5:10, Queens Plaza: You can feel your ears plug the moment the train passes under the East River. A sucking of air, as if we’ve passed through a wormhole into another dimension. In fact, the entire character of the train has changed–gone are the tourists (other than the aforementioned, unlucky Germans) and the panhandlers and the Upper East Siders. The crowd is decidedly more working class now, with the weary expressions and quiet, somber reflection that that entails. Less voices are heard now; no chattering over directions to famous landmarks, no obnoxious pleas for money. Everyone is curled up with their thoughts, or at least their headphones, turning off the world outside. The only ones with the energy and will to talk are the high school kids on their way home, and they are few and far between at this time of day. We pull into Queens Plaza, one of the last places to transfer trains before the lines diverge and spread out across the borough in all directions. An E express train pulls into the station across the platform. Half the passengers in our car go scampering off to grab a seat, all those people headed out to Jamaica and the eastern edge of the city. My destination is closer. I stretch out my legs–reveling in all the newfound space–and go about finishing the chapter I am reading before I reach my stop.
5:12, 36th Street: A stop where nothing happens. It is the only stop on my commute from which not a single anecdote can be wrung. This afternoon is no exception. Three people exit the train, the same three that disembark here every evening. For these three, no doubt, the stop at 36th Street is a lifesaver, but I can’t help but feel that all in all it is superfluous, cutting a half-dozen blocks of walking off the commute of a handful of people. For me, its chief purpose is to act as a warning signal that my stop is next. I put my book away and zip up my bag. Without a book the distance between stop feels interminable. It makes me wonder how those people who stare at the floor or out the window the entire trip can stand it. My only plausible answer is that exhaustion makes for vivid, engrossing daydreams. We are all zoning out to some degree. Even the words in my book are beginning to blur by this point. I stand up and offer my seat to the nearest person, more to keep from falling asleep than any chivalrous feelings, and begin inching towards the doors.
5:15, Steinway: Named for the famed piano maker whose factory practically invented Astoria. From the amount of people that pour out of the train you would think it was the most important street in the entire city. A veritable sea of humanity flows from the doors and across the platform towards the stairs leading up to the street. Having ridden in the first car, I am near the front of the pack. All around me people are sprinting up the steps to the turnstiles; I can’t tell if they’re in a hurry to get somewhere or are just scared of being overrun by the crowd behind them. It reminds me of the running of the bulls, with people playing the parts of both pursuer and the pursued. At the top of the steps, in a corner by the station booth, a Muslim man throws down his prayer mat, sinks down onto his knees and bows to the east. Directly above him on the wall, on a poster featuring a smiling, wide-eyed young girl in cap and mortarboard advertising a for-profit university, someone has drawn a three-foot penis entering the girl’s ear. In my fatigued state I sense that somewhere therein lies a metaphor for the New York experience, but I am too exhausted to examine it further. Like all else here, it is something I simply see and accept. As Homer said, “There is a time for words and there is also a time for sleep.” So ends another day’s odyssey.
Photo Source: Astoria