Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Change Of Pace Or Selfless Promotion Of My Writing, Which Come To Think Of It Is Exactly What This Blog Is All About Anyway... Nevermind.

The white concrete glistens; the air is cool and crisp. A slight scent of asphalt and exhaust laced in between the aroma of a compost dump nearby drifts through the air. The sounds are of the familiar click-clank of trains pulling up to the station and a warning bell signals the immanent closing of train doors.

It’s another day in the life of a Long Island Rail Road commuter. I anticipate the routine. I rely on it. The coffee guy has to be in the same spot and miraculously has my order ready by the time I reach his cart. He remembers every order of every one of his regular customers, but I can’t remember if the coffee costs ninety or ninety-five cents. I give him a buck, pocket the change — dime or nickel — and turn my attention to the trek up the stairs and over to the platform.

It is at times rigorous and at others dreadful. I consider the sturdy cement steps. If I’m feeling vibrant and have caught up on some sleep, I might consider them two at a time. I wait on the platform and watch the complimentary TV permanently tuned to channel 12 or talk to my train buddies while waiting for the silver express to rumble into the station. I feel like I’ve stepped into the virile world of an Art Deco painting. I see the broad shoulders of a businessman as he walks across the platform; his heavy briefcases in one hand, the other cocked at the elbow, his hand clutched into a square fist. Chevrons angle away from the train as its shimmering streamlined body speeds past the blue suited man. We are all part of some artist's argument for the industrial aesthetic. The station, the trains and the travelers are a part of the drama. A documentary of the mind to the working stiff of America. Somewhere in that white stone landmark of a station is the reflection of the soul of every man and woman forced to travel incessantly back and forth to the venerable Art Deco city: New York.

I think of the station as a notable relic in waiting. In a thousand years when the antiquated railway systems are replaced by some high velocity electromagnetic thrust speeders the station will stand the test of time. Like the Coliseum and the Great Wall of China, the high rise foundation of the Train Station is the epitome of utilitarian design.

The white cement and steel of the overpass is Long Island's very own monument to the modern commuter. The poor slob. The average Joe. The everyday Gal. The suburban hero who braves snow, overcrowded parking lots and temporarily suspended service so his kids can have the same life he or she had. That this may not be a good thing will be reserved for later but for now, the working men and women of Long Island can rest assured that they have their own memorial. Just as Washington has his monument, Tut has his tomb and Mumtaz has her Taj Mahal, we Long Island commuters have our Train Station. A shining white symbol of the modern age.

But ours is better. We got a coffee guy out front.

Drivers think they have it better than the train riders. So what if they have an HOV lane. BIG FAT DEAL! On the train it's all HOV. Plus, you don't have to actually operate the vehicle which leaves time for socializing or sleep. Try that in the HOV lane!

Also there’s the mystery language that we get to listen to everyday!

Channel Four. The mystery channel. Likened to the bat signal and the White House red phone. When it's called, it can't be good. Every seasoned commuter worth his salt knows that the infamous phrase “Go to channel four!” is a beacon of doom. It means that there’s trouble on this railroad and we ain’t about to tell hundreds of frustrated sweaty passengers what it is until all the conductors are safely sealed away in their little compartment boxes. Much of the lingo has invaded my vocabulary since commuting the Long Island Rail Road.

My eight year old son had been badgering me for a new bike he spied in the toy store circular. He already has a bike but that one wasn't good enough because according to him it would just break if he tried to do any 'tricks' on it. In one of those dinner table moments I jokingly told my wife that we had to go to 'channel four' to discuss it. She looked at me with that sideways sneer that always makes me rethink the last few minutes of my life.

It was then that I realized that the LIRR has its own jargon. A slang or technobable that no one else understands unless they too are a fellow rider. It’s the sort of pop-culture, esoteric, hip, terminology privy to only a few thousand wayfarers. I liken it to the phenomenon following the release of Pulp Fiction and everyone who saw the movie went around ordering a "Royale with cheese." I was sucked in by the vernacular of the MTA. When I opened my mouth people could tell that I took the train all because I thought it was hip to say, "Go to channel 4!"

That’s the same geek-speaking insider-joke stuff that gets those IT people in trouble all the time. Who really knows what they’re saying when they laugh at their computer jokes? Although it seems fun to exclude the layman, we see it as another intramural club we never wanted to join anyway. Same as this commuter clique I belong to. There are the commuters and the non-commuters and never the twain shall meet.

I’ve got a joke: Three guys are driving down a deserted road in the middle of summer when their car stops working. The first guy, who happens to be a plumber by trade, says to the others, "I bet it’s a busted hose. We should patch it up and we’ll be on our way." The second guy, an electrician, says, "No I disagree. I think its a spark plug and we should change it and then we’ll be on our way." The third guy, a LIRR train conductor, is silent for a little while then bursts out, "I got an idea!" He beams. "We sit here sweating for an hour. I’ll hop a cab and then you have to find your own way home."

Sound familiar? Oh yeah, we know.


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