Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Transit Strike!

I suppose a key role bloggers play is recording what's happening in the world as it happens. The thing happening in my world today is my back pain . . . brought on by the transit strike.

First, let me start by asking what's wrong with New Yorkers? In every newspaper I pick up, people are complaining about the transit strike. Agreed. It's frustrating. But what's with blaming the workers?

I ride the subway every day. From what I can see, being a transit worker ain't no walk in the park.

Granted, mornings on the subway are very nice, for me at least. I take the B or Q train to Manhattan. The ride is stunning. The B and Q trains cross the Manhattan bridge. If I ride facing the south, my view is the Brooklyn Bridge. There is something calming about the image of the Brooklyn Bridge first thing in the morning. Shafts of sunlight bounce off the East River and shower the Brooklyn Bridge. Often, I'll see a tugboat pushing or pulling a barge towards the Brooklyn Bridge, making a nice white wake. The tugs make their way south towards the Statue of Liberty, who from afar beckons them on. The subway is romantic for five minutes or so every day.

Evenings are not so good. By then, the rats are awake. Standing on the platform at 34th street, a co-worker and I saw about 10 rats within the five minutes we waited for the train. No kidding. Two rats per minute. Two new rats that we hadn't seen before. (Trust me. They don't all look alike.) Once, at the station nearest to my house, I saw a rat on the platform pushing past riders trying to get home from a hard day at work.

Transit workers work among those rats. The station managers, the cleaners, the motormen. They co-exist in a world of rats in the bowels of New York City every day. My five minutes underground with the rats pale in comparison to their eight or more hours. Another day, I exited the C train at Clinton-Washington in Brooklyn. I took the stairs to the street like a zombie, not really minding my step. That's when I noticed, right in front of me, a large pile of human excrement. Someone had to clean that up. That someone was a transit worker.

It's unfair on so many levels to ask transit workers to sacrifice their pensions at 55 for pensions at 62, as the transit authority is demanding, so that people like me can take a trip into Manhattan that is business as usual today or tomorrow or the next day. If I worked daily in the dark of a station or tunnel among rats, urine, and the occasional human mega-crap, I'd be demanding alot more than to retire at 55.

And I haven't even mentioned the train operators who live in fear of the day when someone will decide to commit suicide or homicide by jumping or pushing someone in front of their subway train. It's next to impossible to stop 2000 tons of steel on a dime, particularly on tracks that are over a century old. So the protocol (and as I understand it, this happens several times a week), is for the operator to crawl under the train with a flashlight to inspect the mangled corpse du jour. Can you imagine operating a train that has killed a person and then having to immediately crawl under the train and look at what you've done? Transit workers don't have any emergency or trauma training of the sort that a police officer or firefighter might get. They are your average person in a fairly non-heroic job.

Give the workers a break already!

So this morning I had a doctor's appointment on the Upper West Side. I would have cancelled, except for all the excruciating pain I'm in. I have some sort of foot ailment brought on by the repetitive stress of jogging. This foot problem has thrown my back out -- a double whammy. My doctor suggested I take the Long Island Railroad. I would take it outbound to Jamaica, Queens and from there inbound to Penn Station. Then I would have to take a cab, assuming I could find one, uptown. Well, when my doctor suggested this, I envisioned lines at the train station with the potential to last hours. After reading the Times online a few minutes ago, I now know that these lines were real. Many trains from Long Island passed by people at Jamaica station because they were packed. I chose to ride my bike.

Let's review. Bad foot. Bad back caused by bad foot. Bicycle. Twenty-two degrees outside.

It was a nightmare from the very start. Brooklyn streets were choked with stalled traffic. The bike lanes were full of idling cars, turning cars, and double-parked trucks. Traffic creeped towards Flatbush Avenue, the feeder to the Manhattan Bridge, one of the three bridges from Brooklyn into Manhattan. I did my best to snake my way between cars and pedestrians, who were out in unprecendented numbers, all marching towards the East River. Cops were everywhere. It was sheer chaos. Sweet Jesus!

I'm guessing that most of us on bikes had never ridden into Manhattan and had no idea what we were doing. So I, like the rest of them, followed other cyclists. When I finally made it to the bridge, I hoisted my bike over my shoulder,like dozens of other cyclists ahead of me, and climbed the stairs to the bridge walkway. That's when a pedestrian told me the police were ticketing people on bicycles for riding on the pedestrian side. I carried my bike back down the stairs and rode over to the proper side. Funny, but the pedestrians who were walking on the cycling side were not getting tickets. There were no cops in sight on that side. And cyclists found themselves having to ride serpentine to ride around the pedestrians and dodge the oncoming cyclists heading into Brooklyn.

