Planes, Trains and … Chaos

Imagine this scenario — you arrive at the airport, any airport, check in, pass through security and then … you enter the large central space with all the other passengers and their carry-on bags, children, pet carriers, shopping bags, briefcases, etc. and you wait. And wait. And wait some more. You and everyone who is paying attention, which is fewer and fewer people as time passes, stare hopefully at the large electronic board mounted near the ceiling. You wait some more as your attention begins to wander.

Then, without warning, the information on the big board changes and a voice emerges from the speaker system announcing that your flight will be boarding immediately at Gate 1. In keeping with frequent airport design practice, Gate 1 is the furthest gate from where you are standing, down a long concourse full of other nearly hysterical travelers trying to line up according to their station (you know, first class, business class, Ruby, Platinum, Kryptonite, Silver, etc. followed by people with no station who, in earlier times, would have been placed below decks in steerage. Now, in the Age of Flight, they are merely put in window seats in the Coach section near the rest rooms.

They board last. If they bought the latest airline fare “innovation,” they may not place carryon bags in the overhead compartments. They didn’t understand this, but now they do. Seasoned travelers on the flight hate people who are trying to save money and are uninformed. There is congestion in the aisle as the flight attendants frantically try to get everyone seated with bags stowed, large electronics off “so we can have an on-time departure.”

The airport “cattle call” I have described is not, of course, reality, at least not until you board the plane. That’s why I started with the word “imagine.” But this is the reality of a train trip in New York City starting at Penn Station. The track announcements are awaited by the gathering crowds in the center hall of the station. They are posted on the centrally placed schedule board more or less at the same time an oral announcement is made over the general din that pervades the place most of the time.

The crowd then surges toward the named gate and forces its way down the escalator to the track below. curbed.com says that about 650,000 commuters pass through Penn Station daily so it is not hard to imagine the scene. In the Amtrak section of the station, there are 27 gates, accessed through 14 gates/escalators, about half of which are designated “east” and the other half “west,” so it pays to no your directions. Still, your chances of being trampled are pretty good unless you are quick on your feet and can handle your luggage adroitly. If not, you would be wise to hook up with the Red Caps in the Amtrak Waiting Area.

The Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit also serve Penn Station. If you’re good with maps, you can see a visual layout of Penn Station at https://bit.ly/2JbpdXS but you have to experience it to believe it.

Some of the “storied” history of Penn Station can be found at https://bit.ly/2wU3I7h along with the “plans” for its future. I am already a cynic and I’ve only lived here six months. But I’ve used Penn Station dozens of times over the years so my cynicism is at least somewhat justified.

One must wonder why they can’t determine the track assignments at least somewhat in advance of a train’s arrival. I have asked the Red Caps a few times but never got an answer that made sense to me. It is the age of computers, after all, though I suspect Amtrak’s computers are just plain aged. Forewarned is forearmed, so be prepared. And just be glad the railroads don’t run the airlines.

Footnote:  If you are coming on Amtrak into Penn Station from, say, Washington, you have a different issue. First, you will exit the train (minding the inevitable gap between the train and the platform) and, usually, take the escalator up to the main hall of the station. Then your challenge is: take a taxi or take the subway? If subway, you just follow the relatively obvious signs to the subway station you want. If you want a  taxi, you face the question whether to exit at 8th Avenue or 7th Avenue. Bear in mind that 8th Avenue runs one-way going uptown and 7th Avenue is one-way downtown. Also, the never-ending construction around Penn Station may alter the location of taxi stands, so be prepared for that surprise too. But, hey, you’re in New York!

Looking Down on New York

Some days The City is almost mystically quiet when seen from our 50th floor apartment. The eerie silence is always interrupted, though, after a short while. Usually, it’s one or more sirens. Our building is adjacent to Mount Sinai West hospital and there is constant but irregular coming and going of ambulances in full-throated wail trying to intimidate their way through automobile traffic blocking every lane, seemingly indifferent to the person whose fate depends on the ambulance or fire engine arriving as fast as possible.

