Tag Archives: New Jersey Transit

Samaritans, Good and Otherwise

It’s the coldest day of the winter so far. I’m noticing this because I’m standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike counting the NJ Transit buses that are flying by at highway speed. It’s been a morning of irony so far, which explains why I’m standing out here instead of sitting inside the broken down, but still warm bus right next to me. I felt the cold while waiting at quarter to six for my bus to show up. Thankfully on time. It’s very empty this morning; I’m maybe the fourth passenger. Somewhere along Route 22, miles later, the bus gives a distress cry. Ironically, the engine is hot. The temperature outside is in the single digits. Also ironically, the radio on our bus isn’t working, so the driver has to call dispatch on his smart phone. Meanwhile, the engine cools down enough for him to try it again. We’re fine until we pass exit 15 on the Turnpike.

While I try to think of others before myself, I sit near the front of the bus—the first or second row. That way when it’s time to get off I don’t have to wait for dozens of people to wake up, stretch, and slowly shamble into the aisle. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t commute by NJ Transit.) “The first shall be last,” the Good Book says, and I believe it. I lost count of how many of the company’s buses have zoomed past, but when one finally stops, I’m person number 8 off the bus. The Good Samaritan driver stops me outside his bus. “Sorry, no more seats. No more standing room.” No room in the inn. My driver urges the long line behind me to get back on the bus, where it’s warm, to wait. I was first, now I’m last. That’s why I’m standing out here in the cold. As I approach the bus I see all the first several rows are filled by those first back on the disabled bus. They will be the first to be offered a ride by the next driver along this road to Jericho.

winter

The guy behind me, now in front of me, comes to the same conclusion and waits outside too. At least we both have beards. I’m thinking of Jesus’ words about the end of the world. “Pray it won’t come in winter.” Out here, all prayers are frozen. At least thirty NJ Transit buses buzz by creating their own wind chill before another stops. I want to be first because I paid more for my ticket than those who sat further back on my bus. In fact, I could rent a small apartment in many places in the country for what I pay a year for a bus pass. I wonder if that’s what it means that the first shall be last. Or maybe my brain’s just frozen, since it’s the coldest day of the winter so far.

Philosophies of Reading

I like my Starter. For those of you unaccustomed to New Jersey Transit buses and their ways, a Starter is a person who makes sure the buses scheduled to arrive at her or his gate do so on time. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. If a bus is late, or AWOL, the Starter takes the heat from angry would-be passengers. Since they’re present “on the ground,” angry people lash out with their frustration. My regular Starter recognizes me. I’m usually early in my line, so I appear about the same place most days. My routine is, well, routine. I get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, pull out my book, and read. Starters can’t really get involved in anything like a book because their job requires constant interruptions. Even when no buses are coming in because of an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, they still have to answer questions and hold up the occasional crucifix. My Starter came to me the other day, as I was reading, and asked me what I thought of an incident four days earlier. To put this in context, the incident happened on Friday. I was there for it, in my usual spot, and this was Tuesday. Clearly it still bothered the Starter that someone had come out and yelled at him for not getting us a bus on time.

I sympathized. Starters can’t materialize objects. If they could, they wouldn’t be Starters. Yet, I realized as I turned back to my book, that I had lost some reading time. I don’t mind helping out my Starter, but it occurred to me that there are a couple of different philosophies behind reading while waiting for, and on, the bus. Many people, I suspect, read to pass the time. I don’t know what they’re reading, since much of it is on a flat device, but knowing that research reading is nearly impossible on the bus, I suspect they are just reading to make the weary time go quicker. Others, I know, read for content. For me, reading is very seldom passing time. I read because reading is what I want to do.

Commuting behavior isn’t conducive to my life choices. No longer do people sit quietly on the bus, respecting that inherent violence of awaking before 4 a.m. to try to get to the city before traffic inevitably makes you late. Devices make their unmuted bodily noises and glare in your face. The guy next to you pulls out his wide-screen laptop, while tapping away on his phone. Or pulls our her iPad to watch a movie with fast-paced images splashing in your face. The book is demanding company. Your time, your attention, your concentration are required to get the most out of it. I don’t mind supporting my Starter. I feel for the ennui of my fellow commuters. I also crave time alone with my books.

IMG_0899

Camera Obscura

There’s a certain etiquette to being on the bus. There has to be, when you pack fifty strangers together for an hour and shake gently. The seats on New Jersey Transit are somewhat intimate and it’s rare to make it through the journey without somehow touching the person next to you—elbows, knees, hips, or general body mass—worlds collide. I’ve mentioned before that not many people read old-fashioned books on the bus, but one of those unspoken rules of etiquette is that you don’t look at a stranger’s book. I’ve benefitted from that any number of times myself. People think odd things about you when you’re reading a book about religion in a public space. Not odd enough thoughts to earn you a seat alone, but still.