When I hit Manhattan soil, I was totally lost. I went up Grand Street. That seemed to work until I hit the East River at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. Hmmm. I rode through a giant public housing complex off Delancy, trying to backtrack to Canal. A man walking with two small children cheered me on. "Go on girl! Do what you gotta do!" I chuckled to myself. Somewhere around that time, in the public housing complex near Delancy, I felt my back throbbing. Cold air, potholes, and hard cycling are evidently not good for the back.

Traffic in Manhattan was actually better than normal. People from Manhattan rarely give a thought to the outer boroughs where the transit strike created a battle zone for commuters. Manhattan, protected at all cost, was a dream. People were walking dogs, sipping coffee, Christmas shopping! Through Soho, I had the streets to myself. I breezed through Washington Square Park, graising the arch as I rode up 5th Avenue the wrong way and then over to Union Square. The temparature had risen to 26 degrees fahrenheit, without factoring the windchill felt from a bicycle.

From Union Square, I rode up Broadway the wrong way because the bike lane there had cones in it to distinguish it from car lanes. Unfortunately, delivery trucks and taxi cabs stopping abruptly to pick up and drop off fares thought that this bike lane had been reserved for them. I was quite literally on Mr. Toad's wild ride.

When a freakin' minivan drove into the bike lane and stopped short right in front of me, THEN flipped into reverse in my direction, I couldn't help but follow my impulses. (I'm a small town girl with a big city mouth.) The open, leather lined palm of my Eddie Bauer fleece glove purposely and with great gusto hit the minivan making a loud thud. The driver got in my face. I got in his, then kept riding. North I rode, into Central Park, which for five minutes was my refuge. I dipped out at 72nd Street, my docor's office.

Doctor's office: blah, blah, blah. No, he couldn't figure out what was wrong. Yes, I needed an MRI. And when did I want to finish up that hammer toe surgery? April. Yes, April. I relaxed. I drank coffee to warm myself up. The visit was inconclusive, but I hardly minded since it gave me a chance to exist once again in soothing warmth.

Running out of excuses not to leave, I toughed it up and got back on my bike to make the long trek home. I chose Broadway again. Word of advice. Don't ride a bicycle through Times Square. Very unpleasant experience. The ride again seemed to take forever. My back let out a silent scream. An angry pedestrian flipped off a motorist who felt a need to lay on his horn. People lined up for discount tickets to The Color Purple. Back in Soho, women clad in fur coats and over-sized sunglasses clutched their Chanel shopping bags. They popped in and out of my lane for the chance to negotiate with cab drivers going in their direction.
I chugged over the bridge in granny gear this time, no longer feeling the rush of adreneline from riding under such unusual circumstances. The rails in the center of the bridge, normally screeching with long, steel subway cars, remained silent.

I made it home in one piece, albeit in more pain than when I left my house five hours earlier, but having gained a new perspective on my city.

I want the strike to end. I want the MTA to give the workers what they want.

I moved to New York in 2004, one year after the blackout that crippled the northeast and three years after 911. For the past 18 months, there has been hardly a struggle in New York, at least nothing much out of the ordinary.

How do I feel after my taste of New York City in crisis? Eh. It's just another day in this great city.

Friday, December 16, 2005

What's in a Name?

As a child, I always felt my name, Veronica, was too old for me. My family called me by my nickname, Roni, which in my mind was no better. There was a boy who lived down the street named Ronnie Carr. Regardless of the spelling, Roni was a boy's name to me. But my parent's misjudgment went beyond my first name. For some bizarre reason, they thought it was a good idea to give me the middle name, Sue. Let me take a step back.

I am the youngest of seven children. (Five of us were accidents. Oops.) Before I came along, my parents had a three boys and three girls -- how nice. If they had to have a seventh, they would have liked another boy. So with great hope, they chose the name David Joel for their unborn seventh bundle of joy. When I popped out, another girl, they were completely unprepared. So my oldest sister who was 19 years oldat the time named me Veronica Sue. I should add that she also dropped me on my head sixth months later.

My parents were both born in Pennsylvania, well above the Mason-Dixon line. But in black American families like mine who moved north from southern roots, some southern vestiges remain. The nickname "Roni Sue" was one of those vestiges. My parents were kind enough to refrain from calling me by that awful name, as to call me that would amount to child abuse. But I had relatives. Lots of them. My cousin Gerry was my first cousin, but only a few years younger than my mother. She always, always called me Roni Sue. Sometimes she'd make a rhyme. "Roni Sue, how are you?" It was excrutiating to say the least.

