A Month of Tracking My Subway Rides

This morning, after a particularly unacceptable rush hour subway experience that made my friend Lyz one hour late for work, we decided we would start keeping track of our daily subway rides for the next month, and, at month’s end, let the MTA know about all of the indignities we had experienced — from delays to impossibly slow-moving trains to long waits.

It’s true that the MTA already knows about these frustrations, in fact, it sanctioned them with its brutal budget cuts earlier this year. But the fun of this exercise is to try to get a sense of just how bad the MTA has gotten, and whether, when we complain about the subway, we really have adequate perspective. Are we dwelling on the few infuriating rides we’ve had and ignoring all of the times we made it from Point A to Point B without even noticing, or are our commutes filled with consistent head-banging frustration?

I’m particularly attuned to such frustrations, because my commute is pretty brutal. I recently started a new job at Columbia University Medical Center, which requires me to commute from Kensington, Brooklyn, to Washington Heights, Manhattan. That means I ride the train across about one-third of Brooklyn and most of Manhattan twice a day. (My commute used to be much shorter, from Kensington to Union Square in Manhattan). I might move, but for now, I’m riding about one hour and ten minutes each way, from Church Ave (F line) to 168th Street (A line) with a mercifully easy switch at Jay Street in Brooklyn.

Anyway, without further ado, I give you my experience of today, Nov. 30:

The morning got off to a bad start. I arrived on the Church Ave. platform at about 7:25, as the G train, which starts here, was showing no signs of moving. For some reason when the G starts up here, it always takes the train conductors forever to get the train going, or to switch, if one conductor is relieving another. So I waited for about five minutes as the G sat there. Finally, it left, and the F came right after. The rest of the commute was amazingly quick and painless. I had a seat almost the whole way on both the F and the A (which basically clears out after it’s gone through the Wall Street-area stops). The train got to 168th St. at 8:25, which is seriously a record. Not so bad.

Evening commute: I arrived at the 168th Street stop at about 5 p.m. As I was walking through the station, an announcer said a Brooklyn-bound A train — my train — was approaching the station. Like many other rabid commuters, I increased my pace to a swifter walk-jog to try to make it to the platform to catch the train. When I got downstairs, the train was just arriving at the station, but it was empty and not stopping. So much for that train. About five minutes later, the announcer told us the next train coming was not serving customers. Two trains in a row were out of service?! But as the train pulled up, it was pretty full, and stopped to pick us up. So it in fact was serving customers.

As the train moved south, toward 125th, it started slowing down intermittently, as I’ve found it often does during this particular stretch of the commute. These train slowdowns I think are caused by signal or track issues, but I’m not really sure. Either way, there is something infuriating about them, especially when you’re on an express train.

The rest of the ride was pretty smooth, except for several failed attempts to close the doors at the Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau stop in downtown Manhattan. At 5:45, I was at Jay Street waiting to transfer to the F. The platform was crowded with people, suggesting the train was taking awhile to come. I always have wishful thinking that the train will arrive right away when I come into this situation, but I actually had to wait five more minutes for it to come. About three minutes into the wait, an announcer informed us that the delay owed to a passenger who had gotten sick at Broadway-Lafayette. The funny thing is, I had almost the exact same experience yesterday with no announcement about a delay. The F has just been terrible at running frequently at around 5:45, when I’m waiting for it at Jay Street.

I got off at about 5:55 at 4th Ave.-9th Street to head to the gym in Park Slope. Not a great train ride, but could have been worse.

The Book Title Road Trip Game

During our West Coast road trip, my brother invented a car game where the driver lists then fictitious book titles that he has made up and the two passengers invent plausible-sounding subtitles for those books.

