Sunday, March 04, 2001

Iron Anthropology

Ask any scientist, and she'll tell you that every habitat or environment has its own rigorous rules of organization. Atoms have their form and function, as do elephants in the jungle, snowflakes on your windowsill and ants staking out your picnic. Identifying, categorizing and defining the behaviors of the elements which are resident in these arenas has become the life's work of more than one graduate student.

But occasionally those hierarchies are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of some new and unexpected variable. It turns established relationships and reactions to stimuli on their head, and forces adaptation that strengthens some elements while killing others. It can be a change in temperature, a novel predator that appears on the scene or a change in the environment. And nowhere in the wilds of nature is this more in evidence than with commuters.

Whether it's the train or the bus, a carpool or the US Airways shuttle, regular users have a routine that seems carved in stone. While each minutely choreographed ballet is unique to the individual, it is nonetheless clearly defined: where to stand while waiting to board, what seat to try and get, what to do at each stage of the journey. If you doubt the angst that disruption to this ordered existence can cause, on your next journey grab a seat that you know belongs to a regular and watch what happens when they get on. They'd be less upset if you kidnapped their children than if you take the fifth row window seat, left side, second car from the front.

All this is by way of introduction to the latest environmental upheaval visited on those inhabitants of the northern suburbs of Gotham who take the train to work each day. In a feat of engineering magic, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, working with the city, have actually created real estate when none existed before. By tunneling and carving around tracks, steam pipes, electrical lines and basements, they have created a handful of exits leading uptown out of Grand Central Station in New York, the central hub for all trains arriving in the city from points north.

To those unfamiliar with the geographic sleight-of-hand involved, an example might help illustrate the earth shattering revisions. Trains would come into the station and park with the head car at about 44th street. On your typical 8 car train, that meant that those riding in the caboose were somewhere between 46th and 47th street. Yet the former structure made no provision for departure at that end. So a person traveling in the tail wishing to go to a destination such as Saks at Fifth and 49th had to detrain, walk south underground to emerge in the daylight at 42nd street, only to turn uptown to retrace her steps above ground to get to the store. From start to finish as a mole would go? Less than a thousand feet. Distance actually traversed from the arrival on the platform of the 2:19p from Darien to the display of Kenneth Cole black platforms in the store? Closer to a mile.

All of this meant that before the renovations it was possible to determine the temperament and occupation of the passengers merely by the positions they took in the AM rush hours. The types A's, along with lawyers and bankers who racked up billable hours, were packed like sardines in the front cars, chomping at the bit to bolt onto the platform and get to their offices. The creative types who wanted a bit of extra time for reflection, along with the misanthropes who preferred a seat with a buffer zone around them, congregated in the later coaches. And strung along in between were those further up or down the evolutionary ladder, depending upon your view of humanity.

With the addition of the uptown exits, the gaggle that was in the front has redistributed itself, allowing for a finer parsing of the personalities involved. The front cars still contain hyper-kinetic go-getters, but these can safely assumed to be predominantly investment bankers who need to sprint to the subway to get to Wall Street in time to launch the next Microsoft. The end of train now contains the same basic personality types, but these are reliably reported to be investment bankers and lawyers, who now shoot out of the uptown exits and into their Park Avenue suites in some 7 minutes less than it took them under the old regime. And once again, the great gray huddled masses fill in the gaps strung out along the middle.

It's an academician's dream. If you're a professor of fashion design, you'll not the note the European cut in the front, the Brooks Brothers classics in the back, and the dress down everyday crowd in the middle. If you're a mathematician, you can look to plot the distribution of passengers on a graph, creating an inverted bell curve or barbell layout that mirrors load factors. And if you're a cultural anthropologist, you can examine the droppings of the crowd, noting the proliferation of Wall Street Journals and Investor's Dailys in the head car, the New York Times and New York Law Journals in the tail, and the People Magazines, Advertising Ages and Backstages in the center.

There's an old saying that you can't tell a book by its cover. And likewise, that you shouldn't judge a person until you get to know them. But at least it provides a starting point from which to draw an impression. As such, it is sometimes tempting, even if it's not fair. And so let's face facts: Caucasians and Asians may have a hard time telling each other apart, but up until now, I had the same problem sorting out the white color mercenaries in the head car of the 7:18.


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers the third car from the north in the morning, last seat heading south on the west side. Going home, he's more flexible. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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