Without subway, New York is desperate for a ride

At 8:07 a.m. Wednesday, Adam Spatz, 42, was standing in a crowd at 94th Street and Broadway on Manhattan’s West Side when a southbound M104 bus appeared on the horizon, a sight that made him and everyone around him step forward, his chin lifting with anticipation.

A few yards away, plastic police tape blocked the stairwell leading to New York’s subway system — dark, flooded and silent since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city.

But here came that M104 bus, inching south on Broadway through traffic, crossing 96th Street, and the people at the bus stop moved forward as it approached, until they saw that every available inch of window was occupied by faces, shoulders, hands and arms.

And there went that bus.

“Ain’t even gonna stop,” Spatz said. He shook his head and walked back to his apartment.

If the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center and the Brooklyn Bridge are part of what defines New York’s majesty, the city’s 108-year-old subway system is part of what makes it function, more than 600 miles of tracks connecting Brooklyn to the Bronx and everything in between.

Anyone who wants to get anywhere — whether it’s Coney Island or Wall Street, Yankee Stadium or the Brooklyn House of Detention, grandma’s house or yoga class — rides the subway. Just last year, the system delivered 1.6 billion rides, an average of 5.3 million a day during the week, 3 million on Saturdays and 2.4 million on Sundays.

Waterlogged system

Hurricane Sandy halted all that, flooding the tubes between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Water rose to the ceiling at the South Ferry station at the southern end of Manhattan, across from the Statue of Liberty. And water poured into the station at 86th and Lexington. Even the stations that seemed dry, like the one at 96th and Broadway, were closed.

Limited subway service was to resume in a few pockets of the city Thursday, but on Wednesday, millions of New Yorkers had to find another way to get around.

And one of those ways was the M104 bus, which, like buses on dozens of other routes in the city, promised free rides to anyone who could climb aboard.

The crowd waiting at 94th Street and Broadway included John DeMeo, 53, an assets manager who struggled to remember the last time he took a bus, a ride that is considered inferior to walking by many an overly caffeinated New Yorker.

“Too slow,” he said. But today he needed to get to Midtown, about 50 blocks to the south, and another M104 approached.

He let that one go by because he didn’t want to push his way on. Another passed, also overstuffed.

The crowd around him thinned, then thickened with new arrivals, creating yet another ungainly formation.

Perhaps if there were a line, DeMeo thought. Maybe then he’d have a chance.

A line? Here in New York?

A Coach USA charter bus stopped. Through the window, dozens of vacant seats were visible. The door swung open.

DeMeo and the others around him stepped forward.

“Goldman Sachs! Goldman Sachs!” the driver shouted, apparently looking for investment bankers. A moment later, the door shut, and the driver took off.

At 9:13 a.m., more than an hour after arriving at the bus stop, DeMeo returned to his apartment.

Kate Rubin, 28, kept waiting, hands stuffed in the pockets of her blue coat.

Fourteen minutes later, she hadn’t moved.

An urban parade

A man in a sombrero walked by.

A man on a scooter rolled by.

Then a boy in a dinosaur costume.

“Oh, yeah,” Rubin said. “Halloween.”

A black car stopped. A woman leaned her head in, then turned and shouted, “I’m not paying $70 to get to Brooklyn!”

Rubin’s phone rang. “My e-mail isn’t even working,” she told the caller.

Taxi after taxi rolled by. Then one stopped. A seat was available. She slid in.

It was 9:56 a.m.

Six minutes later, here came another M104.

Sally Tondteaond, 65, tall and thin, had been waiting for one hour and 16 minutes.

She pushed her way on, her left hand gripping the metal rail on the left, shoes clinging to the bottom step, her face pressed into a woman’s corduroy coat.

The doors closed behind her, nudging her in the back.

“Ninety-second Street!” the driver announced.

“Guess I’ll be walking home,” said Janet Saines, 44, on her way to the office, standing on the second step, her nose almost touching the windshield, envisioning her return trip at the end of the day.

The woman standing next to her said: “I thought it would be easier if I got up early. But I didn’t get up.”

At 90th Street, a woman who had boarded two stops earlier squeezed through to get off. Her departing words: “Too hot!”

Eight New Yorkers were waiting to take her place.

At 86th Street, Irwin Gilbert, 55, offered his seat to Sally Tondteaond.

“The mayor made a big mistake when he allowed cars into the city,” Gilbert announced to no one in particular. “But I can’t say what they should do. I’m a nobody.”

To his right, a woman turned to another and said the bank for which she works had just announced thousands of layoffs.

Another woman said, “I’m leaving at 3 p.m. today, and I’m not doing this again.”

At 76th Street, a shaggy-haired man with a guitar on his lap talked into his phone.

“JFK International Airport,” he said.

“Phoenix, Arizona,” he said.

“5:35 p.m.,” he said.

“Oh my God,” he said.

Flight canceled, he had been told.

“Dear God.”

A stranger next to him, an older woman who said she was a psychoanalyst, offered consoling words. New York, she said, is as good a place as any to wait out a crisis.

“There’s so much to do,” she said.

Behind the wheel, the driver announced that the bus was arriving at 72nd Street, on the corner of which, Bob Bachner, 62, a housewares wholesaler, waited for a different line to take him to the East Side.

“Can you believe this?” he asked, a porkpie hat on his head, his eyes behind a pair of shades. New York was upside down, and here he was, waiting for the M5. He was sure one would arrive any time now.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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