Never Draw Straws On The N Train

JEAN_LOUIS_THÉODORE_GÉRICAULT_-_La_Balsa_de_la_Medusa_(Museo_del_Louvre,_1818-19)

[The Raft of the Medusa, painted by Theodore Gericault. (Source: Google search.)]

This afternoon, my wife and I actually left Manhattan and made a trip to one of the boroughs.  On purpose.  We rode out to Astoria, Queens (where my wife grew up) to visit my son, Brian and his girlfriend, Kristin.  We had a great visit–saw their apartment and ate a superb dinner at a place called Elias Corner for Fish at 24-02 31st St.  With the exception of my wife, I had the feeling that Brian, Kristin and myself were going to be the only three people who weren’t Greek once we arrived at the restaurant.  Before I go any further with this post, I need to explain a few things.

Yes, Mariam and I are still “on the road” to Florida.  But for several very good reasons, we have this lay-over in New York City.  Being away for four or five months is no small undertaking, so we scheduled a few doctor appointments and Mariam needs to attend a meeting or two in connection with her job.  Because of this, we’re leaving the r-Pod back in Jersey City and spending three nights in Manhattan–in a cozy hotel just a few steps from Herald Square (and Macy’s).

Just to prove that we are indeed “camping” in Jersey City, here is a photo of the pod:

RpodJerseyCity

It looked a little forlorn and lonely as we drove off to the Holland Tunnel.  I felt like we were leaving a puppy in a pound of Dobermans stricken with distemper, but silent while watching our tiny pod.

To kill a few hours today, I actually found a Barnes & Nobel that was still open for business.  It’s on Fifth Avenue, a few blocks north of the N.Y.Public Library Main Branch in case you’re interested.  I loaded up on books for our trip.  I do have and use a Kindle app on my iPad mini, but I can’t seem to forego the pleasure of a real paper book in my lap while I’m trying to stay warm in our camper.  On the way back down Sixth Avenue, I stopped at one of those souvenir shops that sell models of the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty in about twelve different sizes and NYPD tee shirts for $3.00.  In this particular shop, I located and purchased something that I couldn’t find at Macy’s or any other store–a back scratcher (it telescopes very nicely).  Do you know how hard it is to find a back scratcher?  Especially when your back is still red from the drug reaction you got from the antibiotics you took to get over the respiratory ailment you picked up at your 50th high school reunion over a month ago?

But I digress.

We were sitting in Brian and Kristin’s small but adorable apartment and snacking on crackers and hummus.  The Merlot being served had the label of ‘Help Me’.  I must say, it was full-bodied with a subtle nose and nice legs.  Mariam was having a conversation with my son about the unlikely event that the Mets would actually play the Cubs in the World Series playoffs, when I turned to Kristin and asked how Law School was working out.  She said that she was plugging away and learning a lot about Constitutional Law and is even enjoying a course on Criminal Law.  That last topic piqued my interest and naturally we fell into a discussion of important case studies pertaining to crime on the “high seas”.  I asked her opinion on a ruling that has long interested me.  That, of course, would be the outcome of The Queen vs Dudley & Stevens case.  I’m referring, as I’m sure you are aware, of The Queens Bench Division which handled the trial in 1884 [14Q.B.D.273].  Don’t be confused by the use of the term “Queens”.  We’re talking here of the United Kingdom, not a borough of New York City.

The legalities involved have been the topic of many of my researches.  The case involves the rather sticky question of when is murder justified for the purpose of cannibalism while adrift on the high seas after a maritime disaster.  I don’t want to give away any amusing surprises here, (I’m not a ‘spoiler’) but it seems that killing one’s mate(s) while attempting to stave off starvation and dehydration while drifting in a small life boat with little or no reason to believe another vessel will happen along to rescue you is okay (under specific circumstances, however).  But, and here’s the kicker.  You are more or less allowed to kill someone on board the small boat, for cannibalistic purposes only, as long as you draw straws.  If no straws are used, then the starving mariner who holds the knife and does the deed, can later be tried for murder (assuming a rescue ship comes along–otherwise it becomes a moot point, doesn’t it?).  In this situation, a passing ship did indeed pick up the emaciated survivors–two of whom were then charged with said murder.

I won’t bore you with the outcome–you’ll have to look it up in your law library.

But, it got me thinking.

After dinner, we said our good-nights on the platform of the Manhattan bound stop on the N line.  Their apartment was only half a block away.  As we stood waiting, I felt myself rethinking the case study.  As the front lights of the train approached, I thought of the long run it would make from Ditmars Blvd Astoria to fabled Coney Island.  I knew that after a few stops, we would enter a tunnel under the East River.  I’m not especially claustrophobic unless it involves pre-mature burial (which I think about a lot), but the idea of being under the water for a few minutes had me wondering about criminal law below sea level.  What if the train was stalled or held up by the Command Center (it happened to me once in 1992)?  What if we were truly stuck beneath the East River–unable to move forward at all?  What if it came down to drawing straws to decide which one of the dozens of riders could legally be killed and then eaten?

