No AC to DC

Howard Gray
Sep 11 · 5 min read

It’s that time. I’m off to Penn Station. I’m taking the B line to what is, kindly, the B list of train terminals.

And then my subway mysteriously skips my exit point, Herald Square.

It doesn’t really even skip it.

It just chugs, almost apologetically, except with no apologies forthcoming.

The train stops, jolts, then hits number 42, Bryant Park. Mixing mathematics and geography I try to way find.

Taxi, Lyft, risk the reserve subway journey, walk?

Why not make the best of it? A brisk walk through the park will still get me to the church on time. It’s 2:36pm. Plenty.

However, 9 blocks and 2 avenues in 85 degrees with 2 bags is not wise.

The route is thick with foot traffic and the huge growls of New Jersey trucks slumping around corners like punchdrunk old heavyweights rolling into the 11th round.

The heat starts to close in, the famous New York late summer humidity taking me under its all-encompassing cloak. The only consolation to the inevitable is my black attire.

Hitting 35th and the air around Penn Station shifts from New York’s usual mix of trash, heat, and grilled food with a side of oxygen to a majority percentage of pungent nostril-flaring skunk weed. The crowd gets more renegade, the intensity levels crank.


Gasping into the station’s greasy bowels with 3 minutes until departure, I’ve in fact timed it just perfectly. Straight on, sweet seat, tuck myself in for a dreamy ride through the eastern states before pulling up at the capital capitol.

Except Acela train 2164 is delayed. No track announcement. Standby. Zero ID.

Crowds of shirt sleeves and AirPods stand motionless as they engross themselves in jabbing out one line business emails.

I take refuge at what is likely the best outpost Penn has to offer: Starbucks. The service is friendly, but as expected they slowly confect a boiling coffee-like drink that’s most definitely not what I ordered.

Kicking my heels as I await the tapered cylinder of joy, the track is announced. I sense the murmuring stampede occurring 100 feet away. My sunk costs are just over $5. I’m caught between coffee and early boarding. Loss aversion kicks in. I wait for the coffee. And wait.

Rasping oversized beverage finally arrives. To the 9W platform I go, striding manfully.

Primed with my business class ticket, I skirt around the crush of passengers to the priority boarding lane.

‘I’m business’ I say, a mix of pride and cringe.

‘The whole train is business. This is a business class train ‘ says she.

‘But I thought I was…business’ I whimper.

Reality bites. Business-class on a standard train clearly beats standard class in business. I have fallen, crestfallen, face-first into the Amtrak trap.

And by now I’ve lost my place in line and board just about dead last.

Onwards. Down to the platform, quick decision: get to the back of the train, the area where others dare not tread.

But it is full. Completely full, save for 1 space, reserved for disabled passengers. Like a confused cornered animal, my head jolts side to side as I assess my options.

Take the disabled spot? That’s asking for upset. It’s Larry David. Must not. Be the better man. Find another spot. Or not? No.

As I turn to contemplate one last time, the seat has been filled.

I’m left standing, literally and figuratively, in the place between, the concertina between cars, next to the coffee machine and a stern, bull-necked Amtrak official named Gerhard.

By now I’m really feeling the Manhattan humidity do its work. The real effects only hit when the cool AC blows. I’m perspiring uncontrollably, weekend bag weighing down with steadfast commitment at my shoulder and neck muscles.

And so I do what any self-respecting self-absorbed person would. Get on the WiFi and disappear into the inner-outer world.

But remember, this is Amtrak.

Like the de facto leaders of more than one English speaking nation, it just sputters, throws me off, lies to me, sputters, lies again, and then disappears with zero regard for what I signed up for — let alone my ongoing wellbeing.


After what seems like an age of grimacing with my back against the (toilet) wall, the conductor arrives.

Tickets’, he states matter of factly.

Seats?’, I quip, with a schoolboy tilt of the head to my fellow standing traveler who’s nudged up alongside unflinching Gerhard. An unnecessary and flippant comment. I know I must control the sardonic tone. I should have learned by now. But learn I will not.

Conscience finally arrives. Knowing this is nothing to do with the conductor, and seeing he has a kindly look in his eyes, I meekly apologise, and he leads me to a gap in the next car.

A bank of four: the ones with the puny table in the middle which has less grip than a well-oiled waterslide.

‘Anything with a two? I’ve got really long legs. I don’t really fit in the fours.’

‘I guess you could stand’ replies the conductor.

‘Fair point’.

I slope towards my new home, at least thankful I have somewhere to rest my hind parts for the next few hours.

A disgruntled middle-aged ‘business’ chap with a sharp triangular nose and thick, round glasses huffs as I stand over him like a hipsterised Oliver Twist, eyes expectant and deferential. He continues his phone call without making any eye contact or other recognition of my presence.

Sensing his simmering annoyance and impatience I continue my scene as the scolded child, grabbing what I can from my bag before being stuck in the naughty corner.

I drag my limb-driven carcass into the window seat, clanking my knees against the table leg and my other new tete-a-tete partner in front of me. Phone guy gets back into position, doing his upmost to keep at least a foot away from my panting, perspiring torso.

I hunch down over my laptop, feel the back of my neck tug and stab, slurp down the rest of my treacly coffee-esque beverage, and get down to work.

On what I now not know.

But there’s time.

So I write this up, and at the third time of asking Amtrak’s WiFi lurches into action and publishes it live, like the octogenerian magician on his final cruise ship tour, arthritic hands pulling that rabbit out of the hat out one last time.

DC, here we come.


Originally published at https://howardgray.net on September 11, 2019.

Howard Gray

Written by

Adventures in entertainment, education and entrepreneurial endeavours. I’m an educator, coach and project builder based in NYC.

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