In the chic nightclub world of Manhattan, many people were ashamed to admit they were a card-carrying member of the so-called "Bridge and Tunnel Crowd" — the unfortunate orphans who lived in New Jersey, Staten Island and the outer boroughs, but who worked and played in Manhattan. During the 1980’s, I was proud to be included in that group, even at the moment of truth when my commuter identity was revealed. Like perfecting an art form, we’d cut it as close as we dared and then hurriedly bolt Limelight or Odeon. Looming behind us, but often taken for granted, The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center anchored Lower Manhattan. Usually, I snagged a cab to Penn Station at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue to catch the last New Jersey Transit train of the night. Despite scoffs from the privileged as I exited the club, I relished my role in the order of things. With many obstacles ahead, only the composed and wily survived Bridge & Tunnel Darwinism.
If I missed the 1:35 a.m. NJ Transit Trenton Local, a little known back-up was The Night Owl Amtrak train which originated from Boston, passed through New York City, and, amazingly, made a 3:45 a.m. stop at Metropark Station in Iselin, NJ. If I could out-maneuver The Blarney Stone Beggar, who cried out for "A Goddamn penny to eat!" and blocked the 8th Avenue entrance to Penn Station, I could hop on the Amtrak and make it to within 2 miles of my house.
Among other amenities NJ Transit lacked, the Amtrak coaches had a bar and cafe car that served a delicious microwaved cheeseburger. The succulent meat was accentuated by gobs of American cheese that crystallized into pellets on the cardboard carrying tray, creating a special after-burger treat. I would stumble back to my seat, both hands gripping the tray, hoping not to get tossed out an open car door onto unused rails that segregated Elizabeth, NJ. Oblivious that stunned mourners had lined these same tracks to watch the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train pass by 20 years before, my fellow riders hunched over their trays and, with the help of a "7 and 7" or Miller Lite, washed the cheeseburgers away.
One particular night, instead of my usual routine, I headed to Hoboken — via a PATH train — to crash with some friends. The PATH trains run through various points between Newark, Hoboken, Jersey City, 33rd Street in Manhattan and the World Trade Center. Called "The Tubes" by old-timers, the PATH trains are to a Jersey Bridge and Tunneller what the subway is to a New Yorker. I never understood "The Tubes" reference until I saw old photographs of the Trade Center’s construction; underground chutes from the Jersey side of the river guiding the trains into the WTC Station some 80 feet below.
I expected to be in Hoboken in 20 minutes; a cakewalk compared to the usual 1 hour 20 minute ride to my house. Leaving the Village, I grabbed a cab and headed for the 33rd St. PATH Station. Part of the night-time scene in Manhattan was locating and going to unmarked places — the hyper-trendy club whose velvet rope and red carpet magically appeared at 11:00 p.m. outside a former immigration office, or the hip tavern whose back entrance was a French country wooden door hidden in the corner of the courtyard of a non-descript West Village apartment building. The entrance to this particular PATH Station was similarly concealed. A stairway in the middle of a pedestrian island a few blocks off Herald Square led to the subterranean station.
I disappeared below ground as cars and people raced by above me. Still dressed for work from 6:30 that morning, I would be conspicuous in my grey pin-striped suit and floppy, yellow polka-dot bow tie. At this early morning hour, I worried that I would be only one of several people down there, and a prime target for a mugging. My concern dissipated, however, as I felt the nervous energy of a crowd float up like steam through a grate. As I got my first look at the Hoboken-bound platform, I was shocked to see a horde of people anxiously peering into the dark empty tunnel. To add to the anxiety of 600 people waiting for a train designed to hold 400, a voice from a hideout announced that due to continuing "equipment problems," this would be the last train out for the night. The pulsating music and crowded dance floor of the club I had just left with "Shake Your Groove Thing" in full swing can certainly raise your heart rate, but the adrenaline rush of jostling for a spot on the last train out takes your body chemistry to a new height.
I quickly took up a position near the end of the line, about four rows deep. No words were spoken; everyone knew what everyone else was thinking as a faint white light appeared in the tunnel.
As the car doors opened and people poured in, I jumped into an opening two rows in front me and let the desperate push of those in the very back carry me into the train. Once inside, the challenge was to get near something to hold; otherwise, the inevitable short stop would send me flying. The fear of being thrown to the ground outweighed the customary concerns of being pick-pocketed. I fortunately made it to a handrail and settled in for the short ride to Hoboken. As the train pulled out, I counted two people with canes and a young woman with a walker among those stranded on the platform.