I ran through a list of concerns.  Whose straw would we use?  Who would conduct the cutting of the straw lengths?  Who would actually take charge of the drawing?  And, most importantly, would anyone really have a straw?

As I was pondering these questions, I became aware that the train was actually slowing down!  Were we stopping?  Yes, we were coming to a full stop!  All this time, I had my eyes closed to better concentrate on the potential and bloody situation we may soon be facing.  After all, I was likely to be the passenger with the most sea-faring experience.  I had ridden the Staten Island Ferry more than four times and I own a kayak.  I had also been on at least two Whale Watches out of Bar Harbor.  In addition, I’ve seen the Queen Mary while it was docked at the Hudson Piers and I have ridden the NY Waterways ferry on at least four occasions.  I’ve been to the South Street Seaport and have visited Mystic Seaport more than once.  I also like to look at sailboats while I eat a Cobb Salad at the 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe.  So I guess that nails my point of being a maritime authority beyond any doubt.

I opened my eyes.  We were in Manhattan–we were approaching the Lexington Avenue/59th St. stop on the Upper East Side.  Five more stops would put us at Herald Square–and the relative safety of street level reality.  Painful decisions in matters of life and death were behind me.  We all know that now the rules of The Walking Dead superseded any maritime legalities.

I vowed, just then, to begin carrying a straw whenever I rode the subway and especially when it went through an underwater tunnel.

I also vowed to carry a small pair of pinking shears.  That way I could, perhaps, control the length of the straw that would be cut into various sizes.

Underwater or on the high seas, controlling the variables is very important.

SubwayMap

[Do not use this illustration for navigation!  It is included for entertainment purposes only. I assume the copyright belongs to the MTA.  For full disclosure and transparency purposes, I will proudly mention that the title of this post was suggested by my son, Brian.]

 

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Next Stop: Easy Street

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“Well, this is where I get off, Baby Blue.  I got a cozy little spread about a dozen miles out-of-town.”

“This don’t look like no town to me, Buzz.  The flies have taken over the ticket booth in the hole you say is the station.”

“I’m not a man for big words, Blue, but I can manage to ask you to stay for a spell.”

“You don’t look like the kind of guy a kind of girl like me can hold onto for much longer than the next time the whistle from the westbound blows.”

“You once said that I was the sort of guy who could leave his boots under your bed.”

“That was back in Little Rock.  You had a fresh bandanna on that night.  You looked like Mel Gibson without the attitude.”

“That’s sayin’ a lot, girlie.  You kept those cowpokes sweeping the boardwalk so you could keep your Gucci boots clean.  You traded those Gucci’s for a pair of J. C. Penney “cowgirl” shoes that were made in Sri Lanka.”

“We’ve both come a long way since then, Buzz, and almost all of it was rolling down a hill full of tumbleweeds and thistles.”

“You can’t keep looking back, Baby.  It only shows you where you’ve been and not where you’re goin'”

“And you want me to get more dust on my shoes down at your spread?  I’m thinking twice about that.”

“Well, don’t think twice, it’s alright.  Say, I never caught your last name, Sweet Cakes.”

“I didn’t throw it, Bronco Buster.  If you want to know who I really am, check the wall of the nearest Post Office.”

“Why? Are you the Post Master General?”

“Let’s just say I’m the Post Mistress of these here parts.”

“Dang.  And all these years I lived on my cozy little spread, I never ran into you.”

“That’s because nobody wrote you any letters, Larry.  Ya got to have friends to get and send letters.”

“Well, lick my stamps, Baby Blue, you sure are full of surprises.”

“I got one more surprise for you, Saddle Tramp, nobody licks stamps anymore.  They’re self-stick these days.”

“Well, I got one for you too, Blaze, nobody sends letters any more.  It’s all email.  Where have you been?  Out back of the stable braiding horse tails?”

The train lurched to a stop.

“One minute,” the station master yells.

Baby Blue pull her bonnet off and let her wild red tresses cascade over her slender tender shoulders.

Buzz broke out in a sweat.  He hooked his forefinger under his collar and tugged to let out the steam.  It was 106 in the shade.

“So, we’re both getting off.  But you’re goin’ thataway and I’m goin’ thisaway, so I guess it’s good-bye, said Blue.

“Good-bye is too good a word, Babe.  I’ll be seeing you around when my fan mail starts pouring into the Post Office.”

“What fan mail?  Did you go on The Bachelorette again?”

“No, the fan mail from my blog award.  This is just a big blog idea, Sweet Cake.  All this never really happened.”

