Mother and Child Reunion

I’m on a plane flying back home from a quick trip to the bustle – and the cold – of Philadelphia and New York. And as much as I am thankful that I no longer live where winter can arrive in November and stubbornly make life miserable for four months or more, and that I no longer endure commuting for more than three hours a day, I have to admit – Lifelongnewyorker misses both the cold and the bustle.

This particular trip included more adrenaline-producing moments than I anticipated, and that too made me a bit nostalgic. Because living, walking and working in a city means constantly being alert, making quick calculations and decisions, balancing options and making choices. The mind and body are active. You feel alive. That’s just not life in Montgomery.

As an aside, I learned during this trip that “nostalgia,” or extreme homesickness, was a diagnosis occasionally listed on 19th century death certificates. But I get ahead of myself.

A work event offered the chance to be in Philadelphia on Monday. Philly is close to New York, I haven’t seen the Abandoned One since Christmas, and he’s been coping with a bout of unemployment. Since I wanted to see him face-to-face to reassure myself that he was okay (he is), I volunteered to help out at the Philly event. I booked my flight into Philadelphia with a return from Newark, and planned to hop the NE Corridor train to get to New York on Tuesday morning and spend the day with Abandoned One.

And, because I’ve long since learned that it’s not smart to call it too close when it comes to flight arrivals – or to put it more simply, it’s foolish to assume that your plane will be on time – I arrived in Philly on Sunday. The Dynamo lives about 60 miles away, so we planned to get together.

Between booking and going, Abandoned One got a job. No daylong visit with him, but still a chance to have dinner together. I made reservations at the Jersey City Hyatt (big rooms, right next to the PATH station, 5 minutes from lower Manhattan, and about $100 cheaper than anything comparable in New York), and he made reservations at Landmarc in Tribeca.

But now, what to do on Tuesday? A museum exhibit? Shopping? Wait! Trenton is between Philadelphia and New York! And in Trenton is the NJ State Archives, where birth, marriage and death records from 19th century Jersey City are available in microform for genealogical research. Perhaps I could find records there that I’d been unable to find so far online.

Perfect. I had lots lined up: visit with the Dynamo; free time on Monday to hunker in my hotel room and work on a memo; a radio interview in the afternoon at WHYY, which came with a lagniappe – the chance to catch up with a former student who works there; the work event; research time, at least four hours, at the archives; dinner with the Abandoned One and home on Wednesday.

Sunday and Monday went off without a hitch. Dynamo and I walked a bit and I loved feeling my body move through the brisk air, loved the way, when the wind picked up at night, you feel so cold but then so warm when you get into a heated spot. Loved the way the cold air hit the face and got the blood moving and provided a good reason to keep up the pace. Loved having a city to walk in.

Those were the days that worked. Tuesday was another kind of city day, typical in some ways, not at all typical in others. I checked out of the hotel in Philly, grabbed a cab and headed to the 30th Street Station. Ate a poppy seed bagel that was about five degrees of magnitude more authentic than anything I can get below the Mason-Dixon line. Bought a ticket on SEPTA to Trenton — $9 versus $28 for Amtrak. Congratulated myself for being so thrifty.

Discovered the trade-off soon enough: The next Trenton train was in 40 minutes (Amtrak was 10), and it was a local. Where did I get the idea that Trenton was “just across the river” from Philly? It may be, but who knew about all those stops in between?

Got to the Trenton Transit Center and realize I’ve never been in Trenton before. It reminds me a bit of Albany, a bit of other Delaware River towns. Run down but interesting Victorian mansions. Lots of brick row houses, a historic section that might be worth a visit someday. I saw this all from the short cab ride to the Archives. When I arrived, I asked the driver whether I would be able to get a cab when I was done. I expected him to hand me a card with a phone number, but he assured me that “cabs come up and down this street all the time.”

I spent more time than I should have at the archives spooling through reels of microfilm, which reminded me just how slow research took when I was in grad school, before the Internet. The net at the end of the session was disappointing: I found no marriage certificate for my grandfather and his first wife; found another marriage certificate I sought that was so faded it was unreadable; but struck pay-dirt with a death certificate for a great uncle who was the first to be buried in a family plot that would eventually hold eleven of my forebears. I printed the death certificate and paid my $0.50 for the copy. The woman ahead of me at the desk forked over $31. She had a good day.

That great uncle’s death underscored how hard life was in the 19th century – well, not just his death. To find the certificate, I had scanned indexes that listed name, date of death, age and cause of death. Illnesses that are simply nuisances today – or those we have vanquished entirely – killed people then. Scarlet fever, bronchitis, infected wound, childbirth – all were perilous.