Here are ten titles that my brother Arthur came up with:
Inch by Inch
Capone
From the Inside Out
Morgan’s Turn
Shop Class
Indigo
Hurry, Hurry! The Cows are Coming!
Geronimo
Musica
Pretend Lovers
Monroe’s War

And here are the subtitles I came up with, a few of which I am quite proud of:
Inch by Inch: A Community Garden Grows in Gritty Detroit
Capone: The Psychological Life of America’s Most Notorious Gangster
From the Inside Out: Confessions from the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Years
Morgan’s Turn: The Rise of an American Tycoon
Shop Class: Life Lessons from Dad
Indigo: The Hidden Dangers of Clothing Die
Hurry, Hurry! The Cows are Coming! The Story Behind the Filming of ‘Green Acres’
Geronimo: The Heroism of the 42nd Infantry Division in World War II
Musica: A Catalogue of Sensual South American Sounds
Pretend Lovers: The Charles and Diana Story
Monroe’s War: The Birth of an American Foreign Policy

The journalist’s challenge

I’m reading an interesting article by a pilot who frequently writes for Salon about misinformed reporting around the Air France flight disappearance. His criticisms are somewhat technical, like the following:

Next we have a Reuters piece from Miguel Lo Bianco. He writes, “Pilots often slow down when entering stormy zones to avoid damaging the aircraft, but reducing speed too much can cause an aircraft’s engines to stall.” The danger of flying too slowly is not an engine stall, but an aerodynamic stall — that is, a loss of lift over the wings.

I don’t know whether it is material that readers know the stall is aerodynamic, though it does seem at least worth trying to get right. The following criticism, though, seems less pedantic:

But the big gaffe is the reporter’s reasoning for why a Europe-bound plane would stay “overland” along the Brazilian coastline for so long. This has nothing to do with safety reasons. It’s merely the shortest distance.

I think this needs to be reported correctly, but I think there is a  trade that we make as a public, and that our media outlets make, by having to report expediently and constantly. It happens when journalists do not have enough time to write a story that involves some steady concentration. I know that my biggest hang-up when I’m writing stories is that I’m getting something wrong. Then, I spend quarter-hours or half-hours on checking the veracity of an assertion–because that is what these mis-reportings often are, assertions.

Reporters are outsiders, which often makes them look hopefully in-the-dark to people who have been reported on but makes them necessary for everyone else: because it is much more difficult for insiders to communicate a story–because they know more of the nuances and complications–then it is for people who are hearing it for the first time.

So I understand Smith’s desire for the reporting to be less misinformed. But I also understand the reporter’s pressure to report the story and make it reasonably easy to understand.

Odds and ends

I am feeling somewhat miserable with a sore throat and general achiness after returning back from D.C. I guess all of that traversing around in the rain throughout the week, plus a five hour bus ride, complete with a Lincoln Tunnel back-up, wasn’t what the doctor ordered.

I found out the bus passenger next to me  is a pastry chef for a living. Not only that, he is a freelance pastry chef. I asked whether he went to culinary school, and he said he did not. Apparently a freelance pastry chef works in restaurants that do not have full time pastry chefs. He said he specialized in flavors as opposed to sugar sculptures. He also said he is working on an organic ice cream cone for one of his clients right now, because there aren’t too many cones on the market. I started listing the cones I knew of–”let’s see, there’s sugar, there is that dipped waffle cone with sprinkles, there’s that safety cone”–and we both chortled knowingly at the safety cone’s silliness. “Like cardboard!” the chef said.

I have changed my sidebar a bit. I deleted a bunch of stuff and am trying to mainly link to websites that I actually read. Check out Dan Baum in particular. I also added a few more of my friends’ blogs to the roll and will possibly delete those that haven’t been updated in awhile. Please let me know if you have a blog you’d like me to add, especially yours.

Oh, and my siblings and I will be taking a trip out to the Pacific Northwest! We fly out in August and drive down from Seattle to San Francisco for a two week span. Please send me tips. We’re still working out lodging and rental car logistics.

As of this evening, I have seen a Tony Award-winning play. God of Carnage, starring Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden won the award. My mom took me to the play a few weeks ago, when she was in town for graduation. The acting was great. I especially liked James Gandolfini’s reluctantly civilized ruffian jokester character, but everyone was excellent.

