Living one hour from New York City leaves those of us in the suburbs with no excuse not to visit. And it’s accepted as fact that New York City is home to a vast population of eccentric folk, so if you’re visiting, you should expect nothing less than to encounter a scantily-clad cowboy playing guitar in the street or a disheveled-looking woman frantically begging passersby to make their way to the nearest mountain, where they can happily join her in awaiting the end of the world. In the city, you have a greater chance of meeting one of these people than getting pickpocketed.
By the time I got to college, I’d been to the city quite a few times on weekend trips and taken advantage of the NJTransit “free transit” weeks for college students. But when my friend Michele moved to the city to attend NYU, I tried to get out there more frequently. She had an apartment in the Village and knew the lay of the land, and her seemingly inherent knowledge of the subway system and times and transfers had me, a city-newbie at the time, in awe. My knowledge of New York City was limited to street navigation and the train schedule at Penn Station.
One weekend, I spent the day in the city with her and planned on getting back to college fairly early in the evening, as I had a presentation the following morning. It was past ten when I left her apartment, confident I knew where the nearest subway station was. (This was a miracle in itself, as I am terrible at finding things and fantastic when it comes to getting lost.)
I descended into the subway station, ready to hop on my train, when I found the turnstyles roped off. Puzzled, I turned to a man who was standing there and asked what was going on.
“Oh, there’s a fire in the uptown subway,” he replied casually, as if subway fires were as common as roadwork.
“I need to get to Penn Station,” I told him, feeling a bit frazzled now.
“There’s another station just around the corner.” Then, he began delivering an intricate set of directions that might as well have included fording a stream or circling a tree at the park three times. I nodded, feigning comprehension, and then exited to call Michele.
“You have to get to Washington Square Park,” she said. Once I arrived at the park, I would have to enter it from the direction of a certain street with a specific building on my left and then cross the park diagonally, as if I would be upsetting some kind of magical balance by entering the park the way I had come.
I sprinted through the park and ran for the subway station, desperate to make my train; if I missed it, I would have to wait for the last train, which didn’t leave Penn Station until 1:30 in the morning, bringing me back to college around 3 am, when I could only hope that my friend would still be willing to retrieve me from the station.
I arrived at the subway station, panting, and took it to Penn Station, where I again sprinted to check the track times only to find my train departed. Breathless and defeated, I sat down beside a garbage can and called my friend, who generously offered to pick me up at 3.
It was a long hour and a half. I abandoned the trash can around 1, when a homeless man shuffled over to root through its contents. When the track was announced, I practically stormed it, for fear the train would pull away immediately. The escalator was broken and the stairs were blocked off, so I had to run down to the new track on the other side of Penn Station.
When I finally sank into a seat on the train, it was with immense relief. I was leaving the land of subway fires and homeless men.
The train had just pulled away when a man stumbled into the car and sat down next to me. This would be okay if the train had been full, but it was sparsely populated and there were many other empty seats he could choose from. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed he wouldn’t speak to me, but the odor of cheap vodka emanating from his unshorn face told me otherwise.
“This train is bound for hell.”
I turned to face him. He was staring intently at me, nodding viciously.
“We’re all going to die. The train we’re on, it’s taking us to hell.”
“Oh” was all I could say in response. I wasn’t sure what the appropriate answer would be to a comment like that. “That’s too bad” or “How do you know?” just didn’t seem to suffice, and the latter would almost certainly lead to a conversation that would occupy the remainder of the trip.
As it turned out, a monosyllabic “oh” also seemed to him an invitation to continue.
He drunkenly slurred about hell, and the train, and loudly proclaimed that he “didn’t give a shit” because he was going to hell already.
His loud proclamations aroused the attention of those seated around us, who, instead of intervening, smiled at me sympathetically and laughed softly, as if they were watching a humorous sitcom.
“That’s fine,” I wanted to scream. “Just sit back and watch this man torment me for the entire hour we have left on the train. I’m enjoying it.”
Desperate to discourage conversation, I called my friend and began telling her, in French, what was happening.
“What, what are you speaking? What language is that? You’re speaking gibberish,” he slurred, reaching for the phone. “Let me say something. Let me talk.”
He then began to imitate my French by speaking in his own language, which was interrupted by a random string of expletives and reeked of alcohol.
“French? French? You’re speaking French?” Apparently, this man abhorred the French and all they represented in his life. He burst into a drunken tirade about the French, and how they would be the end of us all in America.
He momentarily exhausted himself and shook his head before folding his arms across his chest and appearing to drift off.
When the next stop was announced, he woke himself and leaned in.
“We’re getting closer,” he mumbled before waving his arm wildly at our onlookers. It was at this point that the conductor stepped through the doors and stood next to us. I shot him a look saturated with gratitude as my seatmate looked up at him and reminded him that the train was still bound for hell.
“We’re going to hell!” he cried.
“No, we’re going to Trenton,” the conductor replied. The audience laughed at this, still thoroughly enjoying the spectacle.
My seatmate left the train a station before me. My relief was mingled with a sense of horror at the thought that this man resided one town away from me, in a town that was home to a lunatic asylum, no less. Had he escaped? Was he a new patient? I would never know, and I would, luckily, never see him again.
When I spotted Kim’s old gray car with its zebra-print seats ambling at the train station at 3 in the morning, I nearly threw myself through the open door. Instead, I burst into tears and laughter simultaneously, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of it all and grateful to be safe in a car en route to my bed, even if I was only spending three hours in it.
*Despite the fact that I lived one hour from the city, I have zero photographs to prove it.