The Cruelty Of The Curbside Cab Line

amtrak.jpgFew things bring out New Yorkers’ lesser selves than the Penn Station taxi line during an Easter downpour.

It’s also one of just a few scenarios capable of adding insult the injury of a late train and an exhausted ten-month-old.

We were nearly three-hours behind on a one-hour trip by the time we stepped off Acela #2256 at 8pm Sunday night.

Maggie was strapped to my chest, her sweet, slightly-sweaty hair matted to her forehead just a few inches from my lips. She was well-past her bedtime, and shy one crucial afternoon nap, alternating between dazed and crazed: wide-eyed one moment, crying the next.

We’d dodged a number of bullets by the time we arrived, not the least of which was a critical, last-minute (and by her expression, much-needed) diaper change on a private patch of padded (and sanitary) marble floor of 30th Street Station just seconds before our train boarded.

Seats were scarce. Abbi gestured towards another car as the aisles filled with hawk-eyed, ham-fed yuppie zombies, but I dove towards the first available: a four-seater with one occupant who’d strewn her laptop ephemera across the table. She looked up through her glasses straight-faced, her eyes filled with ire as if we were going to change Maggie right there on the spot.

That would come a half-hour later.

Amtrak #2556 had hit some trackside debris just beyond BWI, apparently, and taken on shrapnel. It’s leading engine was hobbled, and running at quarter speed. The passengers looked like 18th Century stow-a-ways in a dead calm, ready to turn cannibal if the wind failed to return. Amtrak switched engines in Philadelphia, though. By Metro Park, we were making time.

Maggie — who hadn’t slept in hours and had spent the afternoon surrounded by mind-blowing stimuli like the Liberty Bell, spring flowers, and German tourists in plaid shorts — was fast approaching bedtime, as evidenced by her irritable, piercing shrieks. I bobbed and weaved between in the aisles before finally retiring to the Cafe Car where, I figured, no one expected peace and quiet anyway.

There, I met a like-minded Asian-American mother with a eighteen-month-old half the size of my daughter. The babies lock eyes, then reached out for one another. I considered pulling Maggie away from his saliva-covered hand, then wondered how that might look. And anyway, isn’t reaching out to one another the right impulse? She was biding time too, but with far more miles to the train’s terminus in Boston.

A conductor smiled at Maggie, then handed her a small, plastic bag.

“Do those cookies look good?” he asked.

“They do!” I answered in proxy. “But she’s not ready for that quite yet,” censoring the remainder of the sentence still unspooling in my head (“And she will never eat bleached flour, corn syrup and guar gum!”). He was barely forty, a grandfather, and a lovely man who informed us that the train was now exceeding speeds of 120 miles-per-hour. Maggie was impressed.

We stood quietly a while before that great, picture window as the train sped through Central Jersey, its rolling hills backlit by a blush-colored sunset. Her eyes darted back-and-forth, scanning a landscape passing more quickly than any she’d seen. Soon enough, we were coursing through The Meadowlands.

Passengers were jockeying for position even before we emerged from below the Hudson River. The two in front — a handsome, leather-strapped fashionista and older, rounder Boomer — pawed at their Blackberries as if they had service, or a colleague to contact at eight o’clock on a Sunday night. They bound off the train, and we followed, ushered via escalator into the station’s generic, short-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit concourse. I darted through the crowd, bound up the stairs (past the corn syrup-fed masses on the escalator, natch), and beat them both to curbside.

Where it was pouring rain.

The taxi line was five deep, but growing fast and in every direction. The bulk of it splayed out behind us into the rain while — inexplicably — the dripping but otherwise dry scaffolding before us lay fallow. Still, we gently course corrected dozens of unwitting and oblivious travelers to the soaked, miserable line behind us.

Eighth Avenue sparkled in the headlights and flashing signage before us. The attendant waved and whistled frantically, scoring the occasional available cab while waving off line jumpers. One — a burly frat boy in a mid-length car coat and fancy (albeit soaked) loafers — pushed him away, charged into the street and stopped a Black Towncar with a Hulk-like straight-arm. Another — an African-American woman in a black raincoat and beehive — charged past him in a bold intercept. He raced after her, disappearing into the mist, never to return.

Which is when we’d discovered that — nearly five hours after her lapsed nap time, and forty-five minutes after bedtime — Maggie had fallen asleep. We gingerly pulled her little pink hood over her eyes, and commenced whispering as if The City wasn’t racing and roaring mercilessly around us. Pimps and prostitutes, suburban runaways, yuppies and hipsters, and New Yorkers of every stripe brushed within mere millimeters of one another — and my daughter. I was coiled like a tiger, imaging just how quickly and effectively (dismemberment? decapitation?) I’d roundhouse an offender without rousing my precious cargo.

Soon enough, there were just three in front of us: an elderly brunette on portable oxygen; a slightly-less elderly, nicotine-crisped blonde; and a young woman with a GenArt Film Festival tote bag. I stood placidly behind them, grinning like a Cheshire cat, repeating a peaceful, new father mantra in my head.

Which is when the tall, bespectacled and red plaid-wearing gentleman behind us chimed in, “We’re averaging one cab every seven minutes.”

“Impressive,” I said sincerely. “I’d wondered what our metric might be. Cabs per stoplight cycle? Available per occupied? Towncar versus Escape? Interesting.”

Ms. Nicotine Crisp laughed; we’d all bonded. Except Ms. GenArt who stood mouth-agape.

The rain really began to fall. And time turned elastic…

A yellow minivan double-parked just uptown from the stand with its out-of-service lights ablaze. An Upper West Side show runner or accountant or social media marketer approached, left hand aloft, keeping the cab light in one eye, and signs of revolt in the other. Ms. Oxygen missed the whole thing as she scanned the downtown horizon. Nicotine Crisp yelled through the hiss of the rain, “Look up, lady!”

When out of nowhere, a wave a beautiful, white lights flooded the curbside.

“Go! Go! Go!” Abbie commanded. “Get Maggie! I’ll get the bags!”

And like Secretariat on a crowded, muddy track, I raced for waiting door handle with one hand behind Maggie’s head, the other beneath her butt.

I felt like Superman.

Later, after Abbi and I had — in a breathtaking display of teamwork rivaling Mario Andretti’s 1984 pit crew — gotten Maggie inside, upstairs, out of her jacket and into her crib in one, fluid motion, we sat on the couch nursing a beer and catching our breath.

“How about that diaper change?” I asked, finding pride in a place I scarcely knew existed. “I didn’t know I had it in me.”

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