Planes, Trains and Automobiles

05/09/2007 12:00 AM |

The 30th Street Heliport on a Friday afternoon in mid-July. An investment banker’s vision of the Fall of Saigon. Twin-engine Sikorskys. A non-stop stream of the things. Swooping, soaring, taking off, landing, rocking back and forth a half-foot off the ground, settling like unsteady toddlers atop the white-lined blacktop. Blades churning, engines roaring, sound waves beating down against the brick-faced warehouses across the highway. Towncars dropping off their charges like mothers at an elementary school. Ground crew in bright red jumpsuits, ear muffs stuck like sawed-off tennis balls to the sides of their heads, running about between the landing pads and the dingy white single-wide at the northern end of the parking lot. The air conditioning is on full-blast.

They wing off one by one over the Hudson. Traders, surgeons, brokers, lawyers, the odd magazine editor. One guy swears he saw a pair of junior analysts hanging from a landing skid. They’ll be back Monday morning in time for work, rolling across the water like a cloud of mosquitoes. Right now, though, Monday morning might as well be a million years away. Right now what matters is getting out. Out of the office. Out of the heat. Out of the murk. Out of town. A frog, it’s been claimed, will sit perfectly still in boiling water just so long as the pot has warmed up gradually. New Yorkers aren’t quite such good sports. When the summer turns serious, people start to hop.

It’s 92 degrees at 8:30 in the morning, but 80 feet underground on the Lexington Avenue E platform it feels like it’s at least 110. Twenty minutes out of the shower and already everyone is sweating. A kid in a western-cut button-down is through his undershirt and working on his second layer. A girl in a sundress and a pair of those big bug-eyed sunglasses glows a sickly yellow beneath the overhead lights. There’s a middle-aged man in pinstripes, suit jacket slung over his arm, tie pulled loose from his neck like he’s bellying up to the bar at happy hour. His comb-over is having a hard time of it in the heat. A few wilted strands keep falling onto his forehead. He brushes them back with the side of his hand.

And you’d swear that it’s too hot to move. You’d swear it. Too hot for anything but standing there as still as you can and thinking back to the coldest day you can remember and trying as hard as you can not to touch anything, anyone. But then a breeze blows in from down the tunnel and headlights flash along the walls and a train rattles into the station. And the doors open and the crowd spills out and then, all of sudden, just like that, it’s on. The outgoing crowd surges up the platform toward the escalators. The incoming crowd surges down the escalators toward the train. Somewhere in the middle, they meet — two sweating, squeezing, struggling masses, one pressing up against the other, like armies in some strange Braveheart outtake, but with briefcases and messenger bags and earbuds and Blackberries in place of pikes and staffs and swords.

“E train local, E train local,” calls the MTA man at the end of the platform. “No pushing. Do not block the doorway, do not block the doors.”

A moustache and a bald spot and a red mesh vest, waving his flashlight like he’s parking planes at JFK. And what the hell did he ever do to get stuck down here, anyway? Down here a hundred feet under the ground with the crowds and the smell and the bottled-up air. It’s a rough enough scene when you’re just passing through, but an eight-hour shift of this stuff?

Though it could be worse. “It could be worse,” a fifty-something woman in tennis shoes and a pantsuit tells her companion as the two of them squeeze onto the train. “I heard that in Phoenix it’s 115.” And of course now you know what comes next: “But it’s a dry heat,” the companion says. “Yeah, so’s an oven,” the woman snaps back. And, well, she has a point. She certainly has a point. Dry heat or no, 115 is a pretty ridiculous number.

The thing is, though, in Phoenix, it doesn’t matter. Dry heat, wet heat, medium-dry heat with chocolate overtones and a charcoal finish. Whatever. In Phoenix, it doesn’t matter. Just like it doesn’t matter in Dallas or in Atlanta or in Miami or in Kansas City. Every one of them could be sizzling away, 148 degrees in the shade, and unless you decided for some reason you wanted to, you’d never have to know about it. What do you do on a hot day in Phoenix? The same thing you do on a hot day most anywhere. You wake up in your air-conditioned house, walk out to your air-conditioned car, drive to your air-conditioned office, then wait around for eight hours and do the whole thing in reverse.

Then there’s a hot day in New York. The aforementioned. You can’t stay out of it. You’re in it by default. By virtue of the simple facts that half the city lives in seventy-plus year-old sweat-boxes and travels around on a bus pass. It’s 115 in Phoenix? Turn up the AC. It’s raining in Seattle? Windshield wipers. January in Boston? Put on the heat. You’ll be fine. Most places, just get yourself a good enough parking spot and it might as well be May all year round.

All of which is to illustrate the point that, so far as things stateside go, New York City is about the only place left where you’ll ever really deal with serious weather. All of which is to illustrate the curious fact that, here, on perhaps the most paved-over, ploughed-under, built-up, blasted, unnatural, adulterated plot of land the world has ever seen, you have the one spot in the country where the calendar still actually carries weight. Where behavior, lifestyle, still change with the seasons. It’s bizarre, but essentially true. And it would probably be a fun irony to contemplate if only you weren’t so busy standing on a subway platform sweating balls.

