• U.S.

On Long Island: Standing Room

8 minute read
Jane O'Reilly

There are 10 million more Americans in 1985 than there were in 1980, and most of them seem to have squeezed into the entryway between the doors of car 9132 of the Long Island Rail Road’s 5:47 to Syosset, N.Y. At exactly 5:41 p.m. the last seat is taken. At 5:46 the standing room in the aisles is filled. By 5:49, when the train begins its slow, stately crawl from Pennsylvania Station, only two minutes late, the throng in the vestibule has achieved a degree of intimacy known in other places as close dancing. An oldtimer, folded atop his briefcase into a posture he is willing to describe as sitting, observes that it is one of those rare winter evenings when the heat, instead of the air conditioning, is working.

A newcomer, who has paid $5 for a one-way ticket, naively believes she should be entitled to heat, and, furthermore, to a seat. She mumbles into the aggregate human mass that riding the Long Island Rail Road is, on the whole, one of the 14 most uncomfortable things a human being can do, vying for pride of place with one of its associated enterprises, the New York City subway system, and root-canal surgery. To her surprise, all the inadvertent intimates within earshot protest vehemently. “It’s not as bad as you make it sound,” argues a gentleman who is traveling with a box containing a large chiming clock. “So you’re stuck belly to belly with a stranger. At least you’re with the nicest commuters.” He does not mean nicer than Chicago commuters, or even Connecticut commuters. He is a branch-line chauvinist, and he means nicer than the commuters on the Oyster Bay line or the Ronkonkoma line.

“The regulars ride in a regular car and get there on time to get a seat,” admonishes a marketing man from the midst of a seated cluster of pinochle players. He offers the irregular rider further lore of the Long Island: “They have a total breakdown only about once a year, the kind of disaster you sense before you even get down the stairs at Penn Station. The crowd will be waiting shoulder to shoulder, and you will hear over the loudspeaker, ‘Mmchshrum drillblitterich,’ which translated means, ‘Due to switch trouble, all Long Island trains will be delayed.’ The only thing to do is fight through the crowd to your friends in the usual waiting spot. If it doesn’t clear up in a while, you go to a hotel, or the movies, or everybody hires a cab.

“On a normal day only little things go wrong. Like, the train never shows up. Or it shows up, but it is two cars short and you face air where usually there is your seat. Or the train has enough cars, but it stops ten feet away from the spot where, eight times out of ten, it usually stops, which means the doors open in front of the irregulars who have no usual waiting spot. Or all the other doors open, but yours doesn’t, and you stand there and watch the car fill up. Or the train is under way, and then it stops. That tends to happen when you are late for work already.”

For the commuter who gets a seat, salvation is a card game. Pinochle and hearts are played on the Syosset line, bridge on the Port Washington line. On the Oyster Bay line sanity is preserved by a swift suppression of sociability. The man standing with the chiming clock says that not enough of his usual players showed up tonight. Day after day, week after week, month after month, for 17 years, he has been playing pinochle with the same people. Are they friends, godfathers to one another’s children, comforters in sorrow, celebrators in joy? “No, off the train we dislike each other intensely,” he says.

These people are speaking from a closed context, a reality physically defined by ghastly blue fluorescent lights and seats designed for no human % frame, and spiritually expressed by resignation. “There’s no alternative,” shrugs a woman, her eyes fixed on the middle distance. “Jersey is the alternative,” whispers a young man reading Great Expectations. Another standee, bedecked with gold chains, springs to the defense: “They are trying to move 285,000 people a day. It’s the nation’s largest commuter railroad. I’m not defending the equipment, you understand, but it’s an almost impossible task. Take the averages–you’re still ahead.” Of what? “Well, it’s better than the subway.”

The entire vestibule and half the pinochle game reply smugly: “Listen, you gotta have a lot of humor and a tremendous amount of stoicism to survive the Long Island Rail Road.” Each, hardier than thou, recounts a tale of endurance. “You should have been here yesterday. The people who change at Jamaica got on a train that already had passengers from two trains loaded onto it. Then they rode out to the middle of Queens Village and stopped for an hour. No explanation. No seats. No air.” The man crouched on his briefcase one-ups: “You should have been here last week. Someone jumped in front of the train. Two and a half hours later they switched our train behind all the trains that had been behind us. ‘That’s the breaks,’ they told us.”

“You should be here when it snows,” says another passenger. “That really brings out the beast. All the people who usually drive–the snowbirds–get on.” “You should have been here in the ’70s,” says a white-haired man who has obviously squandered his prime trying to figure out a way to use a lap desk while standing up.

The ’70s are generally acknowledged to have been the L.I.R.R.’s nadir, a period of such egregious discomfort that at least a small part of the growth of the Sunbelt can be traced to the conditions on the commuter line. The railroad was 150 last year, and there are definite signs of improvement. Last year 88.5% of the trains arrived within five minutes of the schedule–up 6% since 1979. It may be better than it was in the ’70s, but it is not yet as good as it was in 1902, when Teddy Roosevelt’s summer White House lay in Oyster Bay at the end of the North Shore line, and the service was bully.

None of the signs of improvement is immediately apparent in the newcomer’s square foot of personal space: an area paved with debris and bounded on one side by doors that creep open each time the train gathers speed. One inch, two inches . . . what next? A young woman in a dressed-for-success suit, leg warmers and running shoes tries to offer some consolation: “But you have a partition to lean against.” The connection between leaning against a partition and comfort is, however, unclear to the newcomer.

A conductor, Mike Eames, is proceeding through car 9132, tranquilly collecting tickets. “It takes 20 minutes to get through two cars. Sometimes by Jamaica I get through. Sometimes I never get through.” He is accompanied in his polite progression through the thrashing mass by hostile remarks about the unions, which the riders blame for much of their discomfort. The conductor passes below full-color images of joy and transformation: a naked woman wrapped in a quilt leaning against the knee of a man stroking her hair, a brilliantly lighted couple kissing forever.

Beneath these poster mirages provided by the makers of cigarettes and brandy the commuters slumber, read and reshuffle. Does a real-life Falling in Love ever happen? A pinochle player looks up with genuine tears in his eyes and says, “From afar.” In the middle of the car a querulous drunk complains that his seat faces backward. His companion argues, “But you’re facing west, and west is the city.” The man with the clock says, “About this point, the lights usually go out.” They do.

Why does no one complain? Why this acceptance? Why is enduring taken as a proof of strength? Was civilization not meant to serve? Have none of these people ever taken the trains in London, Paris–even Chicago? Don’t they know it does not have to be this way? The newcomer, on a rising note of hysteria, begins to speak of the indignity and passivity that haunt the 20th century. More in sorrow than in anger, the real, regular commuters shake their heads and insist: “You don’t understand.”

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