Columns

Public transport an equaliser in New York City

Chris Burns

Monday, September 24, 2012    

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I ride the train (iron-horse) almost every morning to work in Manhattan, and although I have options, I ride it back home in the evening. Like millions who ride the Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains, the diversity of the commuters is a constant source of fascination. Young, middle-aged, old, black, brown, white, rich, middle-class, poor, straight, gay, the in-between, women, men, transgender, disabled, fat, slim, muscular, tall, short, lawyers, doctors, engineers, cats, dogs, CEOs, CFOs, masons, teachers, professional beggars, dancers, con artists, handymen, police, politicians, paupers and priests; you name it, they all ride the train without much fanfare.

Undoubtedly, there is hardly a dull moment on these trains and one never knows what to expect. The conversations are as many as the different languages spoken and the multiple newspapers read on the trains. These are but a few examples of the sort of utterances one should expect on the trains:

*Is there a doctor or a nurse on this train? Oh, my God! This lady is going to have a baby.

*Officer, there is a pickpocket in our midst!

*Hey dude, stop sweating, ma girl!

*Sir, will you please stop pushing up your thing on my ass?

*Then you really mean to tell me that these people cannot control their bodily functions better than to let it loose in here. Wow!

*Ladies and gentlemen, do not be troubled by my clean appearance, it betrays the hardship and intense suffering I am going through, so please if you have a few quarters, a dollar or some food to spare, I would be grateful.

Then, there are the occasional quarrels, fights, insults, political arguments, disgusting attitudes and frighteningly weird behaviour that never seem to take leave. For, it could not be more than what transpired one morning as I travelled to work. Sitting across from me, on the train to Manhattan, was a dishevelled, oversized, multi-racial man who seemed no older than his capacity to appreciate the environment in which he sat. It was easy to tell that something was amiss, because almost every commuter who streamed into the train made a sharp "U-turn" as their nostrils confronted the pungent odour that filled that section of the cart.

No one wanted to sit beside him, and certainly no one wanted to endure the discomfort of having to tolerate 30 minutes of terribly awful odour, especially in a crowded train. After all, people know when and where not to play hero. Moreover, given my own embarrassing experience - playing hero at my uncle's funeral - I could not fault anyone for being hesitant in embracing some vagrants. The stench emanating from the guy proved offensively overpowering, even to his own sense of smell; since he occasionally fanned the stream of foul odour just to soak in some "fresh air" as he struggled to breathe.

His occasional lengthy, deafening, and vulgar belches gave the distinct impression that he was an alcoholic, but his tattered and dirty clothes made it easy to surmise that he had fallen on bad times. Remarkably, as the train rolled on to the next station, the man decided, for whatever reason, that it was time to reveal his biggest secret, even though many passengers had already formulated opinions of their own about him. Without much ballyhoo, he jumped to his feet. This one move sent passengers scampering to the well of the cart. Lo and behold, as Miss Teeny was wont to proclaim, the man suddenly let loose the string that kept his trousers to his waist and from falling prostrate at his feet.

Not only did his action reveal his entire family history, it also exposed what appeared to be a huge, old and decomposing sore on his thigh. His action made women scream, children criy, and grown men look away in disgust and anger as they commanded him: "Damn, man, pull your pants up and get the #&@$ off the train at the next stop!" He looked puzzled and shocked by the commotion his action stirred. However, he ruefully obeyed the command with the swiftness of a shark. The "next stop", which was about five minutes away, was the 7th Avenue station, but just when the train was coming to a stop, the man relieved himself in a manner that would offend even the most compassionate priest.

Yet, no one could leave the train until it came to a complete stop and the doors opened. It was an experience from hell and relief could not have come sooner. The cart was empty in less time than it would take a baby to sneeze. He slowly made his way out of the filthy cart, but mysteriously proceeded to another. Well, I heard a familiar voice shouting, "Hey, nuh badda come ova yah suh wid yuh damn %@&*# self enuh. Nuh badda wid dat." Of all the disapproving and threatening voices, he responded only to the Jamaican command and with dutiful obedience walked swiftly away from the train.

All that aside, public transport is an equaliser - at least here in New York City. It helps to break the artificial barriers we tend to construct, based on where we fall on the stratification ladder. It amazes me how so many of us in Jamaica still view the ownership of a vehicle as indicative of wealth. Little do they know that many people who drive luxury cars have car notes (loans) and sometimes they struggle just to "make ends meet". To me, a car is an absolute necessity, and not necessarily a sign of wealth. Orderly and properly functional public transport helps the environment and reduces foreign exchange outflows, import bills, dependency on imported fossil fuel, road repairs and fatalities. Headaches, inconveniences, and prejudices aside, it could be a way of breaking the rigid class system that still exists in our country.

burnscg@aol.com

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