January 7, 2002


If I’ve made it as far as China Star when I hear an approaching J train, I run for it; if not, I let the train go.

I was about a hundred feet short of China Star this time, which meant letting it go, only I was late, having left late, so I hesitated.

What to do? Danna, my dinner date, might be late as well, which is partly why I left late: I thought Danna would likely keep me waiting a bit. Problem is, Danna is unpredictable – sometimes she’s late, sometimes not – so I had no way of knowing if I had any extra time. However, if I let the train go, I would be stuck waiting another fifteen minutes or so, which could put me dangerously close to the late late category.

My system is born of experience. If you run for the train from some point before China Star, everything has to break your way, and even then your chances of catching the train are slim. And in this case, I hadn’t even reached the dumpster. Never had I tried to run before reaching the dumpster.

On the other hand, why not try? Would it be so terrible to run for a train and miss that train and have the people who just got off the train look at you like you’re ever so slightly a loser? Why not run and hope that the train sits in the station longer a bit than usual?

This decided it. I took off, swinging my bag from my back and tucking it under my left arm, running-back style. I consciously chose my left arm for this, anticipating the need for my subway pass, which I keep in my front right pocket.

At Marcy and Broadway, I cut right, taking a wide line around the corner deli to avoid colliding with eastbound pedestrians. Then I dodged two homeless guys outside the chicken place and made a beeline for the stairs.

I should note that I was wearing my long winter coat, the extra material flapping wildly behind me.

The stairs to the J train are across from the hairdresser, about ten stores in from the corner. Also, the stairs head up, not down, since the J is elevated in Brooklyn.

The moment I saw the stairs I realized that I should have tucked my bag under my right arm, not my left, because I was going to need my left hand to grab the railing and swing myself onto the stairs. Realizing this, I switched the bag back to right arm, as running backs do when they want to protect the football from would-be tacklers. This cost me some portion of a second, for I am not practiced in the maneuver and needed to slow a bit.

About fifteen feet from the stairs, I slowly a bit more, then grasped the railing with my left hand and swung myself around, coat flying, bag held out from my body, and planted my right foot on the third stair.


The Marcy stairs are divided into two sections which are separated by a brief landing. Each section has perhaps twenty rather slippery steps, the grooved metal worn to smoothness from decades of use.

I went full out, taking two steps at a time and saying the word ATTACK in my head, over and over. (It’s a cycling thing: you “attack” the mountain.)

At the top of stairs, still running, I slipped my pass from my pocket. The train, I saw, was parked in the station, doors open, and some of its former passengers had already reached the turnstiles.

My only chance was a perfect swipe. Sadly, I’m a poor swiper and often have to try several times before it works.

I had considered this on the stairs, preparing myself for what lay ahead. Since the train was already in the station (I could hear the doors open as I climbed), I knew I had to cut corners. Thus I resolved to swipe without pausing to confirm that it worked. If the swipe failed, I would smash into the locked turnstile, which would surely piss off the booth attendant and might even leave me injured. But this was a risk I had to take.

To complicate matters, getting the pass out of my pocket was not as simple as it sounds, for my pants were a little tight at the top of the pocket. If it were possible, I would have gotten the pass ready on the stairs (I usually do this at China Star!), but I needed my arms free to remain balanced as I climbed.

Also I had to turn the pass so that it was oriented correctly for the machine, there being four different ways to orient a pass, not counting numerous crazy ways.

Both tasks – getting the pass from my pocket and orienting it correctly – went perfectly, ten on a scale of ten, my years of subway riding serving as inadvertent training for this moment.

I swerved past an outgoing passenger, angled for the end turnstile, swiped the pass and pushed.

It gave.

Ah, but just then the train door closed halfway, then three-quarters way (this part was happening in slow motion), then seven-eighths way… and still I kept running, thinking that sometimes the door re-opens before it closes, it’s a quirk I’ve never understood, a little glitch in the system… And then it happened: the door opened again and quickly closed.

Between opening and closing, I was in.

A woman facing the door gave me a big smile (she had witnessed the dramatic last few seconds). I smiled back.

I wanted to run through the train, high-fiving the passengers and even waving my bag like a flag, the whole compartment stomping its feet and whooping it up.

Instead I sat down, placed my bag on my lap, and removed my scarf.