Tag Archives: trains

Losing track

Sometimes I long for simplicity. You know, the days when the only thing you had to worry about was how you were going to get away with hiding that pile of liver (with accompanying ventricles) on your plate, so that your mum would let you get down from the table. Or for the Saturday mornings that involved nothing more taxing than reading Whizzer and Chips, and idly pondering whether Bucks Fizz’s Cheryl Baker was prettier than her slightly grubbier cohort Jay Aston.

What you don’t realise when you’re 12 years old is that these truly are the salad days – times to be enjoyed and savoured before you have to start making weightier decisions than ‘should I drop this pile of clothes on my bedroom floor, or is there somewhere more annoying I can leave them?’

When you move countries well into your adult life, it’s not just friends and family you leave behind; you’re also abandoning all the shortcuts through life that makes everything that little bit easier. Like where to locate that difficult-to-find essential ingredient for your world-beating fish pie, or where to get a haircut that doesn’t make you look like Yahoo Serious. On a bad day. Put simply, moving abroad generally robs you of you comforts and your go-to people. You may establish a new set after a while, but it’s never quite the same.

Of course, losing your geographical shortcuts is particularly difficult, especially when you’re in a car with a screaming small person who knows no better. And if driving with The Special One wasn’t tough enough, we now have a baby daughter to travel with as well. Every saved metremeter is a leap forward in averting Crymaggedon*, so knowing that you can avoid traffic meltdown by taking a quick right turn is invaluable knowledge. Or rather it would be, but for the fact I have as much spatial awareness in New York as a half-blind cockroach with an alcohol problem.

Nowhere is my lack of locational understanding more telling than on the New York subway. In London, I knew every shortcut, every sign to ignore, and every tactic in the book for navigating around the inevitable engineering overruns or closed stations. In New York, even after two and a half years of daily commuting, I’m often lucky to get home.

I used to think that the issue was my rank idiocy. But now, my dear friend New York, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem’s not me – it’s you.

See, the good thing about the London Underground is that the tunnels are essentially separate. I mean, sure, there are occasional spurs off the main line if for some inexplicable reason, say, you want to go to Totteridge & Whetstone. But basically any given train can go down one tunnel, and come back up the other side. You know where you are. Even if ‘where you are’ is ‘on the way to Totteridge & Sodding Whetstone’.

In New York, it seems that every train has access to every tunnel. And while that’s great for avoiding the results of some unfortunate driver’s latest magic trick (“Roll up, roll up, watch the incredible Martino turn one body into 872 largely unrecognizable parts with just one leap!”), it’s less good when you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the train system. Three times this week I’ve got on a train only to be told that it’s actually running on another line. Intense discussion raged between various passengers each time about the ramifications for various journeys, and the tortuous alternative routes that could be used instead. And I just sat there like a wide-eyed mole who’s just been electrocuted, wondering if The Special One would lose respect for me if I went above ground and phoned her for help.

Simple is as simple does, it would appear.

* Coincidentally, Crymageddon is a small town in South Wales. The Little One’s version is less welcoming to coachloads of tourists though.

Slow train to nowhere

Until moving to New York, my experience of the American inter-city rail network was pretty much restricted to repeated viewings of Silver Streak with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. And memories of a few scenes from Trading Places, on the occasions when I wasn’t wearing down our VHS copy in a bid to pause on the three frames where Jamie Lee Curtis was topless. Obviously.

Despite having now been here for almost 500 days, my knowledge hadn’t moved on at all since becoming a Brit Out Of Water. OK, so I was at least pretty sure that being pursued by a murderous art dealer or all night parties accompanied by men in gorilla suits weren’t part of the usual transportation mix. But other than that, I had no idea what to expect when I booked an Amtrak ticket for a relatively short (two hour) trip upstate.

“Amtrak is just like your Virgin Trains only nicer,” The Special One informed me. “The toilets are much worse than British trains, but otherwise it’s pretty much like a slightly scaled-up version of your system.”

In the end, my train left an hour and a half late having developed mechanical problems on the way from the train yard. Thousands of people thronged the station concourse getting more and more frustrated as trains became progressively more delayed. Once on the train, every single seat was filled with people laden down with Christmas luggage. Having eventually found a seat by a window, the heat from the radiator at my feet made the temperature vaguely reminiscent of Dubai in mid-summer. And then the train proceeded to travel at a snail’s pace most of the way, to ensure that I got to my destination a good two hours late.

I had to check my geography occasionally just to make sure that I wasn’t in the UK after all. Like The Special One said, the US train system has everything that Britain’s does, only more of it…

Excuses excuses excuses

It may not have escaped your notice that America is a pretty large country. You could probably fit the UK inside New York state (if you borrowed a bit of New Jersey, perhaps?), and I’ve seen bigger aubergineseggplants than Wales. And like any large territory whose population has migrated for work and family over the years, America has developed an extensive, environmentally friendly and efficient public transport system.

