Thursday, July 26, 2007

...Where we're twice as upset as in town

Perhaps I jinxed myself when I expressed doubts about whether I'd have anything to blog about this weekend. Not half an hour later I left my apartment and stepped straight into a comedy of errors... except without the "comedy," really. Do you like reading long and irritable accounts of other people's travel mishaps? No? Too bad, because that's what you're getting. The one thing that got me through this afternoon without snapping at innocent passersby or giving up on my little vacation was the thought that, when I got back to my computer, I would write such a blog post about all this.

Things started off well enough. When I left my apartment I was toting a heavy backpack and an equally heavy laptop bag and wearing not-so-practical shoes (this is rare, for me, and I almost always regret it), but I made it to the bus stop two blocks away at the same moment the bus arrived, which I took as a positive sign. Yes, it was crowded and slow-moving, and carrying at least 15 noisy preschoolers on some sort of day-camp field trip, but at least it took some of the legwork out of the errand I had unwisely decided to run on my way to Penn Station. I still had to walk two long avenues west when I disembarked to run said errand, and then two long avenues back to Broadway to catch the subway (I didn't have time to take the bus all the way downtown -- nobody does, really, unless they're not picky about when they arrive). It was hot and humid and just after 1:00 when I arrived at the 86th St. downtown 1 train platform, a dripping, sweaty mess. I set my bags down gratefully and looked around at the surprisingly large number of people also waiting on the platform. Obviously there hadn't been a train in quite some time. Great, I thought, a nice crowded ride downtown. I was too tired to dig out any reading material, and anyway, I'd be reading plenty once I got on the train, so I just stood there dripping and gazing down the track, waiting for the 1 train to appear. It did appear rather quickly, but unfortunately it was speeding past us on the express track. Say it with me: ruh-roh.

A few more minutes went by before an announcement was made over the PA system. It was basically unintelligible, but I believe it went something like this: "Due to a stalled train and a passenger needing assistance at 96th Street, the downtown 1 train is running on the express track. As an alternative to downtown service, transfer to an uptown 1 train to 96th Street and take the express downtown."

Lately I've been reading a lot of headlines about the MTA's proposed fare hikes. I also read about the most recent findings of the Straphangers Campaign State of the Subways Report, which found that the 1 train was the best in the system in terms of dependability. Because of where I live, where the fiance lives, and where I work, I tend to ride the 1 train almost exclusively, and my response to that was, "Wow, if the 1 train is the best, then the MTA is doing even worse than I thought." Because, seriously. I suppose you can't blame the MTA for a passenger's "needing assistance," whatever that means, but you sure as hell can (and I sure as hell do) blame them for taking so long to inform all of us would-be downtown passengers that we were screwed. Based on the number of people waiting on the platform, and the 1 train that whizzed past us on the express track just after I arrived, service had been suspended for some time already when I got there. But nobody stopped me, or any of the people after me, from running a Metrocard through the turnstile, paying for a ride we would not be able to take. I even saw a guy swipe in after that announcement had been made (fighting against the tide of people storming out); nobody bothered to stop him, either.

I have an unlimited-ride card, so I didn't join the throng of customers looking for a refund or a transfer from the token-booth clerk. Instead I went upstairs and hailed a cab, because it was now 1:15 and I didn't have time to go uptown and then downtown again on the subway. (Plus I was really sick of lugging around my bags, and teetering a little on my not-so-practical shoes, and did I mention it was very hot?) So I rode downtown, feeling sorry for myself as I watched the price ticking up on the cab's meter -- it ended up costing me more to get to Penn Station than it would to get from there to Bridgehampton -- and feeling sorry for the people stranded on the corners of Broadway wherever there was a 1-train stop.

When I finally got to Penn Station, the clock there said it was 1:34. My train was to leave at 1:39. So I ran to the nearest ticket machine, which actually accepted my credit card on the first dip (I'd say the machines fail to read my card a good 65% of the time), and then ran back to the departures board. I saw "1:39... track 19," and rushed down the stairs. A conductor (do they call them conductors? Can a train have multiple conductors? I like that word, and will use it until you suggest a better one) was standing in the nearest train doorway, so I asked him, "Jamaica?" (I always have to switch at Jamaica to catch another train to Bridgehampton), and he said, "Yes." Phew! I hopped on. No seats available, so I stood in the entrance-area, happy just to put down my bags.

Here's something you should know about me: I hate being late for things. If it's up to me (and I am not thwarted by, say, the subways), I almost never am; when it's not up to me, I have a hard time believing things will come out all right. And here's something else (possibly related) you should know about me: I have very little faith in my travel instincts. I always secretly suspect I'm on the wrong train, or airplane, or bus, or highway, or elevator, and I only calm down a little bit after the conductor (or whoever) checks my ticket. (They would probably tell me if I were on the wrong train/plane/bus, but you never know.) This quirk of mine doesn't stem from any real-life experience that I can recall -- I've never flown to Spain when I wanted to go to Pittsburgh or anything like that, and I usually do a decent job of figuring out where I'm supposed to be. It's just one charming manifestation of my personal insecurity. Normally, these two quirks -- my preference for leaving myself lots of extra time, plus my hyper-vigilance about the details of travel -- prevent me from actually messing things up, or at least I believe they do. But what happens when the MTA takes away my extra time? I fail to notice that, apparently, there are two trains departing from Penn Station at 1:39, and one of them is going straight to Jamaica, where it will make its connection to the Bridgehampton-bound train, without stopping at Woodside, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens first. I am only guessing, because I am on the 1:39 train that makes all of those stops, on its way to Jamaica and points beyond. When the conductor punches my ticket, he says, "Okay, you'll have to transfer at Jamaica... and there's an information booth on track 8." An information booth? I am not encouraged. This does not look good for Homestar Runner.