Pac-NW road trip update

As I wrote in my last post, I was growing doubtful that I could get things together in time to plan a roadtrip in August to the Pacific Northwest. A premature anxiety about big but nonetheless manageable undertakings is something that defines me, and other neurotics, against the more go with the flow types. I find especially that guys tend to be much more okay with playing it by ear than us women. That’s another blog post, though. (And a few more studies I would have to look through in order to actually make a valid point. Maybe some of my science reporting friends or academic friends can point me to some good psychological journals? I’d love to write “men are from mars, women are from venus” type articles. Those never get old!).

Anyway, a few things came into place that have made this trip likely to happen. One is that my sister, like me, has no plans in life after July 31, 2009. A second thing is, my busy comedian brother appears to be free around that time as well. And my dad actually gave me his blessings for this trip. We can’t borrow one of the family cars, he said, but we might as well rent one. This is the same guy who was trepidatious throughout my teenage years of having us kids drive on the expressways in our area. Actually, my mom was more worried about that.

Flights right now are  as low as I have seen them in awhile. My sister found a flight from New York to Seattle, where we want to begin our trip, for $300. If anyone knows how to find relatively cheap rental cars, please let me know. So far I’m finding the best rates at carrentals.com.

Road trip?

Neurotic people like me plan many things in advance, but one thing we are not so good at planning is vacations. This is in part because we feel like we do not deserve them and therefore don’t prioritize them ahead of time. And yet, after a 9.5 month journalism school program and two years of working before that almost since the day I graduated college in 2006 (with a 6 week break of sorts in the summer of 2008), I could really use a vacation.

At some point this past spring, I got it in my head that it might be nice to take a road trip, because it is something I would not have commandeered in my younger, more workaholic days and because I saw photos from a road trip my cousin took across the United States that looked absolutely beautiful.

So I started to consider going to the Pacific Coast. I have been there before but mostly to its cities and certianly not enough for all there is to see. I loved my cousin’s photos of Hearst Castle along the coast in Central California and figured it might be neat to see the home of a newspaper magnate of yore. I had all sorts of thoughts about hiking through Redwoods and camping on beaches. Mind you, I have camped about twice. But 26 is the age to try new things, I thought. Why not start in Vancouver, Canada, I thought, and work my way down through all of the Pacific Coast cities, as far as San Diego?

The indoor pool at Hearst Castle. Credits: The Mosaic Art Source Blog

The indoor pool at Hearst Castle. Credits: The Mosaic Art Source Blog

As school ended last week and Memorial Day, the marker of summer’s coming was suddenly upon us, it became more necessary to start planning this trip. However, some unwieldy variables occurred to me, like recruiting trip participants, paying for a rental car and anticipating gas costs, and planning the trip’s scale.

For one, the many places to go on the West Coast are all very far from each other. Recently, someone was making a joke about how East Coasters assume the cities on the West are as near each other as the cities out here, which cluster in one amazing and kind of scary when you think about it megalopolis , from D.C. to Boston. San Francisco, it turns out, is ten hours from Portland. I realized I would have to allot a lot of time for an ambitious coastal trip (word play intended!).

This sheer distance combined with the fact that I have never headed up a road trip myself but just been the passenger was starting to make the trip a bit improbable.

So tonight, determined not to fail quite yet, I went to the Borders in Penn Station after dinner with some friends in Korea Town and looked at some travel books. While doing so, a small old man approached me and whispered. I couldn’t hear him, but I immediately looked into his dark eyes and said “I’m sorry,” knowing what he wanted. Suddenly he growled back at me, his voice had astonishingly lowered by octaves, “Sorry for what?” Startled, I let him go on with his pitch. He unrolled a yellow strip of plastic on which was written “Funeral” in black letters and asked, again in a whisper, if I could spare him some money to fund a funeral for his dead father. In his other hand, he clutched chocolates. “I’m sorry,” I said firmly, now that I had something specific to refuse. “Some change?” he pleaded. “Sorry.” Unlike my earlier refusal, he was okay with that and walked away. I turned back to my book and thought, as fun as the people are here, I need a long vacation from New York.

I had impeded my own progress in road trip planning, however, when a book called Don’t Go There caught my eye. The subtitle made it impossible to pass up: “The Travel Detective’s Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World.” I learned that there is a city in Nigeria (if I recall correctly) that was built for 500,000 people but today holds 14 million; that Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has just about everything wrong with it possible, from crime to pollution; and that you have no good reason to visit Bakersfield California.

