Sunday, May 17, 2015

Adventures in Commuting, Part II: Auto Inferno

After my three-hour morning bus ride into New York the other day (an adventure recounted in this prior post), I thought I was done for the week with commuting disasters.

Well, I’m not going to say that my experience the very next day topped a commute that took triple its normal time. (Indeed, it’s hard to surpass in wretched excess a ride described by a fellow passenger as “the worst I’ve seen in 35 years.”)

But it sure was different in a way I had never seen before.

Yet, in the New York metropolitan area, you simply never know what will happen—particularly when, even with a substantial mass-transit system, cars and their unexpected problems are still a huge part of the commuting experience.

As I got on the bus in my hometown of Englewood, NJ, on the day after my blood pressure-boosting trip through the highway wilderness of New Jersey, I did a fast countdown of what seemed different from the day before:

*I didn’t have to wait long for the bus;

*There was neither a long line of passengers nor an abundance of empty seats—meaning that it would be unlikely that the bus would or could stop for many people after me; and

*I knew, from prior rides, that this bus driver was friendly, funny, patient and competent.

That last quality, so often assumed about drivers by their passengers, should not, as I had occasion to be reminded of the day before, ever be taken for granted. And that experience and skill would prove important within five minutes of my boarding the bus.

As the bus headed onto the entrance to I-95, I looked to my right, where Crystal Lake loomed as the last bit of natural landscaping (aside from the Meadowlands) before the bus bumped and vroomed on miles of asphalt down the interstate and into the Lincoln Tunnel on the way into the Port Authority at 42nd Street. That glimpse of water (or, when it solidified in winter, ice) was nirvana to me. In fact, I had often wished I could have stopped to take pictures of this serene scenery.

Immersed momentarily in this morning daydream, I was jolted back into reality by two disquieting words from the bus driver: “Oh, shit.”

Now, the immensity of that exclamation can only be absorbed when you recall that bus drivers in the New York area have seen pretty much everything. They are justly proud of their “been there, done that” attitude. What this meant is that whatever the bus driver had seen now had really, really thrown him.

I leaned forward, straining my eyes to see what had alarmed the driver. So did the other passengers—so many that it was a wonder that the bus didn’t topple forward from the sudden shift.

Ahead of us, not quite off the ramp entrance, was a car starting to smoke. I couldn’t make out if there was a human being inside. By this time, our driver had stopped the bus, called an emergency number on his cellphone to advise of the situation, and thrust his arms back toward the street we had just left, yelling frantically to the four or five cars that had followed us quickly onto the ramp, “Back, back, BACK!!!”

We had already obeyed his order to us, “Everybody out!”, by rising from our seats and moving toward the front of the bus. But, as we watched the smoke in the car ahead of us begin to lick up larger and larger flames, the urgency not just to get out but to move far away had risen to the point that a human stampede began to form. 

As I got off the bus, I had to hold onto the railing more tightly than usual because the people behind were practically tripping me. For the first time, I felt what it might have been like to be among the fans trampled to death at The Who concert in Cincinnati in December 1979.

One after another, under the guidance of police officers who had arrived at the scene, the cars behind our bus backed down the ramp. I spotted another bus waiting behind these cars and wondered if I should try to board it.

The rapid calculations involved with this (would I be charged for the transfer, including if it was for a different bus company, and would there be enough room for me?) were  swept completely out of my mind when our driver told us we could board again. Thank God he had been quick-thinking.

We moved to get back on, but many did so without the alacrity that the driver thought was necessary. “Let’s go!” he urged. “Forget about the pictures and get on the bus so we can get out of here!”

I was one of the people who pulled cameras out. I am not the type of person ghoulish enough to photograph a disaster or potential tragedy in the making. (I did not, for instance, pull out my camera to record a bigger blaze one morning the prior week: an SUV at the end of my block that had caught fire inside a garage, thereby filling the house to which it was attached with smoke, too.)

What our driver didn’t realize was that many of us were refugees on the three-hour trip to the Port Authority yesterday. We did not believe that our bosses could accept that there had been traffic problems for the second straight day. So we needed photographic evidence to show (such as the image I took accompanying this post). Otherwise, it would sound too outrageous to be believed.

Our driver, once he corralled us all in, got us into New York as quickly as possible. However, we  had been slowed down terribly. Though I didn’t miss nearly half the day, as I had done just before, I still ended up 20  minutes behind the eight ball.

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