When at last we arrive at Jamaica, I have a bad feeling about what kind of information I am in for, but I ask the information-booth lady anyway -- trying to sound as hopeful as possible -- "When is the next train to Bridgehampton?" She answers -- is that a smirk? -- "Not till 4:25." It is now approximately 2:10. Super. I consider whether I can kill 2 hours in Jamaica (not with my heavy bags I can't). I consider taking the subway all the way back, which would definitely kill a good chunk of that time, and which is already paid for, but after what I've been through so far today I just don't trust the subway. So I buy a round-trip ticket to Penn Station (I'll have to ride back out here again, remember, to catch that 4:25) and jump on the 2:14 Manhattan-bound train. More money wasted, as the conductor walks right past me when he comes collecting tickets.

Back on 34th Street, I call my sister to tell her I'll be later than I originally planned, and then call the fiance to tell him how my day is going (I felt he would want to know of my unhappiness). Then I head across the street to Borders, where I read the book I'd been saving for the train and nurse a coffee. (I was tempted to buy one of those high-calorie, low-nutrition "blended coffee drinks," but I'd blown my luxuries budget on the cab.) I head back out to Penn Station well before I need to, just so I'll have plenty of time to study the departures board before making any sudden moves. When the 3:58 pulls out, I am sitting on it, across the aisle from a young man with a German accent who is SHOUTING into his cellphone about his evening plans. ("HELLO? YES, I AM ON ZE TRAIN TO SOW-TAMPTON! VAT TIME IS ZE OPENING?") The conductor does take my ticket this time. At Jamaica, I transfer for the last off-peak train to Montauk, stopping at Bridgehampton (and running express to West Hampton; thank the MTA for small favors), and I move to the end of the platform to increase my chances of getting a comfortable seat. Then the train arrives, and it's one of those short ones that don't take up the whole length of the platform, so I have to run back along the platform to where the last car stops, with all the other morons who thought they were beating the system. But I've been feeling like a moron all day long, so this is nothing. I'm just happy to finally be on my way. (I suppose it bears mentioning that, when I complain about "the MTA," as I often do, I really just mean the subway system. The LIRR and Metro-North have never let me down. That is, unless the whole "Connection to Bridgehampton? What connection to Bridgehampton?" screwup was theirs and not mine... but it probably wasn't.)

Epilogue: When I get on the train, I find a flier on my seat. (I noticed many similar fliers littering the floor of the train to Jamaica.) It is headed "The Fare Facts" and takes the form of an open letter from Elliot G. Sander, Executive Director and CEO of the MTA, printed in English and, on the reverse, in Spanish. He "encourages" me to read the MTA's Preliminary Financial Plan for 2008-2011 and "form [my] own opinions." But, he adds, "When you do, bear in mind that it's about more than just fares and tolls." (Emphasis his.) Then he outlines some of the other things it's "about" -- first, "uncontrollable costs like pensions, health care and debt service" that have left the MTA with "future budget gaps." I'm not sure I'm prepared to accept that "uncontrollable" at face value, but I have no stats to back me up, so I'll grant him that. The next bullet point lists the ways that the new plan proposes to close said gaps: "We are tightening our belts with internal administrative efficiencies and better use of technologies, among other things." This I would like to hear more about. "We are also proposing modest increases in fares and tolls." Oh, you know, I think I may have heard something about that... The next point is my favorite: "We have proposed no cuts in service." Don't you love it? It reminds me of how NBC (along with, I believe, the other major networks, but I don't presently watch a lot of network TV) interrupted its programming schedule in March and spent the next 6 weeks or so airing either reruns of The Office or something else entirely during the 8:30 Thursday slot -- and then, when they were wrapping up their little vacation, aired a bunch of promos announcing that they would be showing only new episodes until the end of the season! Gosh, NBC, I am overwhelmed by your generosity! Why, that's 5 whole weeks when I'll be able to watch the show I like to watch in the time slot you're supposed to air it! Aren't I a lucky little consumer! Similarly, I feel overcome with gratitude that, in exchange for charging its customers more, the MTA is pledging not to provide less service than it currently provides. Now that's something to look forward to!

This open letter ends by inviting me to contribute my "advice by email, by letter, or by attending the public forums that will be scheduled" and advertised "well in advance." Perhaps I will. In the meantime, MTA, here's an idea: this afternoon you took $2 from me, and a whole bunch of people besides me, and then told us we wouldn't be getting a train after all. When you're looking to fill those budget gaps, I suggest you start with that money first. Let me know how it goes. As for all the other money I wasted today because of that little service glitch, it would be great if we could count that against my personal fare hike, too. Meanwhile, it would be ungrateful of me not to recall that, for my trouble, I've earned a free trip from Penn Station to Jamaica (or vice versa)! And I thought I wouldn't get to go anywhere exciting this summer.

P.S. Now that I've gotten all this out of my system, I should add that I know, in the grand scheme of things, my day wasn't all that bad. First of all: Boo hoo, I had a difficult time getting to the Hamptons for my 4-day weekend! I know. And second, this time last year, I wouldn't have gotten nearly this far. I couldn't have spent my afternoon running hither and yon, I couldn't have carried a bag that heavy, and I definitely couldn't have worn shoes that were the least bit impractical and expected to get away with it. So you probably shouldn't feel too sorry for me today. But you should still join me in scorning the MTA.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Be careful what you wish for. That afternoon had more than a summer's worth of frustration! Hope you are having a great weekend.