By KIRSTEN LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
As much as you love summer, this year Sept. 9 couldn’t get here fast enough. That’s the day the NJ Transit “service changes,” launched in mid-June, finally came to an end. And the day you realized how good you have it. For that period NJ Transit eliminated Montclair’s weekday midtown direct trains — the ones that carry rush hour commuters directly into NYC — so it could repair tracks. Instead of making a beeline to Penn Station trains carried commuters only part way, to Hoboken.
Once you arrived in Hoboken you picked your next adventure. For starters, when you stepped off the train a crowd of commuters moving in unison, briskly and purposefully, absorbed you. Like a living organism it pulsed forward, propelling you to a fork in the road where you chose how to continue the journey into the city: either as a mole person — traveling underground on the PATH train; or as a sailor, boarding a ferry to cross the Hudson. To avoid the remote possibility of contracting scurvy, you went for the PATH.
As crowded as the Hoboken NJT platforms could be, at least they were out in the open with air, sun, and peeks of sky. Once you descended into the earth to access PATH trains your pupils dilated to take in the only light available — the glow of fluorescent tubes. Claustrophobics were not happy — the morning crowd rolled six and seven people deep from one end of the PATH platform to the other. Despite the efforts of a few whirring, but decrepit, fans hanging above, the only time the cavern’s heavy air circulated was when trains pulling in and out of the station made it swirl. A dusty smell hovered. The cracked paint on the walls and pillars was shades of blue. You wonder whether that color was chosen to convey design or mood.
In the belly of the PATH you had to figure out which train would get you where you needed to go — the World Trade Center line with its downtown stops, or the 33rd Street line, the subterranean version of 6th Avenue. Selecting one of the four or five platforms upon which to stand was important, as each train line alternated from track to track. Standing in the wrong spot resulted in watching your train roll up on a platform across the way and you making a mad dash up stairs, over tracks, and back down again to board. Hard-to-find signage explained which train was next to arrive on which track, but you never quite figured out that system.
The most consequential decision you made when riding the PATH was predicting which doors on the train would open first. The setup was such that passengers boarded from both sides of the train. BUT, doors on one side of the train opened before the others, giving riders on that side a 3 or 4-second jump on grabbing a seat. During the morning rush if you were not on the early-open side you were out of luck. After a few rides into the city standing in a packed train car, you vowed to position yourself on the side where doors opened first, standing on the platform’s narrow front end that could accommodate only a few people. Less competition that way.
While not quite a last chopper-out-of-Saigon scenario, as the train approached you could smell desperation rising in the musty air. Would there be room for you on the train? Would you get a seat? You’d flashback to childhood experiences of “musical chairs,” when your heart raced in anticipation of that moment when the music stopped. Humming a revised version of that Chorus Line song — “God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it, How many people does [this train car hold]” — you’d watch as the PATH pulled closer, gradually reducing speed. By the end of the summer you’d figured where to stand to align with the doors when the train stopped. Like a 100-yard dasher, you had to anticipate the starter gun’s pop. When the doors parted you did what you had to do as bodies darted, hip checks were thrown, and bags blocked seats before butts did. Once seated you glanced up as the train pulled away, seeing the forlorn faces of those who didn’t make it, praying that you would not be them tomorrow.
As fall begins and this drama ends, you want to hold on to its most important lesson. The next time an NJT train is late or canceled, or Penn Station is hot and crowded, you’ll still be grateful.
Montclair’s direct train service is a gift.