She stared at him for a full two minutes.

“I think you’d better go saddle up Old Paint and ride off into the sunset, Buzz, you’ve had too much sun.”

“I can’t ride off into the sunset, Blue, I live north of here.  You wouldn’t understand.”

Two hours later, Baby Blue was sorting mail in the air-conditioned Post Office while Buzz was getting a sore bottom on a sour saddle.  He was lost in thought.  But Old Paint knew the way home, after, of course, the bathroom stop at the Organ Grinder Saloon.

“There got to be a better way to end this blog,” he thought.  “In just one of these stories, I should get the girl.”

 

 

Arriving, Departing or Just Passing Through

I stood hard against the tiled wall and made room for the rush of human traffic trying to pass me.  I was thinking about insanity and the blindness of powerful people to hold sacred something that once had beauty and class.

Beauty and class are rare commodities these days.

I was in the bowels of Penn Station, somewhere between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave.  Somewhere between 34th St. and 31st St. Somewhere below the giant oval that is Madison Square Garden.

Somewhere, somehow something was missing.

I was waiting for the Adirondack, the train that would take us to Albany where our car was parked.  I looked around for the great wooden benches.  All were gone.  I had to wait inside an enclosed “waiting room” filled with plastic and metal seats.  The fast food outlets all sold the same wraps and bags of chips.  Somewhere, I’m sure, was a bar.  The small kiosk that sold the several daily newspapers were now Hudson News stores where I could get a hundred copies of Elle, Glamour and Men’s Health. I’m sure there was a shoe-shine, but I wouldn’t know where to look.

OldPennStation

I thought of the thousands of GI’s who kissed their Bronx girlfriends good-bye during WWII.  Some of them came home.  I thought of the many others, soldiers, men and women, who went off to conflicts.  Some came home.

I thought of an out of work salesman heading for Chicago…there was a possible job waiting for him.  Sometimes he came home to get his wife and head back to the Windy City to start life over.

There were the thousands of runaway girls (and boys) who could afford a train ticket from Wichita or St. Paul who came to the City in search of fame or fortune, or just wanting to disappear into the masses.  A few made a new life.  Most didn’t.  But at least they were solvent enough to afford a coach seat.  The ones who couldn’t save enough from the waitressing job in Akron, had to arrive at Port Authority Bus Terminal.  So many ended up on 8th Ave. selling themselves for a bottle or a vial.

PennStationSign

I looked for the Grand Staircase.  I found only escalators.  Where were the places where people stood and embraced?  Saying “Good-bye” or “Thank God you’re home”.  There was no place to stand and embrace.  Everyone was hurrying to somewhere.

Pulling rolling luggage, everyone stood looking at the big black board for the next LIRR departure or the next Amtrak arrival.

There was no place to stand and think.  So, I stayed pressed against the tiled wall.

old penn-8

I’ve looked at the archives of Old Pennsylvania Station.  Things looked better in Black & White.  That’s the insanity.  The City razed the old station and built the place where I was now standing.

TimeTableatPennStation

I saw my wife through the glass partition.  She was waving at me to hurry over because the Red Cap was going to help us get to Platform 7.  The northbound Amtrak, the Adirondack was on time.

The small bottle of water (water used to be free) cost about $3.00.  A bag of peanuts made me $3.25 poorer.  I looked over the turkey and cheese wraps.  More bread than turkey and cheese combined.  I thought about Ptomaine.  I passed on the wrap.

I slipped on my backpack, walked past four National Guard soldiers with AK-47’s on their shoulders and met my wife.

Before we boarded, I swallowed the diuretic I was taking.  Try dealing with that forty-five minutes later in a small bathroom on a train that swayed like sailboat in a gale.

 

 

Going Down The River On A Winter Day

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Aboard the Amtrak, Train #238.  Bound for Penn Station, NYC

I can’t sleep in this cramped seat.  It’s 4A, the window with a view of the Hudson River.  But there is no view.  It’s white enough for sunglasses.  I see West Point across the water, barely.  I snap a photo with my iPad mini.  It comes out blurry.  I’m already nauseous from the constant rocking of the coach.  Now, looking at the photo, I’m dizzy again.

We eat an expensive tuna salad wrap purchased in Albany.  Our plastic water bottle crinkles loudly when I pin it behind the tight elastic cord on the back of seat 5A.  The women in 5A is on her cell phone revealing  personal medical information.  I know what hospital her niece is a patient.

My wife is reading on her kindle app. Why isn’t she motion sick?

We’re below Croton-Harmon. The view is worse. Only the power lines glide past. Beyond, the Hudson is frozen to the far shore. A tug boat plows through the icy brine. Another to Penn Station.

I’m having trouble hitting the correct keys with the swaying and jerking of the train.

