Getting held up by New York


I’m working on a novelette about the meningitis madness of last month. Until I get it done, let me entertain you with another tale of traveling with pain.

About five years ago, I fled an intolerable situation in California and, being pretty sure I was in my last few months of life, went back to the Northeast to visit with my nearest and dearest and stay until I mended or died, whichever it turned out to be. In short, I was not at my precarious best. I’d thinned my belongings down to what would fit in a suitcase small enough for me to handle, plus a spare set of “smallclothes” and meds in my laptop bag.

I flew into JFK airport and made my way (eventually) to a New York suburb down the street — and downmarket — from Scarsdale. I thought flying across country was hard work. Leave it to New York City (and environs) to adjust that perception. Anything worth doing is worth doing BIG!

It started with getting my luggage — the carousel changed 3 times. It had my supplements and laptop power cord in it, so there was no leaving it behind, as there was no knowing where it would wind up if I abandoned it and tried to get it tomorrow — it could land in Athens stuffed with either explosives or maple candy, or in the garbage scow on the Hudson stuffed with random bits of unsuccessful mobster; the contents would be more oddly distributed still. I’ve been flying into and out of JFK since the early 1970s, and I never leave my luggage uncollected there.

Each time a new carousel number was posted next to our flight number, herds of wilde travelbeests lumbered across the linoleum plains, flowing around eyots of irrelevant carousels and travelers from other flights, who huddled against treelike pillars and carousel islands in order not to be trampled underhoof.

I limped gamely after, unwilling to leave my luggage to the mercies of the feral crowd. We ultimately wound up back at the first one, which somehow didn’t surprise me.

I managed to get my bag unhooked from the carousel lip, but no further. It was just about to throw us both into the guy next to me, when he kindly popped it out and dropped it neatly next to me, with a brisk nod. Then went back to fieldย the hefty steamer trunk of the twitchy Givenchy skeleton behind him.

I debated taking the bus to Penn Station ($3.50) vs train-shuttle (unstated) to the shuttle-bus($1.50); figured train-shuttle would be free, as my training in UI & signage, and casual acquaintance with the law regarding same, made it absolutely clear that prices must be stated up front. No price stated, ride is free. Sweet!

Of course, every other international airport I’d been to in the past 20 years provided free transport within the airport complex. This was New York, where you’re charged even for the gum on your shoe, so I was a little wary, but I was also exhausted and poor.

Got off at the end of the train-shuttle, pulled my wheeled suitcase to the exit door, and there found a sign stating it cost $5 to exit the train-shuttle station.

Stared at sign for 2 solid minutes, flies drifting in and out of my open mouth. SO. BLEEPING. WRONG.

Briefly considered going back, but too tired. I gave up my prospect of a little “real” food in the city to get out of the shuttle track area (why did I think $5 would buy anything in NYC?), and got to the shuttle bus.

The leaderboard read, “Penn Station.”

I asked the driver when the bus came that would take me to Grand Central. He said, “This bus goes to Penn Station.”

I asked again when the bus came for Grand Central Station, and the bus driver again said, “This bus goes to Penn Station.”

I said, “I understand that. I’m wondering when the bus is that goes to Grand Central.”

“This bus goes to Penn Station, lady.”

It finally dawned on me, as he was about to close the door in my face, to ask if there WAS a bus to Grand Central from the airport.

“Nope. This is the only shuttle into the city.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. You have to get from Penn to Grand Central yourself.[I interjected, in shocked squawk, “STILL?” He nodded.] You can take a bus or the subway, but with your luggage, you’ll want to take a cab.”

I hitched up my jaw and hauled self and luggage in. He almost waited until I was seated to take off.

A teenager tripped over my suitcase on the wide, spacious, brightly-lit shuttle-bus. My suitcase came up to mid-thigh and was HOT PINK. Somehow, he walked right into it and went down with it — wrenching my wrist and elbow of course. After looking around blearily, initially wanting to blame someone other than his own clumsy butt, he very sweetly picked up all 38 pounds that encompassed every object I owned other than the clothes I had on, which was more than I could do, and put the handle back in my hand. I re-wrapped it with the scarf I used to cut the vibration and, with an added loop around my forearm, provide some stability against my weak grip. But, in case of other spaced-out passengers, the loop didn’t go back on until I was off the bus… at Penn Station.

Because it’s NYC, where a good conflict should never be resolved but should be handed down for posterity, they have NEVER IN THE PAST CENTURY figured out how to link up the northbound train station with the southbound train station, despite the fact that the trains are the lifeblood of the city and, on top of that, millions of customers travel from south of NYC (Baltimore, Washington DC, and points south) to north of NYC (from White Plains to Buffalo, all of New England, and Canada) every. freaking. year.

The JFK shuttle comes into the southbound train station, Penn. I needed to leave from the northbound train station, Grand Central. It was up to me, as it has been up to every single individual traveler in the past 100 years, to figure out how to get from provincial-sounding Penn to the arrogantly misnamed Grand Central. Let’s review my choices:

  • ย A cab was out of reach, especially as I’d just blown $5 on a ride that should have been free.
  • The subway meant more confusion, bumping, and stairs (the elevators and escalators are always out of order or being fought or pee’d on, sometimes both at once) than I could even think about without screaming.
  • The bus required finding secret, unmarked bus stops where they WILL ignore you if you’re off by a few feet and, I’m not kidding, either one or two transfers for one of the most essential routes in the city. There was no direct bus between the two major terminals of this train-dependent conurbation.

I can’t make this stuff up!

