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.

1 comment:

NicoleW said...
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