And then there are the pedestrians who seem to regard the imminent arrival of an ambulance or fire engine as an opportunity to dash across the intersection in the gaps created by the few cars who are actually trying to make way for the emergency vehicle.

Then, the hush returns. The other frequent sound is an often shockingly loud crashing of a truck bed separating from its foundation as the truck encounters, and ignores, the so-common fissures and cracks in the streets. New York City is very old and its base infrastructure suffers mightily under the burden of tens of thousands of vehicles passing every day on many of its streets. The booming sounds made by these truck-street interactions would be easily ignored in times past, but in the age of terrorism, the mind is instantly drawn to the idea that the sound could as easily be a bomb.

There are no sounds at all from the thousands of windows I can see from my apartment.

Behind those windows, in just the buildings I can see, labor hundreds of thousands, millions, of people talking on phones and in meetings and, of course, clicking away on the computers on which modern commerce totally depends. It is a bit surprising to think that the aggregate of those conversations and keyboard click/clacks does not escape into the atmosphere to make at least a faint impression on the observant eardrum. But they don’t. The city, viewed above street level, might as well be devoid of all life, home to little else than the proverbial church mouse (or, in the case of New York, perhaps the church rat) and the strange ever-present parade of paired red lights creeping south on Ninth Avenue.

The windows of the massive twin towers of the Time Warner building sit opposite my living room windows. In the afternoon sun they are as opaque as a solid wall of black glass.

After dark, on the other hand, the towers light up in the brilliance that we have come to associate with The City at night.

As I walked by one of the towers the other day, I observed a uniformed doorman speaking to the driver of a black Secret Service-style van: “This is a condominium, not a hotel. And all the people who live here, I know.”

This is not an exaggeration. The doormen in our building, one of two towers holding 700 apartments, knew us on sight, by name and apartment number, the second day we were here. There’s a certain comfort in that, but also a bit of a chill to think that we are that recognizable to people who were total strangers only a day before. But it is their job and they do it well.

As night falls, I hear a discordant rat-a-tatta-tatta machine gun-like sound from far below on the street. One of the seemingly infinite NYC construction jobs is still going well after dark, further rending the concrete for some purpose. There seems to be a construction project underway on every other corner and we are blessed with several in our neighborhood. Often the scaffolding gives away that yet another building is going up, but many times the goal is simply impossible to know. The work blocks lanes of traffic, adding to the frenetic battle between the ubiquitous armada of yellow taxis and the other cars and trucks maneuvering for advantage along Ninth Avenue.

I can’t help but marvel at this mostly silent scene. All those people, cars, trucks, going about their business. Somebody’s business. The business of The City is business. According to Investopedia, New York City is the is “the leading job hub for banking, finance and communication in the U.S. New York is also a major manufacturing center and shipping port, and it has a thriving technological sector. There are more books, magazines and newspapers published in New York than in any other state in the country.”

The employment figures boggle the mind:

Financial services                    330,000

Professional/Technical           647,800

Retail workers                         800,000

And who knew that NYC manufacturing leads in railroad rolling stock and, of course, garments, New York City being the fashion capital of the country. It’s also a major producer of … yes, elevator parts and glass. A walk down any major street will tell you why.

Those numbers are only part of the story. Wikipedia, the source of all truth in the Digital Age, reports the presence of almost 600,000 university students at 110 colleges and universities. You likely recognize names like Columbia, Barnard, Fordham and New York University, but there are dozens more. I wonder how many athletic teams are fielded by city schools each weekend. And where do they practice?

They don’t make much noise, I can tell you, at least not up here on the 50th floor. No slapping of shoulder pads or blowing of whistles. People, people, everywhere and not a sound to hear.

Talking Trash in New York City

I promised to cover “filth” in my inaugural post and, aspiring to be a man of my word, herewith we talk trash.

It may surprise you to learn, however, that after some reflection and observation, albeit not a scientific sample of the possibilities (which are vast), I don’t think New York City is afflicted with more trash than any other American city of comparable scale and population density. Of course, there is no such place but there are a few pretty big cities to go around and each of them has its trash-ridden neighborhoods. If you look, you can find them in New York as well.

