the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: subway

“M” or “N”


We talked about goals today in therapy.

“But how do you know which is the right path to take to reach your goals?” I asked my therapist towards the end of the session.

The therapist looked at his watch, indicating that time was up.

I took a long walk to 34th and 6th to take the E train back to Queens.

The E train was jammed with every Human of New York as we screeched from the station. It was not rush hour.  Something was wrong for it to be so crowded.

The conductor spoke over the loudspeakers.

“Because of construction,” he said, “The “E” train will only make stops on the [unintelligible]  line. Again, the “E” train will only make stops on the [unintelligible] train.”

“Did he say the “M” train or the “N” train?” asked the woman standing next to me, a middle-aged Pakistani lugging three shopping bags from TJ Maxx.

“”M” train” I said. “I think.”

“No, he said the “N” train.”” said a dude with an NYU yarmulke.

The confusion quickly spread through the entire train, like a wild fire in California, or viral video on Facebook.

“Let me say this again,” spoke the conductor.  “Because of construction, the “E” train will only make stops on the [unclear if its “M” or “N”] train. As in the word….”

He either said “Mikey” or “Nike.”

“Mikey?” asked an off-duty security guard reading the Daily News. “So it’s the “M” train?”

“I thought he said “Nike,” retorted a mother with a baby stroller. “So the “N” train.”

Like a boomerang tossed into the wind, our cries whipped back to the conductor.

“Because of construction…” he said for the third time, “… the “E” train will only make stops on the [unclear if its “M” or “N”] train.  As in… MICHAEL JORDAN.”

“Michael Jordan,” I said.  “I knew I heard “M.”

“But maybe he means Michael Jordan, as in the Air Jordans made by NIKE, so “N”!” said the security guard, proving Voltaire’s famous maxim that “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

The Pakistani woman was becoming frantic, swinging her shopping bags like a pendulum. She walked over to the side door where the conductor was sitting inside.  None of us had realized that we were in the first car, in close proximity to the oracle himself.  His door was adorned with a poster advertising a sleazy dentist who took all medical plans.

The woman knocked several times, asking, “What stops are we making on this train — “M” or “N?”

The conductor opened the door, revealing his unshaven pale face. There was gasps from the crowd, because his appearance was like seeing the Phantom coming on stage at the Paris Opera.

“We’re making the stops as the “M” train,” he said, as clearly as possible. “The “M” train. “M” as in AUNTIE M.”

The weary travelers sighed in relief. We were making the stops as the “M” train. It was as solid a truth as the existence of gravity.

Except that if he was making a reference to the Wizard of Oz, most people should know that Dorothy’s aunt was named Emily, so her name would be Auntie Em, not Auntie “M,” which would be an “E,” the letter of the train we thought when we first entered the “E” train. But rather than causing any more confusion, I kept this information to myself.

We all have goals in life. But sometimes we need to let life take us to our destination without question.

The Rusty Shit


The color scheme of the E train — baby blue seats and shiny chrome handles — has always seemed more appropriate for the monorail at Disneyland than for a gritty source of transportation between Queens and Manhattan.

I was on the E train the way to see my therapist on 54th Street, in the aging building over Hooters. My subway car was crowded, except for a section which contained a brownish stain on the seat. A teenage boy was about to sit on it when he was scolded by him mother, a stout woman carrying a Macy’s shopping bag.

“Don’t you dare sit there, Jason. For all you know that’s some homeless guy’s leftover shit!” she said.

Jason grimaced, his nose turned sideways, and he flew back to the comfort of his mother.

I assumed it wasn’t shit, but some rust, but like everyone else, I was too afraid to test my hypothesis.

My therapy session was more intense than usual. For the first time since becoming his patient, I confronted Dr. Nesmith about his “talk therapy.”

“How do we know if it is accomplishing anything?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a straight-forward plan on how to change your life?”

“There is no plan for changing your life,” he answered.

Cliches, I thought to myself. And it makes therapy seem just hopeless. From what I understand about human development, your personal makeup is 75% DNA, and 25% cemented the moment you hear your parents arguing on the way home from the hospital. No amount of talking will ever dent this internal armor.

I was thinking about this shit when when I returned to the subway platform to catch the E train back home to Queens. The train was delayed, so I strolled down the platform. I admired the brown leather briefcase of a businessman. I took an Instagram photo of a young woman in tight jeans. I laughed at this group of tourists from Italy struggling with a map of the city. I glanced at the tabloid magazines at the newspaper store. Three of the magazines had cover stories about a member of the Kardashian family.

The E train arrived and I entered it. It was fairly empty, not yet rush hour. I sat down on the baby blue bench and there, across from me, I noticed it — the spot of the seat rusted with that shit-stain. Not only was I back in the same E train going home, but I was seated in the exact same subway car. What are the chances of that?