I decided to haul myself and my hot-pink suitcase the X blocks of crappy city sidewalks to Grand Central. “It’s not that far” — famous last words. “I’ve done it before” — 20-odd years ago, pre-injury.

I checked the map, got a sighting on the sun, went one block to read the street sign and check my direction, turned left, and marched off — for about 5 steps.

There were many adjustments to work out: soft tethering scarf, arm used (eventually, both), length of stride, and what to focus on — the directions, the pedestrians who mostly swerved nicely, the truly awful surfaces I had to traverse. The surfaces won in the end, out of sheer necessity. The occasional bozos, who thought I could steer better than their unladen selves, bounced off of either me or my sharp-edged case, spitting vile things without drawing breath. I kept on, pushing through the yawing wobbles the collisions caused as I pitched and heaved steadily onward.

Dear heavens, it was arduous.

Halfway there, dripping soot-laden sweat and hauling my grimy, now ashy-rose suitcase which had accumulated about 15 pounds of pollution by then, I found myself heading towards a cluster of burly cops standing between a parked cruiser half in the road with its butt half blocking the driveway, and the loading dock behind.

They gave me that dry, supercilious stare that city cops learn in the Academy. It says, “For our comfort and convenience, we’re deciding whether or not to kill you right now. Don’t try to make our day.”

I thought about that for a moment, trudging along with my case baulking at the bad paving, yanking my swollen wrists around like a fighting tarpon. I glanced at the path around the cruiser, involving 2 curbs, bad patching, and a pothole; quite apart from the random, fast, and dangerous traffic in the street. Definitely worse than the sidewalk.

I realized what I looked like: a grubby, chubby, oversocialized, White middle-aged female, evidently too poor for a cab. Very low on the food chain.

I realized I didn’t care.

I flashed back to the Jaguar my friends used to call me.

It was a youthfully arrogant and vigorous period of my life, when an off-duty cop in a bar in Manhattan wanted me to tie him up and beat him black and blue, because he’d really enjoy that. (I refused ever so courteously — which went curiously with the well-worn motorcycle jacket and wash-and-wear lack-of-hairstyle — and walked away, eyebrows twisting at the sheer novelty of the experience.)

I refused to walk around into the street. It was insane and vile to expect it, when I could clearly hardly put one foot in front of the other and was towing my life with battered arms.

No. Not playing that game.

One tactic of successful women:
If the game is rigged against you, change the rules.

This clot of cops got the twin-engined, diamond-drill stare from under my beetling brows, the burning power of pure womanly disgust and exasperation doing the work of 5 bodyguards and a million dollars.

Great shot by Bernard Dupont of France, via Wikimedia.

New York’s Finest peeled back from my path like an amateur drill team, stumbling slightly and eyes wide.

Yeah. That was more like it.

Same photographer, same cat, relaxing after she made her point.

I heard their startled and admiring voices behind me. I almost smiled. I wondered what they’d say if I turned around and demanded a lift. It was almost worth the effort, but turning back was unbearable, even for that entertainment — so I kept on.

NYC cops weren’t so racist then; it might have worked even if I weren’t White. The good old days.

Stumbled into Grand Central, at last.

Just what it’s like. Image by diego_cue

After dropping my sweat-sodden self onto a bench until my breathing evened out, I got up on pure willpower (my legs certainly didn’t have much to do with it) and wobbled up to the ticket window (One of those funny alcoves on the right.)

Despite the unmitigated chaos and relentless interference of my cross-City odyssey until now, I had the pleasure of getting good instructions, delivered clearly; the right ticket to my destination; explicit directions to exactly the right track and the right train; and which cars to avoid — “The drunks use that one, and it’s never clean.”

I fell into the seat nearest the door, then slid to another when someone dumped a heavy bag which fell over onto me, edge first of course. I let the bag lie and he eventually picked it up.

A lovely young woman, the quintessence of perfectly-formed and perfectly-presented modern American beauty, got on in one of the suburbs, sat down across from me, and gave my weary, grubby, chubby, middle-aged self the sweetest and most open smile. I did my best to repay such sweetness from out of the blue with the best smile I could dredge up in return, and a nice word.

I got off at the Scarsdale stop and there was a slight pause in my progress as I resisted the boisterous flow of commuters scenting their stables. Clutching the rail that had kept me from being swept under, I saw a car door open. In a few steps, I fell off of the train station and into the arms of my old friend.

I asked her later why such a beautiful, clean, discreetly made-up, perfectly turned out young woman would greet such a gargoyle’s appearance with such sweetness. My friend replied, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but it’s envy. You can afford to let yourself go [finger-quotes.] She can’t. She wishes she could be like you.”

It finally penetrated what a trap the relentless and expensive looks-slavery of upscale New York is for women. My lifelong sarcastic envy of “Barbie dolls”, not to mention “Givenchy skeletons”, died on the spot and I was glad I’d added the nice word. Anyone who could envy me at that point was in really bad shape.

The cross-country flight was originally going to be the funny story I told to amuse my hostess — delay, changed gate, dashing around in a wheelchair, turbulence, sick babies, nervous lady with long arms and huge rings taking up the aisle and risking the eyesight of those nearby — but it really paled next to the story of the last few miles. She laughed and applauded and then, once I was fed and pilled and washed, tucked me into a soft bed with endless pillows. I slept better than I had in months, safe and still and comfortable at last.

I haven’t tried to cross New York City since, except when I can afford a cab all the way from the airport to Grand Central. Life is too short for that much work and physical battery… and the NYC cops have changed.

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