As I grew older, I grew into the name Veronica. I learned to love it, in fact. And now that I'm reaching middle age (I'll never admit to having actually reached it), I am coming out of the closet about this Roni Sue thing. By the time I'm 80, I think I'll love being called Roni Sue. At the moment, however, it's sort of a joke name only suitable for blogs and e-mail.

I actually had more profound things to say today (of course) and ended up on this tangent. So I'll go with it.

Last night was my office holiday party. We went to Mary Ann's on the Upper West Side, Broadway and 91st. I don't remember much about the food . . . ahem. But the margaritas were excellent. Mary Ann's is definitely worth a try. We had the obligatory gift exchange, and this is what got me thinking about my name, Roni Sue. I made the mistake of disclosing this little factoid about me to a co-worker with a sense of humor. This certain co-worker was emcee for the gift exchange, so when he pulled my name, he called out for all the world to hear, "Roni Sue! This next gift is for you!" Fortunately, I was drunk so I had a good laugh. But anyway. I digress yet again. I want to talk about this gift exchange phenomenon.

What the flip is up with gift exchanges? Every damn year I hear horror stories about gift exchanges. Personally, I don't care for them at all. I always end up with some crappy gift that I have to throw away or if ridiculous enough, place on my "What Were They Thinking" shelf. Typically, there is an absurd $10 spending limit which guarantees that I'll receive something totally useless. These gift exchanges remind me of some not-so-happy parts of my childhood. Being the youngest of seven, and being the daughter of a low-wage earning father in a single-income family, Christmas was never as jolly as I hoped. My older brothers and sisters always got new toys or clothes. My parents would gift wrap hand-me-down toys and clothes and put them under the tree for me. These office gift exchanges remind me of the disappointments of my childhood Christmases.

Right. Disappointment. Note to self. Find therapist.

My office actually put fun twist on the gift exchange this year, making it more than bearable for me. We drew names and buy a toy or book we think that person would have liked as a child. We opened them at the holiday party last night. Now, we donating the gifts to charity. I'm not sure anyone other than a little girl at the next table who couldn't take her eyes off us (or, rather, our gifts) really cared about the contents of the brightly wrapped packages. The fun was in the buying and in the ripping open. I drew the name of a man who is a community organizer and cares a good deal about equality and fairness in society. (I work at a civil rights law firm. No surprise there.) I bought him my favorite Dr. Suess book, The Sneeches. It's about a society of . . . sneeches, some with stars on their bellies and some with plain bellies. The star-bellied sneeches don't want to associate with the the plain-bellied sneeches, whom they perceive to be a lesser species. You get the picture, right? I received what looked like a little black (African American) troll dressed in couture. It was supposed to be a compliment, I think. Some child who might otherwise get a wrapped hand-me-down will love it. Nice!

My friend Helen, unfortunately, was subjected to the worst sort of gift exchange. The Yankee Swap. I swear, this symbolizes the worst traits of our capitalistic society. Basically, someone gets an oven mit, and someone gets a video iPod. Two years ago when my husband was living in Basel, Switzerland, he was part of a Yankee Swap. He bought Michael Moore's "Dude Where's My Country," a gift he would have really liked to have himself. He went home with a 20-pound bag of rice. True story. To this day, he is emotionally pained when he cooks rice.

The way Yankee Swap works is you buy and wrap a gift for someone whose identity is unknown to you. You bring it to the party, and at the party you take a number. The first person takes any gift from the pile. The person who draws number two can take from the pile or *steal* the first person's gift. And so on and so on. Once your gift is stolen, you can take another gift from the pile or steal from someone else. And so on, and so on. A Yankee Swap ALWAYS results in someone getting screwed and someone getting over.

Now my friend Helen is nobody's fool. Plus, she had just watched the American version of the TV show The Office where the oven mit/video iPod example originated. (I prefer the UK version of the show, but the American version has grown on me.) In Helen's office, there were 16 numbers. Helen drew 15. She was actually able to calculate in her head what would have to happen in order for her to go home with what was tantamount to the video iPod. And she did. And, of course, for all yin there is yang. The oven mit person was very upset, disappointed, and hurt by the person who took the gift they wanted.

Here's hoping that if you get the oven mit, it's the gift you really want. And most importantly, let's not forget the people who don't even get an oven mit. Give generously to your favorite charity.

At the end of my office party, we gave a gift to the little girl at the next table. We also gave one to her little brother. The rest of the toys and books will put smiles on the faces of three dozen children in Haiti.