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modes of travel

A story written by Carlisle Sargent while she lived in New York CIty for an internship.


Modes of travel

“New York is only as fast as its subways.”

I heard that standing on the platform of the 6, deep underneath Grand Central Station. After getting off the train, I took the subway to work every morning - because summer in New York was sticky sticky. And every morning, I cursed the other 10,000 people that took the subway too.

That day, the 6 was delayed because of a “track obstruction”. I pictured the "obstruction" as a fleet of commuting rodents, or perhaps a winded, tunneling homeless person. My college roommate told me once that there are, in fact, hordes of homeless folks who live along some of the deeper subway lines (like really live– setting up small shanties and using the electricity from live tracks for heat). She was an anthropology major. She said they were called mole people. 

“New York is only as fast as its subways.”

Standing beside me on the platform, jostled but unbothered by the endlessly impatient crowd of Manhattan commuters, the man whispered the line again and half smiled.

On a balmy Friday evening, I split a taxi with a paunchy mid-western woman with Places To Go. The split was accidental. Our butts touched down on on the cracked leather seats at exactly the same time. I moved to exit, but the cab driver swiveled his head and insisted “nowhere be too far to share.” I sat. Darlene raised her eyebrows and coolly offered “3rd and Bowery” without a trace of the flyover accent I was expecting. I quickly mashed her cross streets into my phone and told the cabbie smartly that I, too, was going to the East Village.

“East Village a big place, sweetie.” The driver flipped on the meter.

I said that I was looking for Ido’s Sushi.

“Oh! I’ve been. It's good. Let me look at your Apple phone.” Darlene shifted her shopping bags and gave the driver an address I neither heard nor remembered. I was comforted by this small speck of maternal care-taking. I wished there was a Darlene app for my Apple phone. Being alone in New York was making me a little fetal.

As we approached an intersection, the stoplight flicked red. A mid-30-something and his fancy girlfriend were in the process of slowly crossing the street. Her heels allowed them exactly two squeaky steps per minute. As they made their way, our cab driver was also making his way - through every radio station available in the five boroughs. His eyes were down. And when he finally looked up, the couple was inches from our bumper. The brakes wheezed and I am not sure how we did not hit them (I shut my eyes and performed the ceremonious sharp intake of breath that I used to yell at my mother for doing and now also do because I am turning into my mother). Fancy boyfriend left hysterical girlfriend on the curb and ran back to the cab, starting pounding the roof and yelling a lot. After a few big pounds, Darlene pointed out that a dent was visible. Our cab driver sat still for ten seconds, hands 10-and-2 on the wheel. Then:


He slammed the car into park and stepped onto the street. To the beeping line of cars behind us, he raised a single strong hand. I was unsure of how a man of his size even fit into a small yellow cab, unsure of how he stepped out of it so gracefully. Tan, angry, 6 foot 6 inches of tiredofthisshit. I shivered with anticipation when I saw a vein in his neck pop out like my own dad's sometimes did. Boyfriend took a step back. His girlfriend did not:

“Motherfucker you almost ran my ass over! What the hell did you think you were doing you didn’t even look at us you crazy-ass-no-good-shitbag-cab driver, just like the rest a them shitbag cab drivers, never paying attention probably on ya fuckin' phone always oh fuck OH NO fuck NO-OHMYGOD!”

Our cab driver had Boyfriend pinned to the dirty concrete (which I felt was a little unfair as the guy had taken a step back - isn't that the universal sign of "you win, my guy"). Darlene and I stared in disbelief as the cabbie unleashed a fury upon the man that may have been set off by the 30-something - but definitely wasn't caused by him alone. It was the kind of took-too-much-shit-this-week fury that can only be satisfied by hitting something very hard. Nose. Chest. Chest. Ear. Nose. Cheek. There was blood and a crowd and the cars behind us had stopped beeping. Between hollow smacks of skin, Small-Steps whimpered. No one attempted to pull the driver off. No one called the cops. No one moved. Mid-Century struggled for about three minutes, and then laid flat. The cab driver stood and wiped his face.

“I think I’ll hail another cab.” Darlene gathered her bags and disappeared.

My internship was in Manhattan, but I was living with relatives outside of the city, in West Chester (which is not upstate, as I was corrected so many times). Pleasantville was a snippy little stop on Metro-North’s Harlem Line, full of big, rich houses and big, rich New Yorkers. Pleasantville’s claim to fame was that it was the stop just before Chappaqua, which was where Billary owned a home.

At 7:11 every morning, the train bound for New York City picked me up at the Pleasantville station. Uncle Sal warned me of a transvestite that “lurked around” on the Harlem Line, but I never spotted them, and I ached for the missed friendship. On the platform, I nestled myself between shy balding men and women with very tired feet, depending on the day. There were very few other young people on the early train, and it made me feel important. (YES I work in the city. YES I have heels on. YES I kept up with the news. NO I do not need your help putting my bag on the top rack.

