Fire Engine

It’s a few minutes shy of 8 p.m. and I’m languishing in an unremarkable place called Metropark. In the seat across the aisle a small black girl is bawling her heart out. As soon as the train moves she’ll fall asleep.

I’m having, as people here might say, transportation issues. My whole day has been about transportation, since I’ve been traveling all over the New York subway, trying to verify various points for my book. Ground-truthing would be the correct phrase. I had only been on the New York subway once before, in 2002, so it took a little adjustment.

It does have the reputation of being confusing, but it’s no worse than any other, once you get the hang of it. What I did was take it in slo mo, watching everyone hurrying around me. New Yorkers even rush around on Labor Day weekend. Apart from anything else, the subway is wonderful for people-watching. From an old Jamaican banging out ‘Imagine’ on the steel drums at 42nd street station, to a passionate and highly intoxicated couple practically disrobing each other on the 6, studiously ignored by those sitting either side, there’s something for everyone.

My favorite was a young guy who sprinted down the stairs at Grand Central, hollering for the departing train to open the door for him. After physically attacking the last car, he spent a good few minutes swearing at the top of his voice, and providing extensive details on the driver’s family history, particularly on the maternal side. 

The lines use numbers or letters, but I couldn’t figure out what the logic of it all was. I’m pretty sure there is one, but why there’s the 5, the 7, the E, and the S was a little beyond me. Some trains don’t have any signage outside, on the platforms there were no electronic signs of the kind you see in Europe, displaying the final point on the line, and despite my passable English, I was generally unable to understand the tannoy.

Decades ago, an American guy who was visiting Portugal gave me an enduring lesson in logic. We were stuck in a Lisbon bank, at a time when you literally needed to cash in your chips. You took your check, or your foreign currency, queued at a counter, got a chip, and then got called to another counter where another guy handed you the money. Generally it took so long that they might as well be printing it for you. In fact, back then in Portugal there was 17% inflation, so they probably were.

Banking was a convoluted affair, during which you were tortured by seeing your documents festering on various desks, waiting to be endlessly stamped by employees that made Greek productivity look like that of Singapore. In response to my fumbling apology for the third world behavior of Portuguese banks, my new friend explained that in his travels around the world he never looked for logic. What he sought was internal consistency. I was twenty-five at the time, and I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

After I got done with the subway, I did a good deal of walking in the business district. Details that you need for authenticity when you prepare a book, such as what parts of Wall Street you can drive or park on, whether a particular store has a back or side exit, or what is the size of Bowling Green park. Google Streetview, or as a friend of mine calls it, Google Streetwalker, is great, but it’s not enough.

The southern tip of Manhattan was packed with tourists, including many Europeans. In a report published in 2007, entitled ‘No Vacation Nation’, it transpires that Americans in the private sector get on average 9 paid vacation days per year, together with 6 paid holidays. Germany gets a total of 34. Austria and Portugal top the list at 35, god bless ’em. But the Portuguese have no money to travel, so there were French and Italians instead.  

While I took my photos, two young Chinese guys approached me at the eastern end of Wall St. and demanded to know where the cow was. We reached a consensus that they were really looking for the bull, and I directed them to Broadway. By the time I reached the famous statue, it was completely thronged, with a man actually mounted on the poor beast while photos were taken. With that kind of abuse, no wonder the markets are bearish.

On my way back uptown to Penn Station, a woman asked me whether she was on the right train. We got talking, and it turned out she was a dancer from Florida, except she wasn’t really, she works for a Brazilian company in Miami. What she had come to do was dance in New York City over the Labor Day weekend, accompanied by four friends. She told me that according to a neurologist she knows, who also likes to shake a leg, dancing is the best way to avoid Alzheimer’s disease. Whether that’s an urban (dancing) legend, I do not know. She also explained she was very keen on the tango, and that she was dancing tonight in Central Park. Would I like to come and see her?

But I actually needed to catch a train, and that was the beginning of my troubles. Amtrak 135 was due to leave Penn Station at 6.05 p.m., but it got delayed to around 6.30. It bravely chugged along to Newark, and as it pulled into Metropark all the lights went out. Shortly thereafter, people started escaping from the business car. One of the engines had caught fire.

The conductor, who was actually a conductress, was very nice, but singularly uninformed. Mr. Amtrak had apparently told her that the engine could no longer move, and we would be delayed for an indeterminate period. And apparently no other trains could go by toward the south. Game, set, and match. What ensued was an interesting exercise in passenger bonding, with some of my fellow travelers discussing one hundred fifty dollar cab fares to Philly. I was busy discussing the possibility of renting a car with an Indian guy who was also DC bound.

So… I got to do some reading, in particular from a magazine called Foreign Affairs. It’s actually more like a scientific journal, and it has lots of great stuff. I was particularly taken by a piece called ‘Will oil drown the Arab Spring?’

The author argues convincingly that oil-rich countries resist democracy successfully, because the income allows them to develop a large military capability, revenues and circulation of money are undisclosed, which fosters corruption, and the people are kept docile through reduced taxation and other instruments. In 2011, Kuwait presented its citizens with a cash gift of 3600 USD and free food staples for 14 months.

It’s abundantly clear that the Libyan rebels would have been trounced by Gaddafi were it not for Western intervention. Interestingly, the Islamist Abdulhakim Belhaj, commander of rebel military forces in Tripoli, was tortured by the CIA in Thailand, then imprisoned for seven years in Tripoli, courtesy of the good colonel. Among other things, Belhaj claimed he was not allowed to shower for three years.

The ‘Oil Curse’, as Ross calls it in his article, is really no different to other curses, but they are all linked to resource extraction. Africa abounds with such curses, whether they derive from oil, gold, diamonds, or even coltan―I guess the word tantalum says it all. In 1980, 30% of the world’s governments were democracies. That figure now stands at 60%. However, countries that produced under one hundred dollars per capita of oil were three times more likely to democratize. Food for thought, while waiting for the train that wasn’t.

Escape from New Jersey. Crossing the tracks at Metropark station.

Luckily, the 7 p.m. regional from New York eventually came up behind us, and the station found it had an extra line. So were boarded in truly Indian style, walking across the tracks in a mob. Great fun. One little girl was complaining to her father that she was always told never to go on the tracks.

“You can if the conductor says so,” the father preached, the conductor at his side. The youngster appeared unconvinced. Sensible girl. Children don’t like contradictions. They too are ruled by internal consistency rather than parental logic.

Well, I’m just pulling into Philly. Next stop Wilmington, Delaware. Then Baltimore. Then D.C. My car is parked on a rather dubious lot on First Street, so I think I’ll put this on a pen drive in case I get mugged. And the pics. It wouldn’t do to waste the fruits of my labor.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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One Response to “Fire Engine”

  1. Annie B. Says:

    This is one of my favourite of your blog entries.. Very humorous and insightful. Thanks for posting!

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