Finally, after about an hour of skimming Don’t Go There cover to cover, I turned to my thick Lonely Planet California book. Too big. I turned to my smaller Pacific Northwest book. The first thing that caught my eye was a blurb about coffee. The Pacific Northwest prizes their coffee, it said. My expansive road trip suddenly turned into a vacation of hanging out in Portland and Seattle and enjoying good coffee. Contrary to what one might expect, New York is not a city where high coffee standards prevail, so the coffee meccas out there would be a vacation for me.

To conclude this ramble, my goal is to make some aspect of this trip a reality. Hopefully my siblings will join me on it, but if that doesn’t work, I’d like to go with a friend or two. I’ll provide updates about my progress, and for anyone who has trip planning/Pacific Coast/camping/driving advice, please comment!

Road trippin’ across these United States

This morning, I wished I had a dog, so the walk I took to the Hudson River would have some purpose.

It did have a purpose though, not that it needed to. As I looked across to New Jersey–not that far away, then at a slow-moving barge, and then at the elegant George Washington Bridge, with its cars that look like small white legos, and then beyond, I wondered what you see if you keep moving up the river. Then, I started to think about how great it would be to see that other amazing coast, the one on the west.

Inspired by my cousin, who is currently on a road trip across these United States, I have decided I want to take a trip this August either across the country, ending in Seattle, and then driving South through California, or I want to just fly to Seattle or Vancouver and continue to drive south until I reach Mexico with stops in Portland, San Francisco, Monterrey, L.A., San Diego, and other places as yet off my radar.

I don’t know if this new curiosity about the other coast has to do with the larger forces of the economic crisis, which has bred terms like the “staycation” and perhaps forced us to look inward at our own nation and its possibilities. I think it has more to do with wanting to go on my first real road trip– a no frills, uncomplicated trip, sure–and a feeling that life is too short and unpredictable not to do stuff like this. So I guess, in a way, that thinking has to do with the economic crisis and the way it has flipped all sense of certainty about the future. As I often say, I think too much.

So here is to a new goal… If anyone has road trip thoughts, let me know.

Live blogging my visit to D.C.

I’m going to indulge myself and live blog because it’s spring break, and I am bugging out about how weird D.C. is, even though I lived here for two years.

10:30 am: I arrive by Amtrak (yes!) and board the Metro at Union Station. I love that people wait to let train passengers off before boarding.  I also love that there are ample seats and the aisle isn’t crowded.  And though the person who I sit next to is not small, I do not feel smashed against her because of seats that approximate the rear size of breadline-era Americans like in NYC.

11:00 am: D.C. feels like a small town, especially because the last time I was here, it was overrun by more than a million people.  The streets are so quiet that it is eerie but kind of nice too.  I am not used to having so much space to myself.

11:15 am: Mocha Hut closed!  Oh no!  I was supposed to meet someone here. The only other coffee shop nearby is Starubcks. Sad.

12:50 pm: Meeting is over. I take a cab to the next destination. Where is the TV in the back of the cab seat? I want to watch Regis and Kelly and see some puffy Broadway show feature clip.  Also, I can’t believe the fare starts at $3.00 and not $2.50.  And no credit card taken. Toto, I’m not in the big city.

Observation: People in this city are more polite and not as rushed but maybe a little more weirded out by fast-talking straight-forwardness.  Whenever I ask anyone for a receipt, the person gives me kind of a weird look.  I may have to ramp up my politeness to pre-NYC levels.

Subway series: what a compliment

Today, as I am transferring in Times Square, a fellow who is handing out something religious says to me,
Religious man: God Bless you!
Me: (Flash him a smile, flattered. I love a good compliment) Thank you!
Him: (Clearly appreciating the rare response he gets to this) And he loves you too!

God loves me! (I’m not being at all tongue-in-cheek. I was very flattered).

A ridiculously unencouraging sign

img_5062Only six more years!  Seems like the kind of thing they wouldn’t want to draw attention to.

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