I’ve always been fond of statistics, so I worked on the numbers in my head. Let’s say there are FIVE E trains running through the MTA at any one time, with each train having about THIRTY different cars. Statistically, the chances of this event occurring — hitting the same subway car coming and going — are about 1/150, which while high, is certainly not unforseeable.

What struck me as far more fascinating was the human element. As you may recall, I strolled down the platform before entering the train. I didn’t knowingly get on and off the train at the identical spot, or plan this conflagrance of circumstances. And if this was such a common occurance, why has it never happened to me before? Today felt different, as if something — or someone — wanted me to find myself back in the same subway car today.

I’m not a religious man, but I did attend Hebrew school as a child, and have an attraction to the idea of the spiritual, the seeing of signs, miracles, and messages from God, much like Jacob did when he had his famous dream in the Bible.

If I was brought back to this subway car, what could be the reason? Was I destined to meet my future wife, like a plot line from some romantic novel? I took a quick glance around the subway car. Most of the women in the car seemed sullen, or retired.

A soldier entered the subway, dressed in fatigues. Was he home for the Holidays, on leave? He glanced at the rusty shit spot on the bench, and sat elsewhere. My mind drifted to thoughts of… violence. Perhaps there was going to be a terrorist strike, right here in this subway car, and God is sending me a message to get off the train, wanting to save my life.

I was about to leave the train, when I looked over at the dusty boots of the young solider and felt like a damn coward. Was I really going to change trains because I had a momentary thought that I was being warned of danger? If I left the subway car out of misplaced fear, and nothing happened, I would feel like a total wimp and so ashamed of myself that I would be attending therapy for the rest of my life. No, I would not leave the train out of fear or superstition.

I was acting like a child. My mind was wondering, worrying, going places that were emotional, and not logical. Nothing of any real value was happening in this subway car. It was all in my brain. I noticed the same rusty shit mark on the bench, which reminded me that I was in the same subway car. That’s all. No big deal.

But it was a big deal. The moment was important, and it wasn’t because I was in the same subway car. It was because I noticed it. Who know how many other times I have been in the same subway car, and didn’t see it, being that my head in the clouds, or in a book?

In therapy, I asked Dr. Nesmith for a plan to live life. He said there was no plan. I asked him how anyone can change if they have no plan. He insisted that talk therapy was more important than a plan, because through talk you begin to see the patterns of your life, and by finally seeing them, you start to change.

Maybe everyone is on the same train, the same subway car, every day, going through the same motions, never seeing the rusty shit on their brain. I looked at my fellow passengers, most who wake up the same time each morning and go home the same time each night, who go through life eating the same meals, picking the wrong men and women to date, getting angry or abusive for the same reasons, or accepting too little too late, always reliving the patterns from childhood.

Tomorrow is a new year, 2014, and as much as everyone drunkingly yells and cheers in Times Square as the ball drops, they end up going home in the same subway car as they did the year before. The best they can do, right now, is to notice it.

See you in 2014.

Vintage Subway Train

Every year during Christmastime, the MTA in New York City runs this special “Nostalgic subway train,” made up of subway cars from the 1930’s and 1940’s.  On a few Sundays during December, it runs back and forth between Queens and Manhattan.  To ride this old train costs the same as a regular ride and it makes the same stops as the M train.  Many regular subway riders had no idea this holiday train exists, and when it pulls into the station, they stare in wonder, as if they are seeing an iron ghost.

This holiday gimmick attracts three subsets of visitors: families with kids into Thomas the Train, Japanese tourists who read about this in some tour book, and very geeky, hermit-looking, New York men who wait all year for this occasion, and can name the model number of a specific E-train running in 1955.

And then there was me, of course.  I’m probably closest to that last group of train geeks, but not THAT bad.  I certainly didn’t wear a t-shirt that showed the map of the NYC subway circa 1972.

So, on the day after Christmas, I spent a good part of my day hanging out in the subway with other train geeks, unaware that a major blizzard was occurring outside.   (Ironically, the only trouble I had with mass transit today was with a modern bus that got stuck in the snow on the way home)

I can’t imagine many of you will be interested in this little video I made on my iphone.  I’m publishing it anyway, mostly for my childhood friend, Barry.

A few of these old style subway cars were still around, even into the late 1970s.  I remember these uncomfortable seats from when I went into the “city” with my parents.  The sounds of the old trains — the racket, the heat, the open windows — is a great way to connect to the classic era of New York life, not the upscale world of Madison Avenue, but of the working class.   The subways were gruffer and noisier.  I forgot how the lights flickered all the time, making the experience a little seedy, like the gritty street scenes from the old movies, where guys smoked and wear hats and were knifed in the alley for looking the wrong way, certainly not the same, slightly-boring Manhattan of today where Times Square is populated not by real-life Guys and Dolls, but the M&M store.

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