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Here Be Mobsters! 13 Ways of Looking at New Jersey, Part 3

November 3rd, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized

njLead Us Not Into Penn Station. Last week, an old friend of mine, a prominent journalist, came in from out of town to interview my governor. Chris Christie isn’t too popular around these parts—Maplewood’s got an enormous Brooklyn diaspora, and Christie looks like your garden-variety fat-headed, fat-cat Republican: wrestling with a tight budget, he trains his sights on education and transportation. New Yorkers might be dimly aware of an enormous train-tunnel project, in the works for years and already begun, that Christie just scotched. Well, it’s a big deal to us out here in New Jersey. It would’ve been our Second Avenue Subway.

My friend accompanied me to the Maplewood train station. “See all these commuters?” I asked him. “They’re waiting for the 8:31 to Penn Station.” We checked our watches: It was now 8:50 a.m. Everyone looked resigned—all those appointments, meetings, early starts to the day—all snafu’d now. But we all know the drill: We have to be at the station right on time to catch our trains. New Jersey Transit, of course, is under no such obligation to us schlubs.

Living in New York means a hop on the subway: some jostling, some drama, a whiff of menace. Living in New Jersey means a commute, and no matter how good my karma is, I know I’ll never be in transit less than an hour each way. That’s less time to see my wife and daughter, and more exhaustion at both ends of the day. I know I should view this hour as my sanctuary. Verizon doesn’t yet sell the iPhone, so I usually read on the train. I try hard to remember that I should be fully present at home—playing with Nora, being with Rachel, instead of drifting off to read or to work. I’ve already had my leisure time. I don’t have a man-cave. I have a commute.

It also means arriving and departing Manhattan through its armpit. This was how I first saw the city, at its very nadir, when my family took the train up from D.C. one weekend. It was 1977, argubably New York City’s best and worst year in history (Ramones, Talking Heads, Annie Hall; bankruptcy, blackout, riots, Son of Sam). I remember a homeless woman kicking a cardboard box down Madison Avenue. I remember my parents clutching my brother and sister and me as close as physically possible. I remember an entire city looking like Penn Station looks now.

Whenever I glance around Penn Station, waiting to be sprung from “stand-by” (or “cancelled”) status, I think two things: One, that the commuters to Westchester would never stand for this kind of shabby treatment, being forced to stand around a grubby station until we have to stampede to our abruptly announced track. And two, that it could be worse. I could be standing at the Bedford Avenue L stop. The biggest difference between the Bedford stop and that Sebastião Salgado photograph of the Mumbai train station is that the hipsters at Bedford subsist on more than 4,000 rupees a month. So I shouldn’t complain. But complain I do. Because I do, after all, live in New Jersey.

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