Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Give it a D-Plus

One of the biggest changes of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn has been switching to the C train. Now, I've been using the C train for years when I have to, because I've always lived in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, usually between the 1 and the A/C trains. But to understand the change, I have to explain a bit about New York.

If you're not from here, hold your left hand edgewise in front of of you, with your thumb next to, rather than on top of, your index finger. That's sort of the shape of Manhattan Island proper: really skinny at the top, sort of tapering at the bottom, and bulbous in the lower middle. (Put scotch tape over the top half of the line formed by your thumb and your finger and you've basically covered Central Park.) Now take your right hand, hold it full in front of you, then turn it clockwise ninety degrees (fingers pointing out to the right) and you've got a VERY small representation of the two biggest outer boroughs next to Manhattan: the top half is Queens, the bottom half is Brooklyn. (Brooklyn goes down farther than this, so I guess if you imagine someone taping a small vaguely Texas-shaped protrusion that dangles down from the pinky side of your right hand, you'll be fine.) I work in the thumb-pit of Manhattan. I used to live at the top of your left hand. Now I live at the junction of the ring and middle fingers of your right.

The C train is, in its clunky way, pretty amazing, because it actually covers both areas, getting almost to the tippy-top of Manhattan (it bottoms out at 168th, which sucked when I lived at 181st and had to walk the rest of the way on late nights), and swings all the way down to midtown (the bottom bulbous part), and then goes sideways across the middle-lower part of Brooklyn. When I was taking the 1 or the A (both of which go up to the 200s and off into the Bronx), I was always near the beginning of the route, so I always got a seat in the morning. My first worry about switching to the C is that, because there's so much Brooklyn left over after my stop, I'd be standing all the way into town.

That turned out to be surprisingly inaccurate. For some reason the C train seems oddly depopulated in the morning, and there's about a 50-50 chance I'll find a seat immediately, and (so far) a 100% chance I'll find one only a few stops down at Jay Street, when everyone gets off to switch to some other train someplace. So I've been able to sit for most of the ride most of the time. That's really nice. And when I had to swing up to 157th Street the other day to pick up some old mail, I didn't have to change trains at all. Hooray! That part has been good.

But the C train, at least at my stop, has several sins to answer for, and I dislike it more every day.

Normally trains seem able to grow on me, so back when I moved from the A--which has some really beautiful stops, especially the 14th Street station, with the Otterness sculptures I've posted here before--over to the 1, I was prepared to get depressed. But although the 1 isn't quite as pretty or as clean (except at the Alice-in-Wonderland-decorated 50th Street station), it has another advantage: it runs all the time, so frequently that you don't even need to bother with the express 2 or 3 across the way. And if you live above 125th street, there's an additional benefit: the 125th-street station is above ground. So if you get on the train in either direction, you wind up rumbling underground, and then suddenly--sunlight and air! (And everyone immediately checks their cell phones.) It was like the arrival of spring, like we were all Persephone returning from the underworld, and it became my favorite part of the commute.

The C, by contrast, simply disappoints further the more I deal with it. For starters, it's the only train I've been on that's actually significantly shorter than the station. Normally you can wait anywhere on a platform and some part of the train will stop in front of you. At my C station, you have to remember to get several car-lengths forward or you'll find yourself, as I did my first few days, running breathlessly like a pedestrian chasing a bus, in order to squeeze into the overcrowded final car. You won't get a seat until 4th Street, so don't even try.

The C train also contains more crazy people than any train I've ever been on. Maybe it's just my stop (I'm in the Clinton Hill/Crown Heights area), but again, about half the time when I leave the train, there's some guy talking to himself in a loud voice and without a hands-free cell phone, belligerently daring anyone to make eye contact so he can tell you about the problems with women, this country and/or the voices. I would have thought the craziest people were in the city, but I've never seen a regular creepfest like the C offers.

But two things make my particular stop sucky. The first is that my entry is unmanned, which means that there's no one to help if there's a problem, and you can't get a map if you need one: it's just a metal turnstile (like those ones you see at the zoo) that takes cards one swipe at a time. So there's no character to it. Second, and more importantly, there's only ONE working gate; the other one's been broken this whole time. As a result, this is the first time I've ever seen a LINE to get into a subway, as people patiently queue up, one at a time, to swipe their card, get a beep, swipe it again, get another beep, and then are finally let in. The line literally goes up the stairs, and if I'm lucky I'll get a picture of it for this post. So far what's happened is that someone eventually breaks down and opens up the fire door, and everyone streams in illegally. That's the only way the system actually works without driving people crazy. That should get fixed.