I was reading a book about an ancient Near Eastern religion the other day. For me it’s an occupational hazard. Those of us who have studied this stuff for a living keep on cranking out the books and somebody has to read them. Amid all the blue light from all the devices I often feel like I should be in a museum myself. It was with great surprise then, that my eye wandered onto the book next to me that day. I really couldn’t help it, you see. The woman who sat next to me and was using her cell phone to shed light on her book (the overhead lights don’t always work). She went to make a phone call but forgot to turn off the light so that it hit me right in the eye. Realizing her faux pas, she quickly turned it off, but my attention had been caught. In the book in front of her was a picture of the Narmer Palette. Narmer was the king who united ancient Egypt, according to the lore, and this stone ornament was the commemoration of his achievement. Anyone who’s studied ancient Near Eastern history would instantly recognize it. What were the chances? Two people sitting on a bus, reading actual books, both about the ancient Near East?

800px-Narmer_Palette

Bus etiquette, as I understand it, doesn’t allow me to ask a stranger, “What’re you reading?” It’s kind of a personal question, really. I’ve been doing this commute for going on five years now. The number of books next to me has been negligible. But one related to the very topic I was reading about? Was this one of those “if you see something, say something” things? Instead I practiced custody of the eyes and went back to my own book. Then the other unthinkable: she talked to me. “Do you know where,” she began—“ancient Egypt!” I thought. But then she asked where a certain restaurant was. I apologized. I never pay attention to the businesses along the highway. I’ve always got a book to read. I thought about asking her about the book. She had, after all, breeched the dam of silence. Instead I turned back to my own book and didn’t notice when the bus reached a restaurant whose name I didn’t even know. That’s what etiquette demands.

Law of Rule

Anyone who believes in the rule of law has never been on a broken down NYC commuter bus. There’s a rare kind of tension among the early morning commuter crowd. To put this in context I should say that I awake at 4 a.m. to catch the first us through town, five days a week. I’m usually somewhere between four and six on the passenger count, but if lots of people need to be in New York before sun-up, I may be as far down as 10. I select my seat with care. I tend to sit two seats behind the driver. I prefer the right-hand side of the bus, but there’s a regular who sits there and, I’m given to understand, she’s been doing this for over a decade. So I sit left. It’s never a good portent when I end up having to go four or more rows back. You see, the buses usually unload in a fairly orderly way, the front rows get out first, and each row takes its turn. Since too early is never early enough to be at work, I sit near the front because in the back you can lose precious minutes waiting for those who are sleeping to rouse themselves enough to find their feet and stumble off. If it sounds like I’m overthinking this, it’s because I’ve been awake since before four and how you start your day sets the tone. Where’d I put my coffee? Arriving at the office frantic and sweating isn’t the best way to impress anyone.

There’s a kind of comfort at being at the end of the line of service. Of course, the commute home means you’re on the bus longer than people who can afford to live closer to the City. First on, last off. Although I easily fall prey to motion sickness, I have taught myself to read on the bus. An hour in and two hours out are goodly amounts of time to really get into a book. I hate to waste time.

IMG_2304

You can smell a bus breaking down. I always hope the driver doesn’t catch a whiff, because s/he’ll call the control center and lawyers will dictate that the bus be stopped. By definition, you’ll be late to work that day. So when I smelled something burning, I hoped I was the only one. Luck has never been my strong suit. The driver pulled over and announced, in a soft voice, that we’d have to wait for the next bus. That means I could’ve slept in for ten more minutes.

The next bus is an “express”—that is local compared to my bus. The driver said, “Just stay in your seats, and I’ll call you.” Of course, people started to get off to form a line, despite the captain’s words. In a universal display of self-importance, those who just got on immediately hurry to get off first. They’ll be first in line to get seats on the next bus. Those who obey the driver are penalized. When it became clear that I could hear crickets chirping on the bus, I decided to put away my book and join the line. After quite a wait, the local came. That would get us to the City in time for work tomorrow. Several minutes later the express came. Those at the back of the line behind me hurried over. By the time I’d gotten there, still trying to honor the most ancient of queuing honor codes—the line—all the seats were taken. Those in the front of the line, now the back, headed over to take first place again, since they had expected the rescue bus to pull in front of our smoking wreck instead of behind, where it did. They weren’t shy about elbowing their unrighteous way to the front when the next bus came. I’d been on the abandoned bus since before 6 a.m. I made the third bus. The guy in my row on the adopted bus tried hard not to make room for a new passenger next to him. I was headed to New York where, I know, all the rules are off.

Harpy New Year

A grueling early morning commute is seldom enhanced by complaining. I suspect most of us would rather not be here, crowded next to strangers on a barely adequate bus, going to jobs we may or may not find fulfilling. We put up with it, I think, because the ways of making a living have been effaced for those of the late boomer generation, but we’re a practical lot. Besides, it is a new year—why not start things off optimistically? Hanging around the Port Authority Bus Terminal as much as I do, you hear things. Our regular dispatcher and some drivers can be heard, sotto voce, saying that nobody wants to take my regular route. It’s a long route in heavy traffic, and I have the greatest respect and sympathy for the drivers. These are women and men with more fortitude than Job. Most of the time. I wonder why no one cares for an express run with so few stops?

