Reflections on a Declining Transit System and Our Origins

Reflections on a Declining Transit System and Our Origins

Our problem is with the switch. 


This is announced through the train’s PA system.  We are on a 7:22am train heading eastbound to Manhattan.  A woman sitting across from me says something, but I am thinking about the switch.  She is wearing a bulky wool coat and holding an earphone between her fingers – the other earphone is buried in her ear.  She is looking at me peevishly.


“Were you talking to me,” I ask.

“What did they say?  I missed it.”

“There’s a problem with a switch.”

“What does that mean?”  She seems like an important person – has a satchel of documents and an expensive-looking scarf.

“It means you should probably get comfortable.”


The woman smiles awkwardly, stuffs the earphone back in her ear and closes her eyes.  I listen to the hot air blowers and look out through the sparse trees at the small anonymous backyards.  The land rises where it was altered to meet the tracks and the gray stones that swell below the tines and iron binding and the rails and our train upon the rails.




It is early December and we are having a bathroom done.  Having a bathroom done means the original one must be torn apart.  The gutted space – adorned in tufts of insulation and the snaking yaw of electrical cords and copper pipes – represents our only shower/bath.  We do not live in one of those houses so common these days – one-to-one ratios of full baths to bedrooms, as if we are a country of mud-slung diuretic addicts.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Manufacturing, Mining, and Construction Statistics – Americans spent $106 million in alterations among owner-occupied properties in 2006 alone.  This investment is partly due to an antsy culture that is nourished on its need to perpetually improve itself.  It is also due to the simple fact that the older spaces in question no longer functioned properly.


Now I am throwing some necessities in a bag – a washcloth, a pair of underwear, a towel.  It is just after 9 pm on a Tuesday night and it is starting to snow.  I will have to drive about three miles west to shower at the YMCA.  I have never showered there and am certain it is a very public facility.  I imagine there will be plenty of open space – of the bare form and comfort usually reserved for prisons; there will be men propped here and there in casual repose, in all uncomfortable manner of natural states and postures.


“I’m sure there are curtains or something,” my wife says.

“There aren’t going to be any curtains.”

“Well, there’ll be something – compartments or walls or something.  The women’s showers have curtained stalls.”

I toss a balled pair of socks into my canvas bag, zip it shut.  “Maybe I can shower in the women’s locker room then.”


She does not offer this as an option.




The switch is frozen and we are waiting on a technician.


Every year, winter is a new phenomenon to the New Jersey Transit train fleet and the infrastructure that supports that fleet.  I watch a slouched and somewhat obese man playing Tetris on his cell phone and he somehow demonstrates my interest in making our mutual situation known more broadly.  I take out my Blackberry and go to  I plan to find a phone number and to speak to somebody there about winter and what it means for both atmospheric temperatures and the ability for metallic objects – like rail lines and switches – to retain temperatures. 


Metals are conductors.  They are conduits – and this is why they are used in cooking and in electric wires and cables and in industrial plates and insulators and in hosts of known technologies in need of conductors.  I plan to mention all of this to the customer service person – but there is a Contact Us link and when I click it I am taken to a screen of blank forms.


You can use this form to send feedback to NJ TRANSIT.


I am not interested in using a form to send feedback.  I want to talk to somebody about hot and cold transference and atoms and what it means in metals – and in turn what that means for switches and rail lines and the trains that ride on rail lines.  I want to talk about the technician’s tools in this instance and how one taps a frozen switch. 


This cannot be accomplished in a form – and I see that the form’s purpose is found in the consolidation and disposability of thought.




The men’s locker room at the YMCA is locked.  It is now 10 pm.  This is my only option and – having banked on it – I have run myself harder than usual on the YMCA treadmills and machines, and I am a study in perspiration and the bacteria that build civilizations in perspiration.


“The locker room’s locked,” I tell a bored-looking desk attendant.  The whole thing seems irritatingly appropriate – a locker room should be locked.

“You need a key,” he says. 

“I realize that.  How do I get one?”

“You give me your membership card and I give you a key.”


The key has an elastic band and I affix it to my wrist and shuffle off like some kind of inpatient.  There should be a sign somewhere or some direction on the whole card-for-a-key program.  It could be that I am in need of too many signs.  That is possible.  The routine compass that I so regularly consult has limited notches in the points between North and East and South and West.  And getting lost is getting easier. 


The temptation is to exist on a line between two points, but it is more accurate to understand that I am living in a pudding.




Japan operates its network of trains through numerous tactical challenges.  The population in Tokyo alone – at 12.58 million people – is 53% larger than that of New York City.  Tokyo boasts the most extensive urban railway network in the world, operating 101 passenger train lines in the service of the city alone.  It is estimated that 20 million people use rail as their primary means of transport in the metropolitan area daily.  Beyond the strain of population, Tokyo also must contend with the structural threat of earthquake tremors. 


And Tokyo’s trains are on time daily – to the minute. 


We have just creaked past the switch and have come to another stop.  We are told that we must now wait for a westbound freight train.  We are on an eastbound train, heading for New York City where the day is ticking by.  Referencing New Jersey Transit’s 2005 statistics, average daily boarding at New York Penn Station is a mere 68,000 passengers.


68,000 > 20,000,000 and Freight > Homo Sapiens.


I am unable to discern these equations.




A strikingly hairy naked man is staring vacantly at the faucets he has just opened.  The shower space is a simple rectangle – maybe ten feet wide by twenty feet deep, with shower heads spaced four feet apart on both walls.  I drop my bag onto a small bench and take out my towel and balled socks and underwear and everything.  The man looks at me and nods when I look at him directly.


“You might not get hot water from that one,” he says.


I am not interested in receiving any advice at the moment.  There are borders and there are DMZs – and some people say that they are one and the same, but they are not.  I am not a communal animal.  This is uncomfortable for no other reason than our common anatomy is ugly.


I open the valves and the spray is almost immediately the right temperature.  I step into it, let it rake and permeate and work its magic unhindered.  I am comforted in the simple closure of the washcloth upon my face.  It is warm and heavy and I am malleable, having come as far as I have from the waters and going now back to the water and to the wilderness of origin – piped as it is.