. Figuring out late-night train protocol is Russian Roulette amped up to a whole new level. And God be with you if your need for a train coincides with MTA train repairs, the resulting chaos can send the most well-travelled commuter into the streets weeping for a cab. The stories are innumerable.
This is one such story.
On my first few subway rides, I rode with friends who were well-acquainted with the MTA trains and passenger protocol. In a very real sense, they were my chaperones. Buying a MetroCard, swiping the card, and moving through the turnstile in one smooth move were all new to me. I mastered the skill in no time as I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself or give anyone cause to give me a beatdown. If such a thing happened, I knew what the news report would sound like:
“In the news tonight, a small African-American man was found unconscious at the Times Square subway station earlier today. Witnesses say diminutive man was beaten down because he could not swipe his MetroCard and move through the turnstile in a timely manner. One onlooker is quoted as saying, ‘He should have known better. This is New York.’ And in other news . . .”
No, I chose to learn how to swipe my card and work the turnstile so that I could forego that fifteen seconds of evening news infamy, tempting as it was.
For the last four years, I’ve worked October, November, and December in New York as an elf in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. (More on that later.) One night after rehearsals, several cast members and I went out to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The revelry — that’s code for “intake of adult beverages” — ran high. And very late.
Instead of taking a cab home, a fellow elf in the show talked me into taking the train. His stop was much further away, and I didn’t want him to take the train alone. Besides, my stop was ten minutes away, at the most. What could go wrong?
I accompanied my elf-mate downstairs in the Columbus Circle station. Signs warning that many normally scheduled trains were not running wallpapered the station walls. I agreed to take the subway because I figured my elf-mate could interpret the MTA change of service notices so that both of us would reach our destination.
The signs also listed alternate trains to take but despite their number and legibility, the MTA signs held one major flaw: the signs were subject to interpretation. Not mention the fact you had to know exactly where the trains were going or you could wind up anywhere.
When we reached the platform two trains were available: an A train and a D train. I was about to hop on the C and Josh screamed, “No, not the D! The A is local, it’ll stop by your stop.” Well, in my own state of inebriation I doubted my own hunch, and followed his lead and boarded the A train. The train’s door slammed shut and we were spirited away to what I thought was eventually going be my stop. And it was. Eventually.
My elf-mate and I talked about the night’s events as the train approached and sped past the next stop which I thought was a normal stop on its route. Terror washed over me as I turned to my elf-mate.
“Oops, I guess this is an express train,” and laughed. I wanted to wring his neck.
The train continued to pass the next few stops, including mine.
Then in a gravelly voice the conductor announced that for those going to my stop, we had to get off at 125th Street and take the A train in the opposite direction.
A few more stops passed. It felt like I was on a bullet train to Maine.
At around 1:45 in the morning, the train got to 125th Street. I was fit to be tied. I hurriedly exchanged good byes with my elf-mate and hopped off the train and trudged down the uptown platform towards the exit. I noticed that I was only one of about a dozen people heading up the staircase. I hurried to catch up to them — you know, safety in numbers — but all of them quickly exited the station. I didn’t know people could disappear so fast. I took refuge in the thought that a train would be coming any minute to spirit me home as I headed down the staircase to the downtown train platform.
I was still seething about having taken a train for what seemed thousand miles out of my way when I could have spent less than $20 and been at home, showered, updated my Facebook page, and well on the way to Dreamland.
I looked around the platform. I had fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in the Land That Sanitation Forgot. No White Rabbit came to greet me. Instead, a rat the size of a Buick foraged in the shadows for a late night snack.
In the light of day, subways stations don’t look nearly as menacing as they do late at night. At that hour, the place looked like it was covered in the kind bio-hazardous grit and grim that gives the CDC a hard-on.
The platform was peppered with three people: one poor guy in tattered clothes asleep in the fetal position on a bench; a guy who looked like a crusty crack addict out for a nightly kill; and me, a four feet tall Black guy (I’ve already talked about what an attention getter that is in its own right) in a navy blue pea coat, trendy jeans, black Dansko clogs, with a baby blue scarf the size of a parachute tied around my neck.
Two words came to mind to describe me: easy victim.
One word came to mind to describe my situation: dire.
I summoned my deflector shields and secured my don’t-even-think-of-fucking-with-me-because-I-will-tie-you-up-with-this-lovely-scarf-and-beat-you-about-the-head-with-these-clogs mask in place. It seemed to work. The tattered man continued to sleep on the bench and Mr. Crusty Crack Addict kept a safe distance.
And then I noticed a fourth person on the platform, a white guy in his twenties clutching a pristine Banana Republic shopping bag. Hope welled up. With that shopping bag in his hands, surely his appearance signified that he had money on his person and would prove to be a more profitable victim.
(Yeah, yeah . . . I know that was a terrible thing to think, but everything’s fair game when talking self-preservation.)
I prayed earnestly and fervently to Jesus for some immediate and divine intervention on my behalf.
Twenty minutes later . . .
With my skull about to explode from the frustration of not having followed my intuition and taken a cab home, I stopped pacing as I heard the sound of a train approaching.
Victory, sweet victory!
Thank you, Jesus!
I imagined the train’s arrival and delivering me at my stop. Facebook and a bottle of Orangina were soon to be at hand. I listened to the train, but it sounded a bit different. It wasn’t quite as loud as it usually sounded and there I didn’t see any headlights.
My heart sank as a garbage scow motored towards me. It looked like a flatbed on the train tracks bound for Hades loaded down with piles of rusted pieces, parts, and beams from disemboweled trains, but no ferryman helmed the flatbed that night. Charon the ferryman didn’t brave that journey. He had better things to do, like maybe update his Facebook page while enjoying a glass of Orangina.
Another twenty minutes later . . .
I resigned myself to the notion that I might not see the light of day again and my Christmas adventure would end horribly. My body would be found stripped of my wallet, and without my Radio City ID, I’d be a nameless, faceless entity. A mere blip on the evening news: the body of a small black man in a navy pea coat and a bright baby blue scarf was found on the tracks at the 125 Street station, a pair of black Dansko clogs were also found nearby.
Ten minutes later still . . .
A downtown A train arrived. I wasn’t sure it was going to stop at my Upper West Side station, but I knew it was taking me away from where I was.
I boarded the train and fifteen minutes later I finally got that hot shower, had a cold bottle of Orangina, and updated my Facebook page.
As a rule, I do not take the subway anywhere after 10:00 p.m. Ever.