Silhouetted Passengers On Suspended Passages
New York’s best-known commuter hubs, Grand Central and Penn Station, may be the spots to stand and be overwhelmed by the number of people hurrying in every possible direction, the human flow patterns, the looks of urgency and concern about time, and the diversity of commuters and travelers themselves. However, heretical as it seems, they are the least likely places to actually feel a link with any single person or even think of these streams of live movement as anything but a potential hazard, were you unwise enough to impede their flow in any way.
Logistics, observation, and identification is further hindered by the eye-level interaction, with a multiplier effect if you happen to be under 7 feet tall. Despite the sheer numbers, an inquisitive nature can never be satisfied at these mass crossings of people, stories waiting to be told or imagined, pressing time, constrained space, and hurried circumstance.
But all is not lost for story telling purposes, even in the labyrinths of New York City’s insanely busy commuter network. A ten minute ride from Penn Station — on the Long Island Rail Road — brings us to the less glamorous, unsophisticated by Manhattan standards, and in severe need of a serious facelift Jamaica Station in Queens. Here is the third busiest transfer point on the city’s transit network, with links to the subway system, all trains to the suburbia of Long Island, and the amazing little train to JFK International Airport. And what else?
But an overpass, of course! As the LIRR tracks are lined almost at street level and the mere antiquity of the infrastructure necessitated additions to the station through time, it has unintentionally — but effectively — become an ideal people-watching and story-spinning spot. This preoccupation, among other things, is a pleasant diversion to hearing for the nth time that the 4:11 train to Ronkokoma is operating on time. Soothing, if redundant, news for those traveling to that destination, but useless and annoying if you’ve been stood up by your Babylon-bound train, which was also expected to arrive on time.
And speaking of Babylon, it is impossible for the tortuous mind not to make a vague but honest connection to the Babylon — or Babel — of biblical fame. For here, in New York’s most diversely and heavily immigrant-populated borough, the annoying p.a. system announcement is often the only English heard. An amazing mix of tongues, pitches, accents, sounds, talking speeds, and words accompanied by gestures for validation and corroboration purposes, makes for a massive collage of cultures that is unique to New York.
The Babylon train is still not in sight, but any annoyance is suspended for a while as the eye roves upwards to the suspended overpass and the silhouettes that change places between the dusted glass panes and the clearing. Then, the story-spinning becomes more urgent, more important than the delayed train. Each of these figures crossing paths without exchanging glances has a purpose, a destination, a thought in their head. Some carry a heavier load than others, be it on their backs, on wheels, or in their minds. Their urgency may be just getting to class on time, making it to a first date, a business meeting, an interview, or to the departing gate for a flight to a sun-drenched paradise. Framed against the sky — visible through the glass — they too seem as suspended as the clouds or the tiny bridge they are crossing, as if their movement is frozen for a second or two. Not a lot of time to be noticeable but long enough to tell their story to anyone interested. Certainly enough time to tell it to the camera, unaware of its presence as they may be.
And then, the delayed — though “operating on time” — train to Babylon arrives and the story-spinning itself must be suspended — but only till next time. As long as there are trains, time, and travelers, there will always be stories to guess, to conjure, to tell or not tell, to write about, or to forget.
This time it is the conductor’s car that stops in front of me and his apologetic smile wipes out any thought of voicing a complaint about the delay, not in English that is! On the Babylon train, I feel free to say a few appropriate — or less appropriate — words in my mother tongue. After all, it’s all Greek to him!
Originally published at www.inaframeofmind.com on June 8, 2015.