The day before the holiday weekend at Penn Station is always a harrowing experience. Everybody is going somewhere. And they’ve all got luggage. And they are all trying to meet each other at Hudson News, which doesn’t work out very well because there’s a Hudson News every direction you look.
Tonight was different. Not in any sort of good way, just in the way that on top of all the messy standard commuter stuff you had… trains that weren’t working. As if someone just shut them all off. Disabled train is the official term but it really just means: Ain’t nobody going nowhere.
But the awesome thing is that we decided to leave the station for a while to wait out the mess and we went to a diner where I tried to order the Philly Cheesesteak but the waiter recommended against it but then he highly recommended the Ruben, which was yummy-yummy. I don’t order a Ruben many places because it’s a hard one for restaurants to get right, but this one was just perfect. And the diner (Tick Tock Diner) is just around the corner from Penn Station. So I’ll be going there often.
The train ride down the Jersey Shore is absolutely lovely. There’s just something about it.
We take the train together every day – it is our mobile city. Like the urban river of the car’s turnpike, the train’s mobile city carries, each day, the long list of people who wish or need to be someplace else: the else-folk.
I used to not be one of them. Now I am one of them.
I used to call them the else-folk, since they were the folks who always wished or needed to be, each day, in a place different from where they woke up, or different from where they ended their work day. Elsewhere.
The else-folk were the anti-villagers – the folks that neighborhoods existed in spite of, not because of. For the else-folk we built highways, turnpikes, roads, bridges, and also trains – light rail, commuter rail, regional rail – and also things like airports and mechanisms like customs agencies and big interconnected cultures that flit about between continents just as easily as we used to flit about between the streets of Brooklyn, or my hometown suburban village on Long Island.
We are all else-folk, of course, to greater or lesser extents nowadays. When being “else” is done for good reasons, it’s a great thing. But I never used to be one who was primarily else-ish, to the point where it consumed my home-self. Now I see the else-folk a bit differently, even more today as I realize that I have actually been one of them for nearly twenty years without truly feeling so.
It is the evening rush hour commute, and we live together in the train’s mobile city that is like a village to us – one that moves beneath us as we wish or need to be someplace else. We carry a part of the city with us on the train, the other half of our mobile city is contributed by the place we happen to be passing through at that moment. It changes.
The train glides, urbanely, like a mobile city across the special highway of tracks that were made just for it. All the tracks connect, via walking platforms and passageways, to other highways of tracks. You enter each part of this mobile system via a secret passageway – maybe a staircase that tourists can’t find very easily, or by turning down the right street in the center of town to find the giant hump of train track and waiting area which someone plopped down in the middle of the here-folk’s living village. You enter each part of this mobile system using secret swiping cards and small pieces of cryptically embossed paper that have meaning to the people who administer the else-town. The conductor snaps an odd pattern into your small piece of cryptic paper, and that means the paper can’t be used anymore, can’t take you to any other else-places.
There are rules. Not just the written ones but also the ones that talk about things like how full the train has to be before it’s okay to cram yourself too close to someone standing or sitting on their way to their else-destination. For example, if the train is mostly empty, you know that you should pick a seat alone, away from the others, where your elbows can be kept to yourself and not be jostling into someone’s ribs each time the mobile city bounces along its track. That’s a rule.
There are other rules, more like inferences. There’s the one about how you can tell when the entire system has suffered a catastrophic failure. Some days, the crowd is so thick and sluggishly vast that it seems there is no hope of getting to any place you wish or need to be. But there is often a subtle clue which tells you it is worth waiting a few minutes – relief is on the way and the natural laws of the mobile city will work their wonders and get everyone, delayed perhaps, to the else-place where they wish or need to be.
I notice that we all know these rules. Even with all the items in the long list of else-places we travel to each day in the long list of days in the year, we all know the rules of where we are. And when someone appears who does not, that person is quickly shepherded into the mobile city, if amenable, and joins the great vast ride to somewhere.
Or if that person shows resistance, talks quietly of things like individuality and wonderful things that we are missing to see from all the villages we pass, then that person gets consumed by the ways, the rules, the unified culture of the one train – one world. The mobile city and its people can do that. That’s one of the rules that is an inference.
We are all living in one world, together. And when we all get to our else-place, we will still be home, as we have been all along.