Accent on Living

THE behavior of passengers on trains as they near their destination seems to have escaped the scientific scrutiny it deserves. Nothing is known of its origins, whether its prompting comes from some deep wellspring of the id, or whether broad social pressures are the cause. The stylized and rather complicated behavior pattern to which I allude suggests the latter, yet with so little data at hand, one hesitates even to characterize the behavior as irrational. If five hundred passengers behave identically and two quite differently, who are the aberrants? Let us seek an answer in the facts themselves.

On a Boston train approaching Grand Central, for instance, and just leaving 125th Street, the passengers are seen to cast off the glazed look they have all been wearing and to take some cognizance of their surroundings. They even perceive one another, as if for the first time, and not necessarily with any great satisfaction. Their first mass gesture is to jump to their feet, seize their hats and coats, and put them on. They resume their seats and, because the railroad loses all interest in air conditioning somewhere around New Haven, they begin to swelter quietly.

Passengers who had been reading have stopped reading. All conversation ceases. The porter, breathing noisily in his last bid for tips, totters back and forth being helpful.

Suddenly one passenger springs to his feet. The train has not yet entered the tunnel, but he makes off purposefully, bag in hand, toward the door. Following his lead and in exact imitation of one another — I neglected to say that most of the passengers on this train are businessmen — all others in the car get to their feet and start for the door.

A complete blockade follows. All are immobilized, but no one sits down again. And so they stand, swaying, twitching, in comedy responses to the movements of the train. A certain amount of stepping on the next man’s heels, or bumping his back with a brief case, or sprawling against him continues until the train, with a vast, unpredictable lurch comes to a stop.

The passengers try to squeeze toward the door. But nothing at all happens. The train is still in the tunnel, stopped on some mysterious signal, and nowhere near the terminal platform — a fact which it emphasizes after an awkward pause by starting up again with a prodigious lurch. More sweltering, sprawling, bumping, and more fits and starts. One gets the impression that the arrival of every train in Grand Central takes the terminal staff entirely by surprise, and that they are having the devil’s own time trying to decide what track to bring it in on, even though it is always the same track, year in, year out.

The train’s last reluctant stop, its terminal platform achieved, throws the passengers into a new cycle of optimism. They have learned nothing from their experiences of the past five minutes. Again they surge toward the door, but the door is not even open. Somewhere, trapped among the men who are balking one another in the aisle, is the luckless porter, who now squirms his way to the end of the car and opens the door.

Another surge all but overwhelms the porter, who now must explain to the passengers what they all know anyhow and choose, unaccountably, to disregard: Such is the antique design of the American “parlor car” (!) and its operation that no one can leave the car until all the hand luggage of all the passengers has been cleared from the vestibule and unloaded. Railroad men, being railroad men, have not only clung to the cumbersome design of their car, but they have also refused to arrange for the passengers to debark at one end of the car while the luggage is being unloaded at the other. The passenger, consequently, must wait until the porter has shifted the luggage to the platform — usually to a point where it obstructs all over again the passengers as they make their final exit.

All in all, it is fair to say that the last half hour of a train ride into Manhattan is more burdensome, as the passengers contrive it for themselves, than all the rest of the trip put together.

The eccentric passenger can avoid most of the terminal hardships simply by turning his back firmly on the whole performance, keeping his seat, and carrying on with his reading. If he has been sufficiently forehanded to order one at the right time, he may even be sipping the last of a highball. Not until the car has emptied itself will he get up and leave. He can beat the taxicab scramble by passing up the cab platforms altogether and going straight out to the curb on Lexington Avenue, entirely without competition.

By taking a slightly longer taxicab ride, if he is headed for any part of the mid-town area, the sufficiently eccentric passenger can circumvent the whole fiasco of Grand Central: He gets off, usually the only one in the car to do so, at 125th Street, descends to a waiting taxi, and is checked in and unpacking in his hotel while the train terminal staff is trying to remember what track to pick for the train, still trundling along somewhere in the tunnel.