Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I'm For Recycling

I was going to blog about how impossible it seems to be to sleep properly on these morning turns. But that's pretty damned uninteresting, and anyway I'm too tired.

So we get late-night reruns. Here's a journal entry from last year while I was flying out of Newark (where I would ride the train into the City each day to roam the streets).


8/25/04, 11:15 pm

Sitting hot in EWR. I have been meaning to write about infrastructure in my little musings. As one rides the train thru New Jersey and into the city, you pass an endless parade of shabby buildings and commercial grunge; yawning, abandoned factories, discarded vehicles and construction debris and garbage and industrial machinery rusting by dilapidated fencing. Someone owns each of these parcels and buildings, and pays taxes on it. And the land is valuable because of its proximity to the city and to the country’s greatest population density. And yet it looks like a wasteland: New Jersey is an armpit. But the closer you get to the city, the more elaborate the train tracks and highways and bridges and power lines become, until there’s just far too much to take in @ 50 mph. Someone had to design and build all this, to get construction permits and purchase right-of-way and allocate funds and arrange general contractors and sub-contractors, etc. This was doubtless begun long ago--a century ago and more--and continues today. As our train rolls toward Manhattan, weed-choked spurs angle off of the adjacent tracks, many of them long unused, some of them to destinations which no longer exist; but they were put in at some considerable expense and with foresight years ago for a viable commercial purpose (like all the now-unused subway tunnels beneath the City). And all of this stuff must be monitored and maintained and scrutinized and protected in a cycle which requires a considerable effort to stave off entropy. (There is a picture in one of the daily papers today of police with M-16s standing in the shadows of Penn Station watching the trains coming in and out.)

As one leaves Newark Penn Station, you ride over some swampland and can see a long, low hill coming up, and the train abruptly plunges into blackness in a tunnel there and descends under the Hudson (is it the Hudson?) while your ears pop. After a couple minutes you suddenly emerge from the darkness into a dim clearing, about a block square, with concrete sides which rise up like an open-topped box 4 or 5 stories to sidewalk level (“ground level”) and then the city rises above this. You go underground in New Jersey in an atmosphere of scrubby industrial countryside and swampland and emerge five minutes later across the state line in an urban labyrinth after having passed under a major river. And in this clearing you see that there are 10 or 15 train tracks converging on this point, and from as many tunnels, all fanning out from this point, with a jungle of catenaries above. (I have to ask: how is this massive electricity usage monitored? And who pays the bill?) [We’re going to Philly now.] [Now, at 1:20 am, sitting hot in PHL. And now they say we’re headed to BUF & SYR in two hours’ time.] And just as suddenly you plunge back into darkness as you enter, now at a crawl, the Pennsylvania Station which sits several levels below Madison Square Garden. The 10 or 15 tracks entering the station branch off into something like twice that number inside, with a maze of switches decipherable only to a railroad buff: the logistics of getting the trains to the right track must be daunting. (Knowing how navigation is done in my aviation industry, I can’t help but wonder what the radio communications are between the train operators and whoever they talk to: who is the controlling authority? Is there a “control tower” like an airport has? Or is it all pre-planned and given on something analogous to a flight plan? Or are they all canned and always the same? This latter must not be, as the tracks for each individual outbound train are not posted until a couple minutes before they depart.)

It is impossible to get a visual sense of the train space of Penn Station, so different from the towering, sunlit above-ground stations I saw in Paris. Penn Station is soot-covered and dimly lit, with the tracks separated by passenger platforms with numerous staircases which lead to the concourses above. The tracks weave around a huge number of concrete pilings and steel girders which support the world above. But that’s the real miracle of it: you attend a boxing match or concert in Madison Square Garden or walk the sidewalks or drive the streets above and have no sense that solid ground, as you know it, is nowhere near where you think it is, that there is a whole city yet extending many levels below you.

I guess it is a characteristic of Manhattan particularly, with the verticality that comes from it being of a finite area, that so much exists underground. (I used to have this vision, almost a daydream, before I came here of shops and businesses existing entirely below ground. And the reality is not so different from this: some train stations in the City have two or three levels of criss-crossing tracks. Most of the subterranean shops I’ve seen in the subway system are at the major stations--Penn and Grand Central--but there are occasional newspaper vendors and small convenience stores at larger stations. In any case, you can do your banking and eat your meals and have your dry-cleaning done in the City all without seeing daylight.) But anyway, it is someone’s job to know all of these underground facilities, or their own portion, anyway (and some group of businesses and their people must monitor all of them in turn), to know all the subway tunnels and to know when something is in need of attention. This makes a small army of people dedicated to tasks which hardly exist in other places.

The New York City Transit Museum, which I’ve not seen now for a decade, is in Brooklyn, and is underground in a now-unused subway station. The tracks are still there, and they go off into the darkness and eventually, thru a no-longer-active switch, meet up with the active subway system. Vintage subway cars have been rolled into the station for display, and the old ticket booths and turnstiles, which so many millions used for so many years, are here to show visitors how the subway has changed. If you ride in the front car of the trains where you can watch ahead, you see many spurs shooting off into the darkness. I read somewhere that 2/3 of the tunnels beneath Manhattan are now unused. God, what stories they would have to tell, and what an archive of the City’s history must be down there!

8/26, 9:am

We flew all nite: EWR PHL BUF SYR EWR; we’re in the van now headed for the hotel.

One more thought to finish my musings about infrastructure. I never fly in here during the day, and this morning I got a better look at things than I usually do. There is a lot more harbor activity in this area than I realized. EWR appears to be a bona fide commercial port for ocean-going vessles, with cargo facilities that remind me of the extensive stuff we saw in SEA. These huge cranes, which I think are for container ships, tower above the landscape and are visible for miles. And in New York Harbor this morning, off the Southern tip of Manhattan, there were at least 30 large scale ships coming and going, such that navigation would have been a bit perilous. So this all adds an extensive seaport, with cargo and cruise ships and carferries and all their attendant stuff, to my infrastructure comments.

But more than the variety of it all--and I’m trying to get into words somehow this sense of how extraordinary this all is when one is in the midst of it--there’s just so much of everything: miles and miles and endless miles of it. And seeing it from the air drives the point home. Elaborate, multi-lane freeways run as far as the eye can see in every direction, and they’re often doubled up, as though one freeway just reached capacity and so another was built right alongside the first, giving 6 or 8 or more lanes in each direction. The inner lanes, the almost separate inner freeway, are express lanes. Was it designed from the start this way, or did it evolve into this form? Bridges and exit ramps suspend 6 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic above 6 more full lanes below. Power and phone lines and TV cables and satellite dishes are everywhere, connecting these 27 million people to an immense grid. Railroads often parallel the major roadways, sidestepping the congestion with their own rights-of-way. These railroads spill into and out of huge, busy rail yards which are visible from aloft but somehow hidden on the ground, lost in the urban jungle. And there are lots of them. Passenger trains, almost non-existent outside of our largest cities, shuttle millions of people in and out of the City every day, and are a more common sight than freight trains.

Because the population density is so high, everything is geared for heavy, heavy use; the bridges and overpasses and on- and off-ramps are all much larger and heavier-duty than one sees in smaller cities. This is all life at its heaviest gauge. Railroad tracks have one-piece rails and concrete ties and bridges are incredibly heavy and escalators and stairs are beefed up for the relentless, 24/7 traffic. It’s enough to lure one into engineering school!

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