Day in the NYC Life

I’m writing this from the window seat of Metro-North Railroad’s car 6306. Almost 3 years ago when I started taking these trains I kept a list of the cars that I’d been on, curious when I’d repeat cars. It took about 2 weeks. I’ve probably been on 6306 many times over the past years, mostly because it’s in the ‘right’ position on the train for me to be right at the exit when I arrive at my station. Those who work or live in NYC know that drill well – we always know what car to be in to reduce any wait in our lives.

Train List kept in June 2009
Commuters wait for the 6:24 train at Cortlandt Station. Car # is 6302.

And why not? After all, they’re pretty jam-packed. I woke up at 5:30 this morning (Well, 5:21 to be exact) and was on the train at 6:24 (Well, 6:26 this morning – it’s never exactly on time). At 7:15 or so I arrived at the upper-most tip of Manhattan, which is actually physically part of the Bronx (don’t ask, it’s a long story – suffice it to say, it wasn’t always physically connected to the Bronx). By 7:40 I was walking from the 116th street 1 line station to my office in Uris Hall, right behind Low Library on Columbia’s historic Morningside campus. I like getting in to the office at 7:45 – it’s quiet there, a good time to get some work done before the rush.

A 9 AM meeting ran till about 10 to 10, an 11 AM interview with a prospective lab manager, and a quick rush down to the in-building deli at noon to buy some passable pesto pasta – NYCers never admit food is good unless it cost about half an arm or leg. My lunch today was a container of pasta, some garlic bread, and a fountain Coke Zero. It cost about $8.60 after tax, considered ‘not bad’ in NYC for lunch. Anywhere else I would have paid around $5 or $6. But hey, I’m in the greatest city in the world, right?

At 3:15 I had another interview, so I spent the early afternoon ranging with a statistics problem in my little cubicle with 6′ high walls. It’s small and has no windows, and there are others around talking, but it’s home.

Jon's Desk at Columbia

The 4-5 of us in the office at once tolerate each other, for the most part. 3:15 rolls around and I find that the person to interview is running late – she marked the wrong time on her calendar. Now the interview is at 4, which is somewhat vexing. I am later forced to excuse myself at the end of the interview to take a call I’d been expecting – my caller not aware that my schedule had juggled, obviously.

At 5:15 I leave my desk to go to a talk. The room is booked as ‘ours’ in the scheduler, but apparently another professor always has a class there at this time. The scheduling office never blocked it off, so we were able to reserve it. We hastily consult my phone, looking at the master schedule. We find a ‘soft’ reservation on another room. It’s open, so we steal it. They probably weren’t going to use it anyway. Inside that room 8 faculty or postdocs sit and listen to a 9th present work that 5 of them are intimately familiar with. A strange talk, but the cheese, crackers, and dried fruit platter at least make up for the oddity in attendance. Outside MBAs play music in other rooms – it’s their Thursday night happy hour, and they’re busy networking and creating relationships that are sure to help them seal the ‘big deal’ later in life.

View from the Marble Hill Metro-North Station. Going into Marble Hill costs substantially less than Grand Central.

A moment ago the conductor signal on the train beeped incessantly. No one pays it attention – we know it’s the yard crew unhooking the emergency brake. It makes a loud thud throughout my car, no one cares. On summer days when tourists are nearby, perhaps we’d get a few shocked looks. Vets long ago lost interest in these occurences.

After the talk I decide to take the long way home, avoiding a return trip to the Bronx (A trip recently made longer because my normal subway station has the uptown platform closed for 6 weeks for rehabilitation) and decide to go down to Grand Central Terminal. For the first 2 months I lived in NY I trained into GCT, so I know the layout of the terminal well. I come off the Times Square shuttle and make a run to Rite Aid to pick up a greeting card for a friend. It’s her last day next Friday and tomorrow Karey and I are taking her out to dinner. She was my first full-semester intern at Columbia, and I’ll be sad to see her off. We all must move on, but that doesn’t make it easier.

The card is easily located, while the line at the 3 register stands is at least 10 people long. It moves fast – most are commuters buying a snack and drink for the train. I get to the front and give a young, new (according to his name tag) associate named Timothy the card and a $20. He apologizes for the delay making change for me. This delay is less than 20 seconds, but for native New Yorkers, it’s worth apologizing for. Life moves fast in NYC – we don’t just say that, we live it. Timothy hands me my change and I leave. I don’t ask for a bag – I just slip the card into my bag. Everyone carries a bag in NYC, men and women alike. We all have things to take places, stuff to do.

