4:53, 34th Street: Herald Square, possibly my least-favorite place in the entire city. Those snapshots you have in your head of New York City streets as being seas of people pressed shoulder to shoulder and stretching off into the distance for miles have their origins here. It is a shopper’s paradise, or nightmare, depending on your outlook. All the big department stores are here, including the famous Macy’s flagship that takes up an entire block between 6th and 7th Avenue. It draws an average of 35,000 visitors on a normal day and around 75,000 per day during the holidays. The only miracle here is that no one has snapped and shot up the place yet.
A few dozen people exit our car. Amazingly, only three people board. It looks for a moment like we might have a rare, relaxed, well-spaced-out commute for once, but a voice comes over the public address system to tell us our train “is being held in the station momentarily.” Our car is positioned right next to the stairs. Every few seconds that pass, another desperate commuter–seeing our train parked next to the platform, doors open–comes hurtling down the steps and throws him or herself inside before it’s too late. After a minute of this, our car is fuller than when it arrived.
Beneath the stairs, at the far end of the platform, is a set of double doors leading to a utility closet where the MTA stores its trash dumpsters, amongst other things. Down near the floor where the doors meet, I notice a gap has been chewed away. A few seconds later, a rat pokes its head out onto the platform. It sniffs the air and–finding the situation to its liking–squirms out through the hole and scurries off to its left, down a set of stone steps onto the track below. A little later another rat comes scurrying up the steps and squeezes back through the hole into the closet. The pattern repeats itself two more times while we wait. Some people around me begin to speculate and trade rat anecdotes. Few things elicit conversation amongst New Yorkers like a rat sighting.
From further down the platform, an MTA employee appears, pushing a wheeled dumpster ahead of her. When she reaches the double doors, she pauses for a moment, takes a breath, then pounds her fist hard against them, again and again, causing a metallic boom to echo through the station. Finally, she throws the doors open. Next to me, a woman gasps. The floor is covered in rats. Dozens of them. Dozens more rats crawl across the tops of the garbage bags already filling the dumpsters inside. There are even rats crawling up the heating pipes in the corner of the room; one of them slips as we look on and plummets down into the garbage below, thrashing about furiously as it lands. The MTA employee shrieks as she shoves the new dumpster inside and hurriedly slams the doors shut behind her. When they are locked, she slides over a few feet and leans back against the wall, panting. Her face is ashen and she brushes herself off, as if trying to physically rid herself of what she has just seen.
4:58, Times Square: Most visitors consider it the heart of the city. It is a can’t-miss attraction for tourists, yet–other than those who work or have business there–I don’t know of a single resident who will set foot anywhere near 42nd Street. It is a simulacrum, representing “New York” to billions of people around the world, while paradoxically being in no way representative of the city at large. One could get as much feel for living here by going to Vegas and booking a room at the New York, New York Hotel.
Passenger flow at Times Square station has its own, distinct characteristics. When the doors open, ninety percent of the people on the train filter out. For one brief second your car is almost entirely empty; it resembles the moments directly preceding a tsunami, when the ocean has receded far from shore and you’re left with a barren, eerily calm landscape. Then, the deluge; passengers come pouring in through every door, twice as many as before, sweeping over every square inch of space like a tidal wave wreaking havoc on the coast. If you are unlucky enough to be standing in its path you will be swept up, powerless to stop as you are carried along in its current. From this point on, things will only become more crowded, more uncomfortable until we reach Queens. Tempers fray. People curse, elbow one another, release all the pent-up frustrations of the day. For most, this is the midway point of their commute. So close and yet so far still to go. All around, people are nodding off–heads lolling, eyes drooping like the denizens of some travelling opium den. I thank God it is not summer.
Photo Source: She Knows