You’d swear that it’s too hot to move.
Too hot for anything but standing there
and thinking back to the coldest day you can remember.

It starts to rain around noon. A great big gusher of a thunderstorm, water pooling in the intersections, runoff pouring down the subway stairwells. The sky has turned an ugly absinthe green. The cab business is going gangbusters. So are umbrella sales — everywhere people putting up those hook-handled, silver paint and plastic jobs. By the end of the afternoon at least half of them will be stuffed in a trash can. “Five dollars,” calls out a guy huddling on a street corner with a stack of them. Ten minutes earlier he was hawking knock-off sunglasses.

There’s a crowd under the awning of a deli at 24th and Park, castaways marooned in the doorway, clinging to a patch of dry land next to an ice chest packed with fruit salads and pre-cut pineapple. Everyone is eyeing the sky — waiting for the deluge to cease. A man in a pair of waterlogged khakis is trying to turn on his phone. “I can’t believe this,” he says to a co-worker. “I just bought this thing on Monday.” He pops out the battery and wraps it in a napkin he gets from the counter inside. “I think this is what you’re supposed to do when this happens. What a cluster. Second one in a week.” Cars stream by, kicking water over the curb. A guy in a pair of camouflage shorts takes a Post for an umbrella and makes a run for it. Halfway down the block the paper is back to pulp. He’s drenched before he hits 25th. Heads down, shoulders hunched, a few hardier souls stroll deliberately by on the sidewalk. Their faces are set in a scowl as if the rain were a personal affront. Lightning flashes overhead. Everyone steps back into the store. Last week a bike messenger got struck in Harlem someone says. It seems like the sort of thing that would happen to one of those guys.

A half-hour more, and it’s done. The rain stops; the clouds blow east out of the city; the sun comes back out, and the pavement starts to steam. Thunder rumbles like an afterthought in the distance. Ozone mixes with the smell of exhaust. And after a brief interlude, it’s time to get back to the business of a summer Friday in New York. Which is to say, once again, escape.

It’s like Cannonball Run with a cast of eight million. A citywide dash for the exits. It starts in waves (the Boston Marathon comes to mind), with the half-day crowd cutting out first, kicking off the race to parts beyond. Then come the luckier of the full-day detail — the ones who say they might be able to slip out of the office “a little bit early” and, as it turns out, actually can. The other variety leaves next; they’re thinking they might slip out a little early, too, but as things would have it, they aren’t done till 6:15. Then the even less lucky, the poor bastards who end up working deep into the evening, telling their friends to go on without them, that they’ll meet them out there on a late-night train. And finally, of course, your self-styled dropouts. The ones who aren’t in any hurry at all. “What, so we can sit in traffic for five hours? No thanks.” They’ll leave around 11:30 — make it in by 2am. You know they’ve got a special shortcut they take to the LIE.

Which, by the way, has been backed up since one in the afternoon, 40,000 cars all gunning for the Shinnecock Canal. The Jitney is crammed to capacity, idling in traffic somewhere west of Hampton Bays. A pair of motorcycles are creeping along up the shoulder. A woman in a dark blue Suburban is checking on her daughter in the rearview mirror. Just behind her some guy in a pink polo shirt has lifted himself out of his 650i to look over his windshield at the gridlock ahead.

And back in Manattan, a girl in a borrowed car has double-parked on Lexington up around 53rd, picking up her friends at work so they can drive out to Fire Island together. A hotdog vendor has set up shop on a sliver of sidewalk just outside the Lincoln Tunnel. Traffic is at a standstill, but Snapple sales are going great guns. Forty-five minutes outbound says the man on 1010 WINS.

And it’s the same story everywhere. A line of cars, one after another after another, through the tunnels down toward the shore, out to Long Island past the post-apocalyptic charm of eastern Queens, Upstate, out over the Triborough, through the Bronx into Yonkers up the hill and past the saddest horse track in all the world. Even in the city it’s still a mess, the sidewalks clotted, the trains all rush-hour packed, a cross-town bus ride an hour-long affair. Hipsters get together to sweat on a makeshift beach in Long Island City. Down on Christopher Street, all the Uptown kids are pinballing around, terrorizing the gentry. Smoking, swearing, crying, kissing, spreading out some of them half-naked along the pier, waiting, waiting for what? Some cool air to blow in? From where, Jersey?

Eventually, though, it happens. The sun falls and the sky darkens and the air cools off. And the trains empty out and the roads open up and the traffic starts to move, and then, suddenly, instead of sitting on a highway in the late-afternoon heat or fighting your way down a sidewalk or through the crowd along an Amtrak platform, you’re having a drink in the back garden of a bar or rolling up the Hudson watching lights pop on in homes across the river. Or you’re standing in the surf with your shoes off, or sitting on a stoop with a six-pack of beer. Or you’re coasting along at 75, with the windows open and the air smelling like honeysuckle. And the crickets are out and a breeze is blowing and the waves are lapping quietly and the trees are hanging heavy and dark and lovely over your head. Ah, summer.

For a second there it seemed like a hell of a great idea.  •