OK, that last bit’s a lie. The occasional subway system and local bus network aside, most Americans’ idea of public transport is giving a neighbour an occasional liftride in their car to Walmart. The train network is woefully underdeveloped, serving only a relatively few cities. British readers will sympathise when I say that the trains here are enough to make you pine for Network South East or the West Coast Main Line.

All of that leaves the wishful traveller with predominantly two options when he or she wants to travel long distances: take the car (and experience the dubious sheet-stained delights of the American motel system), or take a plane. Not surprisingly, when faced with such a choice, most Americans put their latent environmental concerns (stop laughing at the back, please) behind them, and fly.

Domestic flights are like buses in many ways. Largely because there’ll be no planes for three hours, and suddenly four flights to Charlotte will come along at once. Delays are pretty inevitable, and the sky above La Guardia (New York’s ‘domestic’ airport) generally look like the M25Long Island Expressway on a bad day. Except with more wings.

With so many flights and connections, the logistics involved in the checked luggage system must be pretty involved. And given the (often speedy) turnaround between connecting flights, it’s amazing that suitcases and rucksacks don’t go missing more often.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less annoying when your bag is one of exceptions. Especially if your flight has already been delayed by two hours, and you’re standing in a deserted airport with two exhausted children. Still, United Airlines promised to get it to me by 1pm the next day, so it couldn’t exactly be described as a great hardship.

At 4pm, three hours after the deadline, I took my life into my own hands and called the United helpline. After a few abortive attempts at getting through the voice recognition system (see the comments on my last post for more insight), I finally got through to the dreaded call centreer.

The man I spoke to could not have been more friendly, and at absolute pains to insist that he was sorry for my inconvenience and woud be doing everything to resolve the situation. Given that he was in India, he’d even been given phrases to ensure that he connected with me on a more colloquial level. Admittedly I didn’t necessarily need to visualisze him ‘bending over backwards’ to help me, but it was a nice try.

Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is quite another. I was put on hold while he called the delivery company who would be bringing my bag back, and after a short while he returned to say that he had been unable to reach them, and that – as a result – I would just have to sit and wait for a little while longer, and hope that my bag turned up.

After a little pressing on my part, and ‘polite’ enquiries into why I couldn’t get more information, I was finally given what I believe to be the greatest excuse ever given by a call center operative. Ever.

“I’m sorry sir. I really wanted to help you with this, but the delivery company is really busy and so I was placed on hold. But the hold music was so irritating that I couldn’t wait any more.”

And with that he was gone.

Interestingly, my bag turned up an hour or so later with this tag on it. I believe the phrase is “you couldn’t make it up”.

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It’s the freakiest show

When you own an iPod (NB: other MP3 players are available), any time spent plugged into it can make you feel like a music advisor on “Life: The Movie”. On the occasions when you catch a glimpse of the cityscape, some piece of incredible architecture or just a strange interlude on the streets, music simply has the incredible power to be the soundtrack to your life.

Take my journey to work today, for instance. At Broadway-Nassau station, a man dragged a tired looking suitcase onto the train, looking for all the world like a dodgy perfume seller or fake Prada bag vendor. Until he opened his mouth that is, at which point it became apparent that he had to use the bag to carry all his bigotry with him. Having spouted off in no particular direction about AIDS, homosexuality and hatred, he then locked his eyes one by one on fellow passengers with a faintly maniacal stare.

And the song that’s playing during this episode? With its attack on the madness of the US (“it’s on America’s tortured brow, Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”) and its more pertinent suggestion that life is “the freakiest show”, David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” couldn’t really have hit the nail any more firmly on the head.

From ethereal chillout to contrast the madness of the rush hour rat race, to The Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as the rain pours down, I sometimes think that my iPod has some kind of mood sensor attached. Although why “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats was playing as I entered the office, I have no idea. Thinking about it, a better question might be why it’s even on my iPod in the first place…

Still, at least listening to my own music collection is better than the torture that The Special One and I are having inflicted on us night after night by a neighbour in an adjacent building. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as much as the next man (even when the next man is wearing a neon pink t-shirt saying “I love ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ by The Beatles”), but I don’t need to hear it played on repeat for half an hour or so as I’m trying to get to sleep.

One explanation could be that the perpetrator of such JohnPaulGeorgeandRingo-ular torture has recently been involved in a bitter love split, and is drowning her sorrows in music. Sadly, if that is the case, her partner has recently been round to collect his or her CDs, as last night the original version was replaced by her own far-from-delicate cover version. The lesson for me obviously being that after a week of wanting the hell to end, I should be careful what I wish for.

If it happens again tonight, I’m putting on my iPod. Sweet dreams are, indeed, made of this.