Even that, however, didn't prepare me for the second suckiness: for the next few weeks, apparently, the C is not running on weekends. The only option is to take the A train, which is express, and it misses my stop by two entire stations in either direction. So I have to take a shuttle bus, or walk, and in either case, it's a helluva lot easier to get lost, because Brooklyn doesn't have a grid like Manhattan does, and the sign on the subway said, literally, "take the bus to Jay St."--without saying which bus--and since it's an unmanned stop, there was no one to ask. (Also, the stops are much farther apart than they are in the city, so it's a helluva lot of walking.) So last weekend, when all I was trying to do was get home at night, I wound up aboveground, standing in the rain, waiting for a bus outside the Jay Street station, only to discover myself completely lost (and further sodden) at midnight when I was let off at what I was told was Fulton. Call me spoiled, but on weekends after a tipsy night at the bars, I'm used to just zinging home on a single climate-controlled train, delivered to my doorstep like a safely swaddled foundling. I don't want to get out my compass and GPS device, and this rain thing is bullshit. I didn't move here because I wanted to go camping.

One more weird thing. When I went to, I checked and discovered that getting to work was a fairly simple matter, with one speed bump: I could simply get on the C, let it loop around to 34th street, and get off...and then walk for ten minutes to my office. More weather; who thought THAT was a great idea? On the way home, however, HopStop told me I could take the 6 down to Bleecker, take the F to Jay, and then take the C the rest of the way. It takes the same amount of time (although with no walking, albeit more switching around). But here's the kicker: it only works in ONE direction! I literally have to commute on two different plans, constantly buffeted by circumstance, where the Going to Work Me is focused, seated, content, and prepared for a cold-weather slog, and the Coming From Work Me is a nervous little whippet, constantly watching for the transfer stations, restlessly hopping from car to car, and unable to sit the whole time. Not only are these the opposite of what they should be (I need nervousness before work, relaxation after), but these two warring personalities are structured by the city itself, so they're concretely impossible to integrate. Maybe that's where the crazy people come from.

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Anonymous Francis said...

I transfer from the F to the 6 going uptown, and it's irritating but hardly impossible; you just have to walk aboveground to transfer.

What stop are you at? Maybe there's a G train nearer than the closest A train stop.

1/10/2008 10:05 AM  
Blogger Sneb said...

Interesting observations. So many people get confused with the 6 to F downtown only transfer at Bleeker. I guess the layout of the tunnels doesn't allow for easy construction of a passageway, but why don't they allow free above ground transfers? They have it at the 63rd st. F stop.

Those high turnstiles are death traps. (They call 'em HEET gates. High Entrance/Exit Turnstile). Just wait till there's a gas attack like in Tokyo, or some crazy suicide arsonist like in Korea. Well, I guess the emergency doors are there. Have you seen anyone EVER get in trouble for opening the door to exit and setting off the alarm. That alarm is going off ALL the time.

1/10/2008 10:57 AM  
Blogger Sneb said...

Aren't you using an unlimited metrocard? Ie, you are actually just exiting the system, then entering again. If you use a regular metrocard won't it deduct money if you did that? (I've never dared to try, so I could be wrong.)The MTA map doesn't show the "free out-of-system transfer" dotted line at the Bleeker stop, like it does at the 63rd st. stop.

1/10/2008 12:24 PM  
Blogger Ellen said...

Could you take the C to 14th Street, go across on the L, and then take the 6 from there?

1/10/2008 1:44 PM  
Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

Can you split the difference by walking to 6th Ave and catching the F at Herald Sq?

1/10/2008 4:23 PM  
Blogger ttractor said...

Dude, walk to the other end of the C train station. There's an attendant and lower turnstiles. Also, the G train has a stop at Clinton-Washington too, just a couple blocks north on Lafayette. Gah, you whiner, you're a New Yorker already.

1/10/2008 7:45 PM  

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