The mood of my fellow tired and cramped riders was pretty ugly. I would’ve guessed the strongest smell would be body odor but it actually was Nathan’s French Fries being munched on by someone in my car.
I made eye-contact with a drunken behemoth in cover-alls as I allowed him three inches of precious space on the overhead handrail so he wouldn’t lose his balance and crush me.
"Look at us," he shouted above the rumble. "What the hell are we doing here? Is this any way to live? We’re sweating like fuckin’ pigs while the rest of the world’s asleep!"
He’s not exaggerating that much, I thought. We were embarking on a trip that would take us under 500,000 sleeping New Yorkers.
Although I had turned the music off, I still had the headphones of my Walk-Man over my ears. I smiled slightly and nodded.
After getting no verbal response, he pointed at me and addressed the crowd: "Look at this guy! It’s 3:30 in the morning and he’s still in his fuckin’ suit!"
As the train picked up speed, I made an important discovery – we were heading for the World Trade Center; not the normal course for a Hoboken-bound train. Following the Behemoth’s lead, I dangerously yelled out: "This train’s headin’ for World Trade!"
"Bullshit!" The Behemoth immediately responded without the benefit of any factual inquiry.
I was quickly proven correct as we entered Exchange Place Station.
"The cherry in the suit’s right!" The Behemoth yelled, genuinely distressed.
From over the Behemoth’s shoulder I heard a man telling his wife in Spanish that the kid in the suit was right; we were indeed on our way to World Trade, easily doubling our trip travel time.
To the PATH contingent of the Bridge and Tunnel Crowd, the World Trade Center was the gateway to New York. Invariably during my high school and college years, if I heard of someone who worked in the City, I thought of the Trade Center. My classmate’s uncle who was an undercover Port Authority officer; the object of your affection’s noveau-riche father who worked on Wall Street; the hundreds of lawyers toiling away in gigantic skyscrapers named after banks; the unofficial brotherhood of tan trench coat-wearing, pizza slice gobbling, Wall Street Journal reading zombies; all either worked in or passed through the Trade Center every day.
A bastion for the successful, it was a portal of promise for the rest of us also. The PATH carried legions of young people in blue and gray power suits holding a single copy of a hastily crafted resume for that "first job out of college" interview. Even when an interview didn’t go well, you remained optimistic because, grabbing a hot dog from a cart in the plaza by the WTC fountain, you were literally surrounded by 50,000 people with jobs. A college education wasn’t even required. In fact, tales of high school drop-outs who had become "runners" on Wall Street and could buy and sell you and your father were legendary. See that 22 year-old in the blue smock drooling on his NYSE badge while napping on the PATH? How much does he make?
I never worked in the Trade Center, but did work for several years just a few blocks away at One Chase Manhattan Plaza. That meant I passed through WTC to get to the PATH at least twice a day. My 57th Floor office in One Chase would be remarkable in its own right anywhere else, but in the shadows of the 100 plus stories Twin Towers, it wasn’t even worthy of comment. The Twin Towers defined the area. Even my boss – a nationally-revered litigator who lived his life well above the fracas – was intimately familiar with the street scene surrounding World Trade. If you were lucky enough to have been sent out to get him a couple of hot dogs, he directed you to the Hebrew National Cart on Maiden Lane; the apparent victor of an informal sampling of the multitude of street vendors in the area. Others swore by Sabrett, with the colorful umbrella and ice cold Yoo-Hoo.
Unlike the trendy bistros of Midtown or the Upper East Side, the food emporium near World Trade was largely embodied in carts, wagons and refurbished trucks. I was most suspicious of "The Great Wall of China" – a converted Mister Softee ice cream truck with a rapidly twirling aluminum spinnaker that appeared to have bored its way through the thin metal roof. With no other visible means of power, I concluded the mobile franchise was serving nuclear baked General Tso’s Chicken.
Coffee and donut carts, half the size of a mail truck, were also plentiful. Unusually large men squeezed in behind trays of baked goods, as piping hot coffee flowed from silver urns large enough to wire a platoon. As if on cue, nearly every morning I heard the snap of a brown paper bag as I passed the donut cart at the base of One Chase and another sugar fix was fulfilled. Even in a city of culinary superlatives, I wasn’t surprised when "Best Donut in Town" scribbled in black magic marker on the side of a pushcart actually meant something.