I’d always assumed Terrance, my grandmother’s oldest brother, died in a workplace accident. I was wrong. Instead, he was an otherwise healthy 21-year old, sick for only four days, who succumbed to double pneumonia in 1880. I knew that his mother – my great-grandmother – was already suffering from the neck tumor that would kill her – by asphyxiation – three years later. Looking at the death certificate, I recalled that my grandmother was born in 1876. She was a child, only four years old when her brother died, and seven when she lost her mother. Before she was 20, she’d attend funerals for more siblings, nieces and nephews. My father was 17 when she died. I come from a line of people who lost their mothers at a relatively young age, but that’s probably true of most of us.

Single photocopy in hand, I retrieved my luggage, coat, purse and pens (forbidden in archives!) from the locker I’d been assigned and left the building to hail a cab. I’d planned to leave around 3 pm; it was closer now to 3:40. Did some quick calculations – an hour to get to Newark Penn Station, about 20 minutes on PATH to Jersey City. No problem; I’d still have over an hour to check in and freshen up.

You guessed it, reader. There was not a cab in sight. I moved to the corner to multiply the chances of hailing a cab going either way on the cross street. Nope. I wondered what bus or combination of buses went to the Trenton Transit Center, and whether one needed exact change or Trenton’s version of a Metrocard. I conjured contingencies – could I find a hotel and get the bellman to hail a cab? What risks were involved in asking a stranger for a ride? Too many. Finally, I decided to walk toward a more densely built-up part of State Street, where I might find a hotel. Meanwhile, I pivoted back and forth, sometimes walking backward, to scout a cab.

One came, at last. But I’d lost 15 minutes. In the cab, I pulled out my iPhone to check fares: Amtrak’s Northeast Regional cost $78, left in a half hour, and would get me to Newark in 38 minutes. At the Trenton Transportation Center, I discovered that NJ transit cost only $11, and an express NE Corridor train was leaving in four minutes. With machine-dispensed ticket in hand, I hurried to Track 2. The train was at the platform! But why were the doors closed? The train stood there for an eternity, doors closed, not moving, me standing hopefully next to it before it finally sighed and pulled away.

Next train: 4:28. It would arrive in Newark at about 5:30. I’d get to the hotel by 6 pm, and still have a half hour to check in, change and wash my face before having to leave. Not what I had planned, but entirely acceptable.

For $11, it turns out, you don’t get electrical outlets, something Amtrak does provide. My iPhone’s charge was dangerously low, but it would last until the hotel. I calculated whether I’d be in the room long enough to give it a boost. I would.

I spread out over two seats – the train wasn’t crowded. Directly ahead of me a quartet of 20-somethings chatted back and forth. In the handicap-accessible area just out of sight, but not hearing, a toddler was getting cranky, along with his mom. Across the aisle a white-haired professional man in a black overcoat and with an old-fashioned leather briefcase – the kind that looks like a satchel, not a box – busied himself with phone calls.

From my westward-facing window seat I looked up from time to time to watch the familiar New Jersey landscape go by. Soon we were passing New Brunswick, an old town, home to Rutgers and one of the larger cities in that part of the state. I’ve never been there, and gazed out of the westward facing window on the northbound train toward a lovely looking downtown, park and river view.

And then the train stopped, after the station but just short of the bridge over the Raritan River. Trains stop all the time; a train ahead could be delayed, or a signal is out, or a repair crew is on the tracks and needs to move. It’s hardly worth noticing.

But this delay went on and on. After about 10 minutes, the conductor announced that we were stopped for an unknown reason and, as soon as he had more information, he’d let us know. He promised that he would keep us informed. We got reruns of that twice over the next half hour, with little additional information.

With my iPad in hand, I found the page on the NJ Transit site that accounted for train delays and learned that train 3960 – my train! – was cancelled due to a “trespasser incident.” Googling “trespasser incident” revealed the likely truth behind the euphemism – it usually meant that someone was on the tracks and got hit. Monitoring the NJT site, the impact of our “incident” began to spread as more and more trains were delayed and none were stopping northbound at New Brunswick, Edison or Metuchen.

The people in front of me weren’t in a hurry and continued chatting. The toddler needed a nap, clearly, and I felt for his mother. And this is when Mr. Professional showed his colors. I heard him on the phone to his wife complaining about the delay and the lack of information. When he was done, I turned to him and filled him in with what I knew – “trespasser incident,” and what I suspected: a fatality, involving this train.