The first day back after the holidays, however, the first commute of the new year: One of the regulars missed the bus and had to drive to a stop further along the route and berated the driver for being early. Given that some of us had been standing in the cold and were thankful for relief a few minutes ahead of schedule, and also for the opportunity to get to work a little early, the complaint seemed self-serving. Besides, this customer has made us all late for work before by complaining until a driver, like an exasperated parent, pulls the bus over. And once she starts complaining, she can’t stop. When a second customer joined in, I thought to myself, “Happy New Year.” Things were starting out well.

Yesterday, for the second morning commute of the year, our usual complainer noticed an unclaimed bag at the beginning of the route and, seeing something, said something. The driver radioed it in. Halfway to the city, she pulled the bus over, announcing she’d been instructed to wait for someone to come get the bag. We didn’t know, until he arrived, that he was from the bomb squad. Still, this didn’t stop the complaining sisters from starting on the driver again. When the bomb squad arrived, they looked on with interest as someone’s gym bag was opened with nothing more threatening than smelly socks inside. Then they started griping again. At that point I realized that New Year is indeed a religious holiday. Each new day is an unopened present. And some people will complain, even when left with an unexpected gift.

IMG_0542

Christmas Lights and Machine Guns

“Silent night,” the old hymn goes. “Holy night.” In a gray dawn after a weary, early-morning New Jersey Transit ride to Midtown, I climb off the bus to find the Port Authority Bus Terminal decorated for Christmas. I could say the holidays, since the dangling LED lights are white and non-suggestive of anything too Christian. There are, however, wreaths with red bows adorning the pillars. Beneath them walk men in fatigues with machine guns. I think I’m getting mixed messages here. Later today they’ll announce that there will be no indictment in the homicide of Eric Garner, just a few days after a similar decision concerning Michael Brown’s shooting. There will be protests here in New York, and there will be armed militia when I rush by this evening for an even longer ride home. It’s Christmas time in the City.

IMG_1841

Staten Island may be a long way from Ferguson, Missouri, but both are far, too far from liberty and justice for all. Fear of the other is deep in the human psyche, but for generations we’ve been trying to educate our young that prejudging a person by their race is wrong. We don’t live what we say. Although my hometown was largely white, I had African-American friends growing up. Nothing suggested to me that they were more likely to break the law than any of the other kids I knew. In fact, the bullies I encountered were all white. To our small town, in my young eyes, race didn’t seem to mean too much. We were generally working-class people trying to get by. Prejudice was a word I never heard. Of course, I don’t know the full life of my African-American friends. Perhaps they too received threats and taunts. I hope not, but it seems there’s been more rain than snow this Christmas season.

We live in a constant state of threat. If it’s not racial unrest at home, it’s distrust of the Arab abroad. Always our response is the same—attack and subdue. Show superior force. Some of my fellow commuters look pretty frazzled to me. That night a fight nearly broke out on the bus with a couple of passengers arguing about the territoriality of the narrow seats. I’m looking at the nice Christmas lights brightening the prematurely dark sky as we trundle through the various neighborhoods where the bus makes its stops. This is a racially mixed neighborhood if the people regularly getting off here are any indication of the demographics. It seems so peaceful. The machine guns enforcing civility are far behind. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.

Our Pigeons, Ourselves

You don’t have to be in New York City long to begin to see yourself as an expert on pigeons. The ubiquitous avians are ruthlessly castigated as “flying rats” and “filthy birds,” primarily because they like people food and poop everywhere. I have it on the authority of Gomi and Stinchecum that everybody poops. From what I’ve seen walking through the city early on the morning after a holiday, not everyone is discriminate about where—and I’m not talking only about the pigeons. Still, I can’t help thinking that pigeons are unfairly maligned. They are pretty birds, when examined individually. They have iridescent throat feathers and a pleasing, portly gait—almost jaunty. They manage well, despite hardships. Often I see one hobbling about missing a foot or otherwise physically challenged, and yet ebullient in their pullastrine way.

IMG_1287

Yesterday as the NJ Transit behemoth in which I was riding rounded the helix into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I saw two depressed pigeons. Unlike the jolly bobbing and pecking they usually seem to enjoy, this pair was simply standing. On the ground before them was a dead pigeon. Now I don’t know the backstory here, but the two standing around didn’t look like murderers to me. It seemed that they’d come upon a fallen comrade and were, in their own way, offering respects. In the ongoing debate separating ourselves from other animals, I often wonder if we have by-passed many of the basics. I do know that many animals find dead of their own species distressing. This is well documented. Why not pigeons?

Pigeons—related to doves, which, according to some religious traditions have sacred qualities, eh, Mary?—are seldom classed as the brightest of birds. I’ve written about the intelligence of corvids before, but pigeons have uniquely adapted themselves to our polluting ways. I grew up in a small town where pigeons weren’t especially abundant. They gather in large numbers where many people congregate and drop their litter. And, based on my recent experience, contemplate the mysteries of death. Peregrine falcons lurk overhead, doling out death at over 200 miles an hour. All the pigeons want to do, it seems to me, is to get a free lunch in an uncertain world where those whose presence has conjured them despise them. Unlike their sacred cousins, they are, like us, utterly pedestrian. Maybe they too appreciate the simple value of life.