The sliding bathroom door just slammed shut. A toilet seat slams up or down, I can’t tell.

“Yonkers is the next stop”

Everything I see from the window is snow-covered. Everything I’ve seen for months has been snow-covered. I think I’m in a scene from “Dr. Zhivago”.

My soul has hope, however. It is not as bleak as the passing landscape. On Tuesday (I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon), we will be on a plane to Puerto Rico for a week. Not on a southbound train moving through yet another winter storm.

The river is breaking up into ice floes. We’re ten minutes from our destination. The snow is falling at a slant.

I can see nothing visibly alive outside.

Nothing visibly alive.

All the life along the frozen Hudson is there, but dormant until the warmth of spring..

A little like me.

 

 

 

 

Travels 11: Is This Our Land?

I’m ensconced in Orting, WA. with my daughter, Erin, her husband, Bob, grandson Elias and my wife Mariam.  It’s one big happy family.  We’ve spent only one full day here and already I’ve managed to get caught in a hailstorm while walking across a Safeway parking lot.  We weren’t out in the Plains, facing the desolation while hearing the pelting of the pea-sized hail blast against the Aluminum siding of the R-Pod.  No, I was in a grocery store parking lot.  The only drama was that I was without my cell phone and was separated from Erin, Elias and my wife.  How did I deal with such an edgy experience?  Well, I trotted to the entrance of Safeway that adjoined the Starbucks.  I did what all semi-lost men do…I bought the local paper and ordered a Chai Tea Latte and settled in, waiting to be rescued by my wife. Sure as the snow on Rainier, she had made it back to the car at Erin’s house and returned to get me.  I even got a new tea mug out of the deal. It was on the Starbucks rack where I drank the Latte and it begged to come back to the East Coast with me on our return trip. As I reflect on the final drive to get here two days ago, I recall seeing something that made me think those Woody Guthrie thoughts about whose land this really is.  Passing through western Montana and into eastern Idaho, I saw coal trains that seemed to stretch from there to Detroit.  It would easily take me about 45 minutes to walk the length of these sinuous open cars filled with black chunks of black gold.  And, this was all strip-mined to make matters even worse.  I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as “clean” or “green” coal.  It’s a lie put out there by the Energy Industry to rape what’s left of our resources and get as much money out of pubic lands as they can. My simple question is this:  Who is thinking of the future?  The native americans had it right.  They took the long view and thought about what was to be left for their grandchildren’s grandchildren.  We tend to think about our next credit card purchase. The bill has to be paid in the end, one way or another. Image Image My educated guess is that this coal is from leased Federal Lands.  And I can’t get past the gate of Yellowstone National Park to watch Old Faithful. I want my National Parks back!

At the End of the Train

Those who lived within earshot of the railroad would usually be put to sleep by the clacking of the iron wheels passing over the rail joints.  It was an age-old rhythm, a song often without words. It drew the listeners away from their world.  Where was the train bound?  Where did it come from?  Hank, Woody, Eric and Bob…and a hundred others heard the music.  With the advent of seamless rails, the music has stopped.

More than one lonely and desperate man or woman or kid would rise up…get dressed, and vanish with the train when it slowed or stopped.  Sometimes they came home, most often they didn’t. The iron wheels were the call of the wild and the restless answered.

A true listener could easily tell if the train was on a freight or passenger run.  Was the sound light, full of people or was it dark, heavy and full of coal, or steel or logs?

On the freight lines, a breed of men rode the train in a car at the far end, the caboose.  Here, swaying and rocking to the subtle changes in directions, these hardened and unshaven men would sit and wait for the next stop.  In the winter, they would sit near the coal stove to fight off the icy blasts of a Missouri winter.  In the sultry summer, aching to breath moving air, they would sit in the open of the platform that was the last true end of the train.

Long hours.

One might page through a cheap copy of a girlie magazine.  Some sat quietly and read from the Bible.  They played cards.  They napped.  They slept, rocking like a baby they barely recall seeing, holding or being.

Usually, though, in the hours after midnight, one fellow would reach into his sack and pull out a bottle of pitiable rye.  The bottle would be passed…no wiping needed.

Somewhere along the line, a home waited for these souls.  A wife, a lover, a lonely son, a daughter about to run away with a worthless dishwasher, a mangy dog and a kitchen with plastic table cloths.  Some went to nothing more than a small 12′ x 12′ rented room in a boarding house that needed painting, on a side street not far from the station, hard by a saloon.

A man or two might not get off at all.  In some town, any town, there were warrants for his arrest.  He would ride on, change shifts somewhere and disappear into the night.

Many of these men who were short in the cash and honesty department could hold no real job or own a skill.

One skill they all did have was the ability to stare into ones eyes or a camera lens without blinking or grinning.  They could not know someone decades later would stare back at them.

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