Train in Vain

So you get out the door and watch as the 7:24 bus sits stopped at the light, literally at your doorstep. But there's ice on the sidewalk, still, and your wife has your baby strapped to her and circumstantially insufficient footwear (through no fault of her own) adorning her feet, so you can't make it the half-block to your right to the bus stop before it's already moved there, picked up passengers and even waited for a woman running after it before pulling away. But you have another bus that's due in ten minutes.

It gets there in twenty. The driver makes a teenager get up from the reserved-for-disabled seat in the front so your wife and child can rest. But it's crowded, and standing near them means you're blocking the aisle, so you move along to a precarious stance at the back doorway.

At your stop, you rush to push through that back door and run over a frozen berm of plowed "snow" at the side of the road to reach the front door to help wife and child down the stairs and over the self-same berm. Then it's up the stairs to the outdoor elevated subway stop, where the wait is not too bad, and the train is not too crowded, which is probably why no one offers your wife a seat.

At the next transfer, the platform is very crowded with people ready to board the train you're exiting. A young man plows into the car as soon as the doors open, in defiance of the mass exiting it and nearly knocking into your wife and child. You could yell, but he wouldn't hear, and it would add to your wife's stress, and there isn't time. But you also don't have to get out of his way, and you don't. And maybe, just maybe, you get a little more in it.

This station, though also outdoors, is better sheltered, and you don't have too long to wait for the train besides. This one is pretty crowded, but not terrible. In fact, as soon as you get on the train a young man gets up to offer your wife a seat, which she gratefully accepts.

At the first underground station, because it's rather crowded and you made it just into the doorway when you entered, you have to step outside momentarily to allow people room to disembark. As soon as you do, hand still clutched to the sliding door (as though you had the strength to stop it closing) you hear your child cry - assuming you've left, for some reason deviating from the routine she's apparently memorized right down to the characteristics of each subway stop. You edge back on, and because you can't reach her where she's sat you just do your best with a smile you don't feel and, "I'm right here. I'm right here."

Then you're at the stop for her daycare and disembark, taking advantage of the narrow space between two iron ceiling supports to thin out the approaching mass of commuters rushing to board. You act as a guide and shield (as best you can) to get the lot of you past the lottery of turnstiles with people pushing through and past you in a hurry. Inevitably, somewhere between the platform and the busy five-way intersection at the top of the stairs, someone or -two or -three has gotten between you and your wife. But you reunite at the corner, replace the child's hat and/or mittens as necessary, and navigate the gestalt of them over slush lakes and rock-hard moguls to start the quarter-mile walk.

The sidewalk is narrowed by vehicles parked on the curb and frozen precipitate and, in various places, completely blocked by construction. You hold your wife's hand again, making slow progress and frequently walking ahead to allow others to pass in the other direction, or from behind.

You try to ignore your instincts. Some of them, anyway. If you feel her slip or clutch, you must hang on, pull up, or engulf. That much is easy. But if your traction gives, if your purchase on the path is in peril, you must - above all else - LET GO. You cannot contemplate the consequences if you fall, and fail, so you practice it in your mind as you cross another intersection (which somehow isn't a four-way stop, in spite of continuous traffic coming from all four directions).

Finally you arrive at daycare, and no one has fallen. You drop off the little one, who is thrilled to be there, which makes up for the little hassles of the cold - a suction-sealed front door, and having to undo remove and replace and redo boots to enter-then-exit the room. A kiss goodbye, adorable, and maybe an extra blown kiss, if she's facing the right way, and not too distracted by her waffles and banana and toddling friends.

And then the cold again, and the quarter-mile walk, and the feeling every single time that you've forgotten something because you're carrying two fewer bags and one fewer human being now. You hold hands with your wife, except when you can't, and brave stopless intersection and sub-arctic, sub-aquatic, five-point intersection, and head back down into the final stop before Manhattan.

And you wait. And you wait.