We pulled into a deserted WTC Station, and, after an inexplicably brief stop, pulled out.
Just as we all had acclimated to the tension and heat, our relative peace and calm was disrupted by two bone-jarring whacks, which could only have been the sound of someone getting punched in the face. Although the train car was already packed to capacity, somehow the passengers nearest the fight pushed the rest of us back even further.
The exhausted adrenaline everyone had felt quickly surged into a "fight or flight" energy but the immutable laws of physics kept it bottled up tightly.
Thwacks quickly became taunts. "C’mon, fucker! You’re nothing!"
A woman cried out: "Somebody please, do something. He’s beating his girlfriend!"
Just as the situation had reached its boiling point, from somewhere deep in the car, I was startled by the authoritative sound of a whistle, blurting out strong, continuous signals. The response was immediate. I got up on my toes and watched the seemingly unmovable crowd part and create an unobstructed path to the fight. I could now see the combatants – two fellow Bridge and Tunnellers, one in a New York Rangers jersey and the other in a New York Islanders jersey, embroiled in their own "Get Home Anyway You Can" experience. That there was a transit cop on the train when we needed one had to give my fellow Bridge and Tunnellers some assurance that all was right with the world.
Moving briskly though the crowd, holding a whistle between his teeth and continuing to sound the charge as he strutted, was not a policeman though but a young Puerto Rican man. I can’t tell you what clothes he had on, but I know he had a shiny silver whistle hooked to a thick silver chain, as wide as a dog choke collar. Part MacGyver and part urban referee, he quickly encountered the hockey enthusiasts, who, by this time, were weak in the legs and holding on to each other’s jerseys. Clearly confused by the whistle blowing, the fighters came to rest as the car pulled into a deserted Exchange Place Station, somewhere beneath the no-man’s lands of Jersey City. As the car doors opened, the young man grabbed each fighter and, spinning around, flung them out of the car and sprawling onto the station platform.
Everyone on the train exploded into applause while The Equalizer bowed and mouthed "Thank you. Thank you very much," to his newest fans. As the train pulled away, I could see the bewildered homers pulling themselves up off the ground. With no more trains coming, their Bridge and Tunnel survival skills would surely be tested; they would even be forced to work together if they hoped to somehow make it home that night.
The spirit on the train instantly became lively; we went from subterranean gloom to raucous double-decker party bus on a sunny St. Patrick’s Day. We pulled into a deserted Hoboken Station ten minutes later.
I climbed a stairway to the street and walked along the abandoned docks and overgrown brush that lined the shoreline. Less than several thousand feet across the river were the Twin Towers. They oriented me whether I traveled through Hoboken on foot, was lost in the maze of Lower Manhattan side streets, gazed out from the roof of a SoHo walk-up, or crossed the Jersey wastelands on the glorified pinball rails known officially as The Pulaski Skyway.
It was well into early morning now. I continued past stalled waterfront re-development projects while just across the river sat not only the Trade Center, but other priceless properties – The Woolworth Building; Trinity Church; and the Statue of Liberty; uncontestable proof that real estate is absolutely arbitrary.
I made my way to the Old Clam Broth House Restaurant and surrounding nightspots on Hoboken’s waterfront. This was Sinatra Country. I no longer felt conspicuous in my suit. I hesitated at the door of one of several establishments that were still open. I was wired and exhausted at the same time. It had been a very long day; should I shuffle the final five blocks to my buddy’s place?
I looked back across the water. I easily traced my steps from SoHo to Midtown to the Trade Center and across the river. On the surface, all was quiet. But I knew better. A beacon at the top of One World Trade blinked a steady message. Lights were still on at "Windows on The World," the incomparable restaurant on the 107th floor of One World Trade where countless Bridge and Tunnellers (and others from all over the world) had gotten engaged or celebrated some other special occasion. I’ve always heard people refer to the "island" of Manhattan; it may be surrounded by water but to me it’s always been very connected to the world beyond. The spirit of the city was too strong for any PATH car or train tunnel to contain, and I knew that if I held it for a moment, I could take it with me wherever I went.
I dusted some tunnel grime off my suit coat, straightened my bow tie, and flung open the door to the tavern. As I approached the smoky haze surrounding the bar, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if The Behemoth, The Equalizer, or any of the other New Yorkers I had encountered that night, were waiting for me inside.
The End of The Bridge and Tunnel Crowd