When Downtown couldn’t hear the train a comin’

By Wickham Boyle

Call this season what you will: Christmas, Hanukkah, the holidays, it is a time of unprecedented parties, travel and shopping. So when the transit strike hit it stopped many of these activities right in their tracks and we all hunkered down a little more than usual.

I normally ride my bike everywhere, so I was less daunted than others by the strike, but I still had to contend with other family and co-workers who were stuck, miserable and worried about both the plight of this city and their little piece of it.

When a city this big grinds to a halt we all seem to step into the fracas and work harder, we take up slack and everyone gets very creative. I saw rickshaws, Rollerblades, bikes, and I am sure if we had snow, there would have been an army of skiers. The cabs filled the streets and they were packed with strangers shoveling money over by the zoneful to the drivers. It seemed as if people were in better moods than normal, maybe it was the increased exercise, the time spent out in the cold winter sunshine or that feeling of uniting to overcome hardship. Whatever it was there was an air of actual holiday feeling, a sense that we were all in it together and many of the distinctions of race, economics or religion faded again into the giant glue that is being a New Yorker.

I feel a pride in our plucky nature combined with our generally publicized pugnacious side. I like those two characteristics as our zeitgeist Pluck and Pugnacious, a great boxing or Nascar name. New Yorkers pulled together; kids walked to school again, we ate at home cleaning out freezers and cupboards and friends slept over on fold-out beds. We listened for the rumble under the city, the noise that is sometimes annoying but now missed. The rumble of the subway train became a phantom limb for me.

As I crossed Varick St. at the Ghostbusters firehouse I paused to hear the whiney whistle and rumble on the tracks. There was a quick fantasy that the roar and shake returned, but for three days it was an aural mirage and I trudged west without my usual backdrop sound. And then it returned.

My daughter and I heard the announcement while we were shopping in the pantheon of New York City Downtown emporiums, the magnet of savvy foreign shoppers, the home of the real bargain: Century 21. We decided the hub might have fewer shoppers, and perhaps while the strike continued we might hear only five languages spoken in a half hour of shopping rather than the 25 we counted one holiday season. So we trotted, and biked down to finish our shopping.

We had a list, a simple one, so we wouldn’t be seduced by placemats, enormous plush bath towels or cashmere, silk and flannel. We made it through the bedding finding what we wanted and on into the men’s underwear, past the pajamas and we were ready to check out when the store announcer broke into the tape playing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

“Attention shoppers we have good news, the M.T.A. is going back to work and the trains will be running before you know it. So give yourself a hand for being so brave and coming to shop.” Applause broke out, packages dropped and a roar went up. He continued, “and give a giant applause to all the workers who made it here for the last three days. And since the trains will be running, buy an extra gift because you won’t have to walk home.” Another roar and then a tiny voice at my feet sighed, “Oh great, now there will be even more shoppers in here.” And then this worker bowed her head and resumed re-shelving the evergreen tree tea towel / potholder set. Okay I bought one.

I told my daughter we had witnessed an historic moment. Where were you for D-Day, the blackout or the moment they halted the transit strike? Well we were shopping; we were getting on with the business of life as New Yorkers who will not be unplugged by disaster or unrest. We work, we cook, we nurture, we shop and hell yes sometimes we are edgy but we know how to pull it all together when it counts.

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