A train came, but was so congested with passengers you thought yourselves wily, to wait for the next, which by all precedence must be nearly empty as a result of the passenger-plowing the train ahead of it is accomplishing. And you're late already; five minutes will not suffer more. The next train that comes is similarly devoid of air, especially after dozens more people cram in. So you wait.

As does the train. It sits there, with its doors open, stoic. On the fifth cycle of its motors warming up then cooling down, there's no announcement still, and now the platform mirrors the train's interior with its population density, and a NYCT officer strides down the unspoken aisle from wherever he appeared - the engine of the train, or maybe one of those small operator booths tucked into the mouths of the tunnels.

And you know it's bad, when you see a human being who is in direct relation to the object of your existential angst. It's someone "sick," which can mean so many things here in the underworld. So you tell your wife you're going to walk to the nearest alternate line, and she comes with you. And you trundle through the human aisle, against the current, back through the stiles and back up the steps while a woman ahead of you broadcasts for all descending that there's a "sick passenger," and you wonder at why you never perform this public service, and how she can be so sure, with no announcement.

You and your wife make the walk, which is not quite a mile, fortunately. Your fingertips ache, and you worry about her toes in her thin galosh-ean footwear. You're never quite sure of the way to this station, but you know the general direction and which directions are useful to turn until something looks familiar. At least this hand-holding is clearer, and you don't have to worry as much about your wife saving herself from you now that she hasn't got 25 extra pounds strapped onto her front.

You take turns releasing hands and removing gloves to text work about your ordeal. She does it on the go, a feat you've never mastered.

At the station, you descend once more, and it's indoors, which you can really appreciate once you've walked far enough down the platform to be past the overhead grates leading to the sidewalks above. And a train comes right away, also packed to the gills. But there are two lines that run through this station, and you wait. And another train comes. And you wait. And another train comes. And you wait.

Suddenly there is one more train there, one of the newer ones bright and comparatively spacious within, and by now you're at the middle of the platform in hopes of the ends being the more crowded. It pays off. Not only is there distinguishable space, but several people disembark and you both step gratefully in, and feel a blast of warm air hug you even as the doors close.

You smell the feces a moment later, as you both hold on to the vertical bar there at the end of the car. You wonder - not for the first time - is it's something about adult human feces in general that triggers a primal need to run, flee, be safely away, or if it is the fact that the adult human feces you're accustomed to inhaling is from the most desperate, malnourished, and long-neglected fellow adult humans. You look to the facing seats next to you there at the end of the car, and find not one, but an ignored occupant per each. One's head is balding in an uncomfortable and unhealthy way; both wear pants that are dark, splotchy, and of a now-unknown material.

But they're wearing pants, and visibly breathing.

Your wife asks if you want to switch cars at the next stop. But your transfer is just the one after that, and it's risky to switch cars, and if you can't for any reason get on again you will lose what reason is left to you. Perhaps you can get by with mouth breathing, though even now it's an effort not to think about what you may be inhaling. So you say no, but leave her the option, which she decides to take. The train slows to the first stop in Manhattan.

Your wife says, "bye," then waits for her kiss. You hadn't expected this, thought because of your thoughts and her overwhelming caution over germs and bacteria that you'd forgo this ritual. You give her her kiss, and she exits the car, hopping nimbly onto the next. Now you're alone. Your wife is just past a couple of sets of sliding doors and a buffer of freezing damp wind, and you're amongst hundreds of fellow commuters, but you're alone.

The train pulls into its next stop, your transfer, and you do. Miraculously, it is not a walking transfer - this is why you chose it. So you simply step off, enjoying a very mild rush from breathing deeply through your nose and you turn and lean your back into the wall of the platform. The train doors close, sealing off its cargo. As it accelerates past, you see your wife once more through the window of the following car, pulling something up on or reading something off of her iPod.

Another train arrives shortly thereafter, and you board, and it's not too crowded. There are even seats. And after a few stops, when it seems clear that the train ahead of it is picking up the majority of passengers and unlikely that someone will need it more than you, you allow yourself one of those seats.

You're on your way. You'll arrive soon.