Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hey, bus driver, keep the change

Because I go to work in the late afternoon, there's a belief that I have an easy commute because it's a "reverse" trip, going against the swarms of people leaving Manhattan at the end of their more standard 8-4 or 9-5 workdays.

Rarely is that the case. The issue with my trip into the city between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., depending on my duties that night and my start time, is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It begins at the Lincoln Tunnel, six lanes in three tubes that begin as gaping maws into the bedrock in Weehawken, N.J., descend rapidly while bending to the right, to the east, and traverse beneath the silt of the Hudson River until they spew us out into a concrete basin in between 9th and 10th avenues in Midtown Manhattan. But during the afternoon rush, four of the six lanes carry cars out of the city, leaving just two lanes for about eight lanes' worth of cars to merge into after passing through the tolls. The whole process of passing through the tolls and merging into two lanes to get into the tunnel can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the day, the weather and the traffic.

Once inside the tunnel, however, it's still not smooth sailing. Coming from the local roads -- rather than the highway that winds down from atop the bluff on a spiral helix built on towering concrete pillars above Weehawken -- the buses are forced into the right lane of the two-lane inbound tube. Changing lanes inside the tunnel, of course, is forbidden, so generally the buses are stuck in the right lane, which under normal circumstances wouldn't be a problem. But during the afternoon rush, in an effort to "ease" traffic flow, the Port Authority Police block off the access lane that allows vehicles in the right lane of the tunnel to make the left necessary to enter the Port Authority Bus Terminal immediately upon exiting on the New York side.

The daring bus drivers, those who tempt fate -- or simply know they have a legitimate excuse to go against the law -- will cross the double white line inside the tube, putting themselves into the left lane that will allow them to take the immediate route to the terminal. Those are the best drivers. I love those guys. They can keep the trip to 30-40 minutes, even with the slow process of merging into the tunnel.

It's when we're stuck in the right lane, when we're forced to the right -- away from the Port Authority -- that the trip takes up to an hour or more. By ostensibly alleviating the congestion on the route to the bus terminal, the P.A. Police create gridlock and a worse jam, it seems, on the streets to the south of the terminal on the small back alley of Dyer St. and on 10th Avenue, where I've sat on buses in a right lane that essentially becomes a parking lot where my driver has actually stepped off the bus and chatted on the sidewalk with the driver of the bus in front of us for 15 minutes.

Those are the days when I get out and walk. In the sweltering summer heat, I'd take a bus half an hour earlier than the one I'd normally take, just so I could remain on the bus, reading, napping or gazing out the window while staying cool in the air conditioning. In the fall, it's been nice to stroll the streets, walking from 9th or 10th avenue over to 8th to get the subway downtown to Chelsea. We'll see how things go in the winter.

Yesterday, however, I finally had an epiphany of sorts. It was a mild realization, and one I clearly should've made earlier, but yesterday was the day when it all came together. As I crossed 35th St. on 9th Ave., intending to turn east and catch an A, C or E train downtown, I spotted a downtown bus as I turned my head to check for traffic. The 9th Ave. buses head straight downtown, stopping right in front of my building. Why walk the extra long block over to 8th Ave. to get the subway, when I'll have to walk back from 8th to 9th to get to work once I get downtown? It was so simple.

So simple I should've realized it before, but yesterday was the day it was meant to happen. Yesterday was the day the island was talking to me. Or at least mass transit was.

Maybe I shouldn't write so soon after watching Lost.

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