Inhuman Swill : Subway

Never again

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The never-agains are starting to come thick and fast. I realized already that I may have eaten at our favorite Greek restaurant, Aliada, for the last time. But just now I realized that I will never again buy a 30-day MetroCard.

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You're a real gone guy

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He's highstepping up the subway stairs ahead of me—tall, soda-straw thin, hair cut Ivy League style and slicked back on top, long sideburns curving to points near the corners of his mouth—back rigid, knees rising and falling in a bizarrely quick clockwork rhythm. Tight black denim jacket, pegleg jeans with the cuffs rolled up, black sock, Converse hightops.

As he pulls away up the ramp at the top of stairs, twisting the throttle, I think to myself, Now that must be the Stray Cat Strut.

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Steinway Street Station

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A sign at my local subway stop warns me that the station is managed by one Crythen Langhorne.

Every time I see this sign, I feel as if I have somehow wandered into New Crobuzon. And I check the track bed for nasties, just in case.

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Subway safety for dummies

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Speaking of which, I have a subway-tracks story of my own, though I was no hero, believe me.

I had lived in New York only about two years when I let someone do something stupid. It was late at night and I was waiting for the train on a thinly populated but by no means deserted D platform at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Near me, a girl who couldn't have been more than 20 was digging for something in the front pocket of her jeans. The jeans were so tight that she couldn't get her hand into the pocket very easily. When she finally latched onto whatever it was she was after and pulled it out, a few folded-up $20 bills popped out of her pocket along with her hand and went sailing out over the edge of the platform. They landed right in the rail bed.

The girl, who was slender and less than medium height, stared down at the bills in chagrin. "Shit," she said, "that's sixty bucks." She noticed me and came over. "Hey, mister, if I climb down there, will you help me up again?"

I should have said no way, but it was very late, the girl looked desperate, and who knows how long it would have taken to find an MTA employee and report the loss. (That's what you're supposed to do—there are signs on the trains telling you never to climb down onto the tracks if you lose something.)

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Hero between the rails

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This brief article from the New York Times begins by asking who hasn't thought about what you'd do if you fell onto the subway tracks. I've certainly wondered, and more to the point I've wondered what it would be like to press myself flat in the bed between the rails while the train thunders inches overhead. Now Wesley Autrey, who jumped onto the tracks to save another man, knows exactly what that's like. Holy shit.

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My subway reading the past couple of days has been the Bruce Sterling collection Globalhead. This morning I was sailing right through—until I decided to change things up and take a different route to work. When I hopped onto the 6 train downtown, I entered the flow of a voice that made continuing to read impossible.

The owner of the voice wore a strip of newspaper pinned in her hair. She sat looking at nothing and no one, and her first rant was about how Bush should be impeached. Fair enough. Her next rant was a long, vulgar, and virtuoso screed against Condi Rice, which I wish I could reproduce in full but which ended with the phrase "got-damn bitch-ass skank."

I sort of lost the thread when Bill Gates became her next target—don't you know that AIDS isn't the problem, Microsoft is the problem?—but it occurred to me to wonder if anyone had bothered to tell her that the Democrats won Congress last week.

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No power until next week? So says Gothamist. Jesus!

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The 8% solution

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When you call ConEd today, they'll report an 8% voltage reduction in northwestern Queens. In our bit of Astoria, though, it's more like 8% voltage period.

For a couple of days now, throughout the heat wave, our power has flickered from time to time. We had pared our electricity usage down to bare essentials, like air conditioning and some lights. But last night, sometime between 11:00 and 11:30, the voltage fell drastically. Some appliances still ran, like the cheap digital clocks and the fan in the bedroom and the fluorescent light over the kitchen sink. But throughout most of our floor, there was not even enough power to run the lights. (The circuit breakers were all fine—I checked them.)

We sweated through the night with the windows open, though at least the thunderstorm last night had cooled things down. But there were lots of sirens.

By morning, a few of the incandescent lights showed a very faint orange glow if you turned them on. I called 311 and ConEd both, but got no helpful information. Laura took Ella out for a walk and gathered more helpful intelligence: electrical fires in the power lines all over our neighborhood. One man reported watching all the power lines for blocks around catch fire and burn. At 31st Avenue and about 44th Street, Laura herself saw a ConEd manhole cover in the street with black smoke pouring out it while it danced and popped and crackled. It was cordoned off and guarded by a cop.

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I forgot to report my Friday subway adventure! Friday afternoon I left the office at 4:45, but I didn't make it home until nearly 7:00 pm. Seems most all of the underground subway lines leading into Queens were flooded in the thunderstorms.

My usual 6 station was jam-packed with non-commuting commuters, so I walked over to Herald Square to catch the R home. I took a Q instead since it turned out that R was terminating at Times Square, and E, R, and V trains weren't running to Queens. At 57th Street I went topside to try to call Laura and warn her to take the N or W. But by the time I got back down to the platform, the N and W were shut down as well. I took the Q back downtown to Times Square and set off for the 7 train.

A huge crowd was trying to fit down the tiny staircase to the 7 platform in the bowels of the station, like sand in an hourglass, so I slipped down to the 2/3 platform and took a shortcut down to the 7 platform that apparently almost no one else knows about. I managed to get onto the least crowded 7 train, and the one that left first. The crowd on the platform at Grand Central, though, was truly terrifying in its vastness, and one woman was yelling at everyone on the train to move to the center of the car or else be responsible for tragedy in the station. People packed in so tight that I (being a good citizen in the middle of the car) almost could not get out at Queenborough Plaza.

I probably could have caught an N shuttle to Ditmars at Queensborough Plaza, but by the time I realized this I was down at street level and walking toward home. As I got close to the 39th Street station, I decided to try again and ascended to the N platform. Laura and I had been calling each other back and forth but for some reason not catching each other. She was walking home from midtown, and up on the platform I got a message from her saying she had just made it over the bridge. After ten minutes or so, no train had materialized, so I threw in the towel, descended again to the street, and kept walking.

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Police state on Steinway

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Walking to the subway just before nine, I could see the smoke from this Greenpoint warehouse fire, still rising in a thick column way off in the distance.

Random bag check in the Steinway Street subway station. I didn't get picked, but as always I was prepared to refuse and walk to a different subway station if stopped.

Update:  Via IM, Laura tells me: "I saw a guy with the words to his privacy rights printed on a bright yellow messenger bag and at the bottom of the words, in red big letters it said, 'I do not consent to this search.'" Nice.

Update the second:  A great Newsday photo of the smoke plume from that warehouse fire.

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