However, I currently believe (and reserve the right to believe otherwise with greater experience) there are several contributing causes of the perception that New York City s filthy and one overriding explanation.

With population density of more than 27,000 people per square miles, trash will inevitably appear on the streets. That many people simply cannot be expected to be responsible about what they do with their trash. Cigarette smokers, of which there remain plenty in The City, are not going to carry ashtrays or go out of their way to find a place to stamp out their butts. So, they end up on the street and sidewalk.

Another major culprit originates in the hundreds of Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and newsstand/food truck/food carts that are ubiquitous in New York City. These venerable establishments produce tens of thousands of cardboard coffee cups and paper wrappers for pastries, hot dogs, hot nuts, pizza, halal and an almost infinite variety of other “snacks” that are consumed voraciously by New Yorkers on the move. As the photo below demonstrates, these items most often end up in trash bins

It may surprise you to learn, however, that after some reflection and observation, albeit not a scientific sample of the possibilities (which are vast), I don’t think New York City is afflicted with more trash than any other American city of comparable scale and population density. Of course, there is no such place but there are a few pretty big cities to go around and each of them has its trash-ridden neighborhoods. If you look, you can find them in New York as well.

However, I currently believe (reserving the right to believe otherwise with greater experience) there are several contributing causes of the perception that New York City s filthy and one overriding explanation.

With population density of more than 27,000 people per square mile, trash will inevitably appear on the streets. That many people simply cannot be expected to be responsible about what they do with their trash. Cigarette smokers, of which there remain plenty in The City, are not going to carry ashtrays or go out of their way to find a place to stamp out their butts. So, they end up on the street and sidewalk.

Another major culprit originates in the hundreds of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and newsstand/food truck/food carts that are ubiquitous in New York City. These venerable establishments produce tens of thousands of cardboard coffee cups and paper wrappers for pastries, hot dogs, hot nuts, pizza, halal and an almost infinite variety of other “snacks” that are consumed voraciously by New Yorkers on the move. These items most often end up in trash bins, but the volume overwhelms the bin supply and the near-constant wind takes care of the rest.Thus, you end up with this:

I conservatively, and unscientifically, estimate that in any group of 100 pedestrians, at least 10 will be drinking coffee and/or eating while walking. When they reach the subway steps, of course, many of these items end up on the street or on the steps themselves.

None of this is surprising and, at least for today, I have the overall impression that New York City is, relatively and in the circumstances, clean.

The overriding single reason people tend to think otherwise is, I suggest, that New York City is just plain old. The sidewalks and streets of Gotham were, by and large, laid down a long time ago. Same for most of the subways. This means that the remains of long-ago discarded food items have been ground into the pavement, there to remain as discolorations and, if you will, marbleizations, of the pavement. Much of the city simply looks dirty even when it’s not.

It is also at least arguable that the vast amounts of trash generated by the vast number of humans in the vastly large towers of Manhattan create a visual impression of dirtiness that overwhelms the senses even when the street itself is actually quite spotless. See the header photo for this post. And this:

My apartment building, comprised of 700 apartments produces each week an astonishing amount of trash that appears on the street behind the building in black plastic bags or simply in piles of construction materials from the renovations that are on-going. On trash pick-up day, these piles of black plastic bags will appear on some streets every few feet for many blocks.

Overall, New York City “generates” more than 14 million tons of trash a year. The details of what is done with it are summarized at http://bit.ly/2efzqPj   If trash disposal really interests you, and it should, a great 2014 video on the subject as regards New York and other places, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6LzB6rMDtA. The video covers the history of trash disposal in New York City and some of the latest advances in compostable recycling.

As a closing note, the history of The City shows that a large portion of it, south of Liberty Street, was built on landfill of the trash the city itself produced. If we don’t figure out better ways to deal with trash everywhere, someday we may all be living in, or on, a dumpster.