He argued with me. It couldn’t be this train if the incident was “at the station.” I told him that the news now reported that a northbound train had struck someone at the station. We were a northbound train, a few hundred yards past the station, and we were stopped. He shrugged, thanked me for the information, and muttered.

Next, I overhear Mr. Professional, whose first name I decided was Self-Important, call 411 and ask for the phone number of Something Bank in a NJ town. He gets the number, calls the bank and asks for Mr. Somebody, who must really be a Somebody – “I’m calling him,” Mr. Self-Important Professional says, “in his capacity as a member of the NJ Transit Board.” The person at the other end – whose job no doubt includes protecting Mr. Somebody from these calls – says she’ll take a message. My train-mate explains that he doesn’t know Mr. Somebody, but they have a mutual friend, Mr. Well-Connected, and that he’s calling because he’s been sitting on a train just past the New Brunswick Station for over a half-hour and the conductor has not adequately explained why. He demands that Mr. Somebody call him back.

The conductor comes on and tells us that the train is being taken out of service “because of police and medical activity,” the closest he ever gets to informing us that the train has just hit a human being. The dispatcher, he says, will be sending a train for us to transfer to, but he doesn’t yet know when that will be.

My iPhone is almost dead, and my chances of meeting the Abandoned One at 7 pm have vanished. I text him, “Can you pick up email on your phone?” His answer comes back: “No.”

Urban woman steps in: the phone may be dead, but the laptop is fully charged. Hook the iPhone to the computer USB. It works, and the iPhone begins to recharge.

Meanwhile, the local NJ news outlets are painting a fuller story. A man on the station “leaned out over the platform” and was struck by the passing train. Flying debris from the collision, it was reported, injured four people on the platform. Later reports identify the debris: body parts.

I desperately wanted to see the Abandoned One, but it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself over delayed trains, missed meals or other inconveniences when a person lays dead a few hundred feet away. Hard, but not impossible. Mr. Self-Important Professional was still fulminating.

After about an hour, the conductor came through and told us to move forward to the first two cars. From these, we’d be transferring to another train that would be pulling up alongside us on the express tracks. I finally saw the mom with the toddler. He was acting up, and she was struggling with him, the stroller and the requite mom bag with snacks and toys, but she also had her mother in tow. They would be fine. Many passengers had luggage, as I did, and some were elderly or overweight. I had no idea how we’d transfer but hoped it would involve some kind of ramp or gangplank over the divide.

By the time we arrived in the first two cars, most people had heard some version of events, and the complaining had abated. Finally, the train pulled alongside. Waiting in the car, I heard a woman exclaim, “This step is so far!”

Indeed, the step was far. We had to drop from the train step, which is normally at platform level, to the track bed, which was paved with blue stone. I estimated the drop was at least three feet (I’ve since looked it up and found it was a bit over four), but after I handed my luggage down to a rescuer and got to the bottom step I had doubts about whether I could jump down. I didn’t have to – the guy told me to put my hands on his shoulders as he grabbed me around the middle. He lifted me and placed me on the ground. And he did that with every passenger.

It was 6:30 now and this new train was making all the local stops. I wouldn’t be in Newark until 7:15 at best. Texted Abandoned One: can you change the reservation to 8 pm? Yes, he said, done.

At first people complained about the speed of the new train (slow) and the fact that it was making local stops. A woman visiting from India had theater tickets. A man had a plane to catch at Newark airport. But around me, I also heard folks reading aloud the news reports, and the complaints stopped. Some perspective taking was taking place.

At Newark I jumped on the PATH train and got off at Jersey City. Checked into the hotel and hesitated when the desk clerk said, “I hope your travel here was good today.”

“Not really,” I said. “But it’s better now.”

And like the city woman I am, I changed my clothes, splashed some water on my face and returned to the PATH. Got to the Trade Center – where the new PATH station is the whitest place I have ever seen – and grabbed a cab. As I closed in on the address on West Broadway, Abandoned One texted me: “eta?”

I texted back: “3 minutes.”

For the next two hours, Lifelongnewyorker and the Abandoned One had dinner and good conversation. Within a few minutes I saw that he was fine, and would be fine. And I realized that he’s not a kid anymore, which is great.

We left the restaurant and walked south. He descended into the subway at Chambers, and I continued on to the WTC. Grateful for the cold and the lightest of flurries, for the chance to walk, for the bustle around me, and for getting there at last.