Bryan Mardit of Yorktown submitted this account of his trip home from Manhattan Monday, a commute delayed after a fire broke out on a Metro-North rail bridge in Harlem.
Stuff happens. That’s not exactly how the expression goes, but we’ll keep this PG-13 for the moment. My little sister (Melyssa) and I had spent the night sleeping at a friend’s place on the Upper East Side, and, after eating a classic New York breakfast of bagels with cream cheese, we made the entirely expected and entirely reasonable decision to head home.
There’s nothing wrong with Manhattan, and the bagels, as New York bagels go, were excellent. However, after spending the weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina visiting our brother, we figured enough of this traveling business- let’s go back to Yorktown.
Boy, if we only knew!
We walked from my friend’s place to the 86th street station, and tried without success to swipe our MetroCard through the magnetic reader. A thirty-something with hair pulled into a tight ponytail used her card to get us through, and, offered to walk with us to the subway. Once in the car, we zipped uptown, and turned the corner towards the Harlem and 125th street station.
Purchasing our tickets, we chatted about life, the cost of childcare (she was in a hurry to get home to take care of her twins), and the relative merits of going home via Grand Central vs. picking up the train later, here at Harlem 125th.
Climbing the stairs, we surfaced, and walked out to the platform. In the distance, we immediately spotted a thick plume of black smoke. Wafting is a great word, but to state that the smoke was “wafting” in a south-east direction would be a blatant falsehood.
The smoke was not so much gingerly drifting as *pouring* up into the air, and attracting not only pieces of dust and lint but the attention of other would-be Metro-North passengers. At this point, we just sort of stood there, wondering if global warming had just taken a drastic turn for the worse, or, if this was, perhaps, more than just a smokestack eliciting unwarranted attention on an otherwise beautiful morning just shy of autumn.
Two simultaneous events occurred which suggested, strongly, that this was not an ordinary situation: 1) Two New York police officers arrived and began staring in the distance, and, 2) The New Haven line to our right, which had stopped to pick up passengers, engaged its brake and released its entire human cargo out on to the platform.
People have this ailment, this perspective, at times, when the most important thing in the world is not starvation or unemployment, not the economy or disease, but the very present fact that they need to get somewhere NOW. Men and women of various shapes and sizes surrounded the blue-shirted MTA employees from both trains, and bombarded them with a million questions.
“What’s going on?”
“When will service resume?”
“This is awful! When will you fix it?”
Larry Diomonde, a conductor for the New Haven line, repeated what he knew to people, over and over again: “There’s been a fire by the bridge. We’ve had to shut down the line. Right now, the fire department has control over the situation, and until they turn it back over to the MTA, there’s nothing we can do.”
I watched from the platform as some people sighed, clearly distressed, and decided the most appropriate thing to do was to remove my shoes and socks, and enjoy, for the moment, the pure sunshine streaming down.
At this point, the second news helicopter arrived on scene, and as if on cue, the wind shifted, blowing dense, acrid smoke directly on all of us. My sister and I covered our faces, and while I engaged others in speculation, my sister turned back to her book.
In the distance, sirens wailed, and after forty minutes, an announcement came over the PA system: “The fire is now out, however, it will be at LEAST 30 minutes until service is restored.”
The words “at least” being the most significant, as five minutes later, the lead NYPD officer strode forward, arms waving: “It is going to be most of the day until service is restored — this train is going back to Grand Central. You can find other ways home from there.”
Turning to our right, my sister and I boarded the train to go back to Grand Central. I sat down next to Kevin, who worked in Newburgh.
“Hi, I’m Bryan,” I said.
“I’m Kevin,” he replied.
After chatting with Kevin for a few moments, it became clear that, one, the woman who had swiped us through the subway was not a lone, kind-hearted New Yorker, but one of many, and two, that perhaps as a group we could make our way back to Westchester County.
Arriving in Grand Central a dozen minutes later, two uniformed MTA employees informed us that we could take the subway to Yankeee Stadium, and board a Metro-North train there. Running like lunatics, Melyssa, Kevin and I sped through Grand Central, packs flapping at our backs: there would surely be a hoard of people waiting for this train!
When we got to the car, we found it packed tightly with human sardines; a metal pole here, a whiff of stale, sweat-filled air there, the car was squirming with humans trying, despite a burning wooden pier on 138th street, to make their way home.
When we arrived at Yankee Stadium, I ran up to an MTA employee, and asked in a harried tone: “Sir, how do we get to Metro-North from here?” Adjusting his visor, he turned to me: “Go down this way, and go up the long flight of stairs to your left. Make a left past the old Yankee Stadium, then a right, and go up the elevator.”
I wasn’t sure I understood what he said, and was repeating it in my head, when Melyssa marched up to me. I turned to her, wiping sweat from my brow. “I’m not sure I fully understand these directions,” I said. “You better,” she replied, asserting all of her 22 years in my face, “because there’s a crowd of people behind us, and they’re all following YOU.”
I glanced behind me, and adjusting the weight of my backpack, walked forward to the stairs. Ascending into the glare, we walked to the old stadium, noting the different buildings and atmosphere of the Bronx. One in a line of many, we pushed forward to the corner, rushing to catch a train, which we could only hypothesize existed.
We came to a glass cube, a four-windowed elevator that looked out over a piece of New York history, the old Yankee field. At the top, we emptied into the Metro-North station, Melyssa, Kevin and myself all exhausted but happy to be in a place where we could traverse the river. After waiting another hour, they called for the Harlem line on Track Two, and a sea of people surged all at once, flooding down two flights of stairs.
It was a zoo of briefcases, wrists, elbows, knees, ponytails, silver crew cuts, ties, coats, miniskirts, and above it all, New Yorker kindness: “Let me get that bag for you.”
“This is the right train, ma’m.”
“Excuse, me, please.”
On the platform, we boarded the train, and happy to be going somewhere at last, sat down with a long sigh. It was near three P.M.; it had taken us over three hours to get from the tip of Manhattan to our train exiting the Bronx.
So what’s the point of all this? Sure, it’s “stuff happens,” and it’s true, as a rule, that bizarre things can and do happen all the time, especially in an area as large as New York City.
But what was amazing were the random acts of kindness that even a flaming pier could not suppress — swiping MTA cards for strangers, holding bags at stairwells for old ladies, giving directions to new and old alike with a smile and an “awe, shucks” grin — this is not the Gotham of yesteryear, of purse snatchers and hoodlums, of shady streets and nervous, deserted alleys; this is, instead, a community of people who, though not particularly thrilled at the delay, forgot the fact they needed to be home RIGHT NOW (for the most part) and embraced each other in the heart of New York City with an attitude of compassion and helpfulness, because, like it or not, stuff happens — but, it need not happen alone.