It takes an hour to drive from New York City to my home on the Jersey Shore. It takes nearly two hours on New Jersey Transit. And yesterday, it took more than three. A donkey would take less time and would no doubt be cheaper.
Our train was supposed to leave at 10.38 a.m. After sitting underneath New York’s Pennsylvania Station for about 10 minutes, the conductor told us we were delayed because they had a red signal and that as soon as it changed, we’d be moving. Ten minutes later, we were told the delay was due to mechanical problems, but we were assured it would be fixed shortly. Ten minutes later, we were told to transfer to the other train sitting across the platform.
As we finally exited the train yard at Penn Station, we had to sit for another 10 minutes because they are using only one track between New York City and New Jersey. I watched the workers toiling away on the other track as we went by. A couple of them were working, moving wires and rods this way and that while several others stood over them watching. A little up the track, there was a lone worker who bent down and began banging away at a piece of track with a rubber mallet at a furious pace just as we rode by in what seemed like a show for our benefit.
About halfway through the trip, the train stopped again, and we were told we had to wait for the Eastbound train to go by. We waited there for 15 minutes before the train was back on its way. I used that time to go to the bathroom, which was fortunately in my car, because I figured if the train wasn’t moving, the whole process would be easier. I don’t usually like to go the bathroom on the train because when I’m in a public restroom, I pick and choose what I touch. But if the train jerks you around, you’ll grab onto anything to avoid falling. I went into the bathroom and straddled the toilet, holding onto the metal pole that ran along the wall to keep my balance. With my other hand, I tried to grab some toilet paper but it was made so cheaply, it kept coming off in my hand in tiny little pieces. I wondered how I was going to wipe myself with a handful of confetti. Just then, the train lurched forward and I lurched with it, setting off the automatic hand dryer, which sent the pile of toilet paper pieces in my hand fluttering to the ground like snow. I grabbed a paper towel I’d had in my pocket and used that, ignoring the sign that warned against flushing anything other than toilet paper down the bowl.
I went back to my seat and about 20 minutes later, we were finally approaching my destination. Suddenly, we all heard a crash! It sounded like an explosion on top of our train car.
“What the heck was that?” said the woman seated across the aisle from me.
“Jesus,” said another woman.
The lights went off and the motor stopped — something had obviously happened to the power — but the train continued to coast until we glided into the station.
I turned to the man next to me. “Are they afraid we’re going to get electrocuted?” I asked. In emergency situations, the person nearest you becomes an expert.
“If we hit a wire, the electricity can ride down the car and through the door,” he said with some authority.
“Should we be standing on the floor or should we go up on the seats?” I asked.
“The floor is fine. Just don’t touch the seats,” he said.
I quickly shut down my computer, imagining that whatever stray electrical current was whipping around our train car would surely find its way to my laptop.
Soon, the doors opened and everyone poured out onto the platform. The conductors were standing on the platform looking at something on top of our car. I got up on a bench to see what they were looking at. It was a piece of broken metal.
“What is that?” I asked one of the conductors.
“It’s a piece of the overhead wire system. But it’s meant to break off if the electrical lines get too taut,” the conductor said. He likened it to parts of an automobile that are apparently made to break because the alternative – having them not break – is somehow worse.
“It’s meant to happen,” he said, almost pleased with what had happened. “If that piece of metal didn’t break, and the power lines broke instead, there would be live electrical wires flying around.”
Sometimes bad news is really good news.