Commute

It’s 7:45AM when I grab my jacket and head out the front door. The morning chill greets me as I pull my arms through the backpack straps and head to the street.

Pine Drive is quiet on this October morning. Most of the birds that serenaded me on warm summer mornings are gone. The clatter of acorns falling from the trees across the street ended last week. A squirrel suddenly scrambling up a maple tree next door breaks the silence like an tank division moving in. I moved here a few months ago because of this quiet.

I make the left onto Highland and head down the hill. The leaves look slick, so I shuffle-step a bit as I descend. A fall on this steep slope would hurt. I hear the approach of a car from behind and shuffle to the side of the narrow street to let it pass.

Like Pine Drive, Highland’s narrow span is bordered with leaf piles. I don’t want to plunge into the damp leaves and end up with wet and stained shoes, so giving way for the car is not as easy as most days.

After two blocks I emerge from the umbrella of the tall pines and oaks and into the morning sun. The sky is clear today and the difference is startling. Highland widens here, while it flattens out.  A woman who is often out walking at this time of day passes me going uphill. We trade the acknowledging nods of the early shift.

7:45 isn’t really early. I’ve been up for more than two hours already, and by now most commuters are already well on their way. But the low sun, thanks to the silliness that is Daylight Savings Time, as well as the quiet neighborhood, makes it feel much earlier.

I reach the end of Highland and make another left, onto Brookview. A car whizzes by, racing from Clinton to Washington, probably to avoid a red light. I’m about halfway to the bus stop now and it will feel less and less like an idyllic morning with each block.

As I round the big bend where Brookview becomes Carnation Street I see the older couple with the little Shiba Inu. Like every morning the dog is out front with her nose on the ground, the man is a few steps behind with the leash, and the woman brings up the rear with a handful (literally) of shopping bags, poised for action when the Shiba finally finds her spot.

Carnation straightens out and I arrive at the last intersection before Washington Avenue. Two cars and a school bus pass through the intersection before I can cross. I’ve descended the hill and it’s no longer a quiet morning.

It’s rush hour, and I am starting to feel rushed.

I reach the end of Carnation. Cars, trucks, and buses stream up and down Washington Avenue. It’s longer than a minute before I can finally cross to reach the bus stop.

Three people are already waiting for the next bus, resignedly checking their watches and phones for the time. Two more people arrive. There’s a bus after a few minutes but it’s standing room only and none of us board

Four minutes later another bus arrives, verifying that New Jersey Transit is having a typical day. (Buses are scheduled to be 15 minutes apart.) It has seats for all of us.

There are two types of bus driver: those that are aware that there are passengers on board and those that are not. The drivers that know we are here are mindful of stopping and starting. The drivers that are unaware of us leave us feeling like James Bond’s martini when we arrive at the bus terminal. Today I am lucky. I’ll be able to read, and maybe even type on my phone or netbook. 

Two more stops and we are underway. The bus bobs and weaves down Teaneck Road toward RT80 and the Turnpike, weaving left for a beer delivery truck and bobbing right for a minivan making a left toward a school.

I open my Kindle to Rabbit, Run. Harry Angstrom is a louse, but Updike makes the ride recede into the background until we exit the Turnpike and approach the over-capacity express bus lane.

The daily queue of 20 pounds of buses into a 10-pound bag commences. I try to focus on the book, but the stop and go of the bus constantly reminds of how pathetic New York and New Jersey’s efforts (if the word even fits) to get people to work are.

We eventually get into the bus lane and creep toward our goal. I look to my right at the car lanes. As slow as the buses move, the cars are moving much more slowly. New Jersey Transit is unreliable, but driving is often worse.

As we approach the terminal the book pulls me in again. Updike is truly a master. He writes the way I want to write when I grow up. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is the kind of jackass that if I read about him in a news story I wouldn’t make it past the lede, but Updike sucks you in with his prose, and hooks you with his internal dialogue.

We finally make it through the tunnel and into the terminal, but NJ Transit and the Port Authority aren’t done with us yet. The daily ordeal of disembarking passengers, rehearsed for decades now, is still full of surprises. It’s Groundhog Day with hundreds of buses, thousands of people, and tens of confused employees. They’ll get it right someday.

I exit the bus and descend through the terminal. The Port Authority Bus Terminal serves as a reminder of the still-dirty New York of 1990 that I started w0rking in after the Army. The terminal is still grubby, overcrowded, and it’s even starting to fill with homeless people again. The neighborhoods around the terminal have, for the most part, been scrubbed clean by gentrification and tourist attractions but the terminal stubbornly refuses to develop any redeeming characteristics at all. Neglect is a powerful force.

Being where it is, the terminal sees its share of tourists. Whirling, twirling, gaping, and gasping, roadblocks to be dodged on the way to the escalators and doors. I work my way through the crowd, and onto the corner of 42nd and 8th.

As expected, all four corners of the intersection are clogged with people. The two eastern corners sport people handing out free newspapers nobody wants. The western corners; people selling bus tour tickets few want. And of course each corner is crowded with people trying to cross the street. This all combines to make an already crowded situation stifling, a noisy situation cacophonous.

This is morning in the Big Apple, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo Credit: Bosc D’Anjou

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