Car 2272's Interior, an R62A car on the #1 Line

A conductor just took my ticket from me. Because I am leaving from Grand Central and not Marble Hill, I need to buy a second ticket to augment my monthly commuter pass. She punches the second ticket and takes it, however a simple wave of the monthly suffices. Monthlies arrive in different colors each month, printed on the back of a MetroCard. They’re my one card that gets me into the city and through it, thanks to an Unlimited MetroCard for the subways and non-express busses.

But back to my shopping trip. I leave Rite Aid and go passed a bakery that serves fresh bagels in the morning (a nice NYC treat). Karey loves when I bring things from there home. Tomorrow she’ll be in GCT, so perhaps she’ll get something herself. I duck into a small alcove with TVMs (Ticket vending machines). I buy my One Way Peak ticket for $7.50 – tickets to GCT cost quite a bit more than a ticket to Marble Hill. Each time I decide to leave from GCT, despite it taking the same amount of time to get home, I foot an extra $5.50 or $7.50, depending on if it’s peak or not. Tonight the shopping trip made it fine to spend the extra cash.

Ticket in pocket, bag on back, I cross the terminal to the Apple store to buy a few iTunes gift cards for my former intern. I walk in, find my items, and a young man scans them and sells them to me. We chat a bit, and the entire transaction takes less than a minute. No line, no waiting, the norm for the clientele. I leave the Apple store, gift cards in my hoodie pocket, and cross the terminal once more to another commuter staple: Starbucks. The baristas ring up my Grande Iced Coffee Sweetened with Soy (an order I could probably make in my sleep), bag me up a cookie (a rare indulgence), and scan my Android phone for payment. In three transactions I’ve gone from paper money, to credit card, to phone (Well, technically an iPhone was involved in the second transaction). Increasingly more efficient ways to buy things.

A man looks up at the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, 10/19/2009

Drink and cookie in hand, gift cards in pocket, bag on back, I make my way to Track 35 (which is actually rather close to Starbucks). I get in old 6306 and sit down in the window seat. A man in a suit soon joins me in the aisle seat, and we start our journey. We’ve just reached Harlem-125th street, as I write these lines.

I’ll arrive at Cortlandt, the station I park at, around 8:43 according to the time table. 15 minutes or so for me to get to my car and drive home, and I should be walking in the door to my 1-bedroom apartment in Peekskill around 9 PM, only 15 hours after I left. While today was a bit longer than usual, it certainly wasn’t that abnormal. Usually at least once every two weeks I’m in the city later than my usual schedule. Usually I’m only out of the apartment for 11 and ½ hours, arriving home at 5:15 PM. Tonight Karey has waited to have dinner until I arrive, so a hot meal awaits me. Some nights we do this, others it’s just a free-for-all if I’ll be home late. We’re flexible, we have to be.

Will I miss all of this when my postdoc ends? Yes and no. I will miss the experiences, the people, and the feel of living in New York and working in New York City. Manhattan is a frenetic mess of activity any hour of any day of any week in the year. Each season brings about fresh new adventures

Karey taking photos of geese on a trip to the beach, July 2, 2011

along with tried-and-true experiences that the natives will roll their eyes at. This is one of the few cities where people pride themselves on how unshakeable they are. How nothing surprises them. How anything can and does happen. New Yorkers are tough, and I feel as though after 3 years I’ve been semi-adopted as one. It’s an experience that’s invaluable, and one I’ll cherish forever.

But, on the other hand, it’s highly dysfunctional. Humans aren’t meant to live and work at this pace. Our time is valuable, yes, but we are not machines to be quantified in terms of productivity or even how fast we can move from one part of the city to the other. Slowing the pace would probably benefit the masses, after they adjusted. But it’s blasphemy to the NYC native – why do anything slower than absolutely necessary. Stopping to smell the roses? Eh you probably can’t smell ‘em anyway over the sweat of millions of men, women, and children bustling about.

NYC is an experience, a life, and a vocation. It teaches you how to shrug off surprise. How to prioritize. How to multitask. And how to drop your humanity in the face of immediate need (sometimes to ugly results). And as long as you take a step back every so often to put things into a non-NYC perspective, it’s an experience everyone should have. In moderation.

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