Actually yes I do.)

It was the elderly gentlemen passengers that best understood the plights of a young woman trying to make her way in Manhattan. Over the summer, a few of us became train-quaintances. I held Gene’s coffee while he fished out his monthly pass to show the conductor. Roger saved me a seat on crowded mornings with a strategically placed briefcase. We shared newspapers, some stories. Once, a man that I nicknamed The Duke bought me a bagel. When he presented it to me on the train, like a rose or a ring, I saw a glint in his eye reminiscent of someone much younger.

The Metro-North Railroad is the second largest commuter rail in the country, beaten only by it’s neighbor, the Long Island Railroad. It began as a horsecar service in lower Manhattan in 1832, and now has three main lines serving over 10 million Americans yearly, all of which operate out of Grand Central Station.

As a Harlem Line commuter, I was told that I would be spending a lot of time in Grand Central. I did not realize it would be an hour and a half every weekday afternoon. I got off work before five, but the train back to Pleasantville did not leave until 6:24 p.m. I couldn't afford happy hour, so I spent a lot of time people watching.

I had a special spot. On the bottom floor of Grand Central is the Dining Concourse - an expansive arrangement of high-end food shops and electronic ticket booths people and restrooms and platform entrances. Every day, I wandered downstairs to escape the masses milling around in the main terminal (besides having the most platforms of any train station in the world, Grand Central is also listed by Travel + Leisure as the world’s 6th most visited tourist site). I sat at the end of the bar at Ciao Bella Gelateria, which I to this day have still never tried, and I watched the commuters commute. I laughed at the grown men sprinting awkwardly. Watched mothers feeding babies bits of sushi. Realized that I was on the same schedule as a homeless woman, and saw her every day across the terminal (you do not escape the homeless in New York, in fact, they are more a part of the city than you are). I cheered when a middle school kid got arrested for drinking a 4Loko. Relaxed with the sharply dressed people as they loosened their ties and wrinkled their skirts and drank three or maybe four beers waiting for their trains.

And from my little perch, the whole time I was seeing, I never felt seen. Therein lies the beauty of New York.

The city was loneliest when I was standing still. On the train, the skyscrapers could not loom because speed blurred them. Crowded streets only whispered from behind thick glass. If I was moving, I had a small destiny - a sweet momentary purpose.

It was when the cab stopped, when my foot stepped onto a dirty train platform, when I arrived at my destination - that New York felt quiet. I got lost in it. 

“You’re in Times Square? I wouldn’t take the subway. Not all the way to Queens. It’s too late.”

I had no money in New York. My internship was paying me about what it cost to buy an Unlimited Monthly Commuter ticket from Pleasantville to Manhattan, and I had too much pride to beg my parents more than I already had. The night I saw a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, my friend Morgan graciously offered to let me crash with her in Queens. I was trapped in the city (the trains to Pleasantville stopped running at 11PM - bedtime for richfolk). Stupidly, I decided to forgo the taxi and take the F from Times Square to Queens.

At 4:30 in the morning, the busy Time Square subway station was quiet. My impractical espadrilles echoed down the steps to the platform. I prickled at the sight of a rat on the tracks, and noted that I was alone. Maybe my instincts should have been to move my hand to the pepper spray keychain in my purse, or to the knife I was not carrying, but my instincts have never been all that great. After a few minutes, I heard voices and footsteps coming down the stairs. Just loud enough to induce anxiety, and just fast enough for me to panic. Without moving from the wall, I tracked the voices. Three or four men. Young sounding. Drunk. A nightmare. I turned my head and pretended to be invisible.

“Baby girl what are you doing hiding in the damn corner?! We are not gonna bite.” They laughed, but not at me.

“Yeah… don’t look so goddamn frightened. You ain’t our type anyways.”

As it turns out, the subway murderers were three bartenders from a Times Square restaurant that I immediately forgot the name of. I was distracted by their beauty, by the eyeliner they had done so much better than me, and by the warmth that seemed to spread from them into the rest of the station. The three bartenders - or, as they referred to themselves, “The Queens from Queens” – rode the F home together after weekend shifts. They parroted my friend in warning me that after 2 a.m., the subway was no place for a lady.

“Unless you are a lady with this much bicep.”

That entire summer, I filled my car up with gas one time. The little green Honda sat in the driveway of my relatives’ house, unused except for quick trips to the Pleasantville CVS or the grocery store. The only time I visited a gas station was when I left New York for good. I smarted at the slap of $4.16 per gallon and thought about just how rich the people who drove to work in the city must be. I was not those people. But at the end of the summer, I was an Unlimited Monthly Commuter. A subway connoisseur. A taxi hailer. A seat saver. And one time, a direction giver. I wasn’t rich, and that didn’t matter. I wasn’t lost, and that did.

When the August heat wave finally broke, I packed the little green Honda with all of my clothes and shoes and books and left New York.

Not fast enough to blur the buildings, but fast enough.