Into the City...
Ahsan and Yaseen have ridden this bus into the city a thousand times over the last few years. The morning Shortline out of the Cornerstone church in Wyckoff that heads for the Port authority bus terminal on the west shoreline of Manhattan. Always the armchair critic of riders, rides and commuting into New York City during the rush hours, I am today out of that familiar and worn armchair and into a badly contoured bus seat about 20 rows back from the driver.
It is a late bus by New York City standards…this “the 823AM”, perhaps the second last on this route today which brings me to think about how early both my boys had to awake and get ready for their commutes during those high school summers when then interned for the EPA and Random House. My bus is more than half occupied which proves the business case for there being few rides after this time of morning.
In the last hour of this day, I’ve dropped the carpool off to Ramapo High, witnessed a head-on collision between two cars at the turn for school, watched even before my heart started to race at the coolant fluid gushing out of the smashed car, awoke Asma from her bed to drive me to the bus-stop, stopped off at Chase bank for ticket money, ran into Walgreens to break the ATM’s fifty dollar bill into smithereens and then stepped out of the car into the driving rain at Cornerstone church bus stop to be first in line. However, being first in line has its problems. I don’t know if I’ve missed the very last but out of town or just the last one by a hair. My relief was palpable as the person destined to be the 2nd in my line walked up to take his place behind me!
I recall how early Ace would rise for these daily summer trips and it all made sense. I remembered the heartache that Yaseen got from the bus driver for not offering the exact change so I was prepared after the Walgreens stop. More memories of their commutes… rainy days demanded carrying dress shoes in the briefcase, crowded buses demanded making choices about who to sit with, a subsequent subway ride requiring the metro pass to be in its place in the wallet and basic common sense demanding the cellphone must never be left behind.
It would trouble Yaseen that in a half full bus he would seldom be picked to sit with. That simple observation let to our many conversations on the nature of discrimination, perception and human psychology. Young children are clean slates and uncomfortable learnings come to them in the most benign settings. I am glad we got to talk about it in some detail even if the early feelings of being perceived as ‘different’ were an pleasant revelation.
I still admire how Ahsan was up early for his trips into the city, in fact, he is early at all appointments. He once told me that it was a reaction to always being late when his parents had to drop or deliver him to any appointment. I admire the discipline I helped him develop but couldn’t conquer in myself. Ace would be ready and eating breakfast at the dining table, plaid Madras-shirt buttoned down to the cuffs, black-rimmed glasses in place and his handsome computer man-purse slung across his shoulders, long before he gently woke me up for the short ride to the bus.
I can feel the bus nearing its destination and remind myself to start considering the imminent subway ride. As my bus joins an endless line of identical buses snaking their collective worm-like way into the Lincoln tunnel I see for the first time that there are entirely dedicated bus lanes for us. This train of buses loops and crawls its way into the tunnel. No rush, no NYC-traffic anxiety… just a relaxed bus ride through the smelly swamps of NJ and past the mutant grasses that bloom atop our landfills. “Is this why we call this the Meadowlands?”, I wonder with a smile at the inside joke.
In view now is the famed granite of NYC cut away on either side of the freeway, below the small bridges that stand like immovable staples and under the foliage and ivy that try to conceal it. This stern black rock that was thrown up by some volcano in our history and has come to be the bedrock of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
This last stretch before the darkness of the tunnel runs past the appropriately named Manhattanview apartments. From here the view is gorgeous but it is Friday morning so no-one cares. Its a time for work not aesthetics, for brass tacks not feelings, for reality not romance. This evening will be another story as the shoreline gains in mindshare and young couples crowd the balconies across from the Manhattan skyline.
Even as I ruminate on all this we start to twirl down into a vortex of roads that spiral and descend below sea level and into the tunnel under the Hudson. The road ahead is illumined with fluorescent bulbs and lined with glazed tiles reminiscent of a 1960s era bathroom …. hence the name our family assigned to it: “The bathroom tunnel!” Our infinitely long column of buses that might well stretch from the Port Authority all the way back to Jersey City is moving faster than the log-jammed car traffic in its adjacent but unprivileged lanes. I realize that I have never inspected the tunnel as I am doing now out of the side-window of this bus. My only experiences here have been as a driver who’s vision looks warily over a scene for problems and not finding any moves on. This window-view reveals shiny metal grates and doors everywhere, walls in disrepair where tiles have fallen out, random tiles with numbers C3 and C4 written on them, a recessed metal cabinet with the important sounding “LT splicing chamber” pasted on it, fires hoses behind closets, and a 99% ratio of working-lights to non-working lights! Then suddenly, like awakening from a midday nap there is bright light everywhere. As the eyes struggle to focus we are at the bottom of a vertical manhattan, driving below buildings whose foundations start higher than us and deep under street level we begin the circular uphill climb. There are entire highways, some four lanes wide that are climbing up the circular roller coaster up up and away into the metal and concrete giant that swallows us all. This is the Port Authority.