The other day, I told a friend that I was going to The Strand, which is a very large, very famous bookstore. You’re lucky, she said, you can just go to The Strand any time you want. I thought about it and made the face I probably make while I’m standing in the household and cleaning supplies aisle, wondering why they keep the laundry detergent locked up.
You can just go anytime you want.
You hear that often, living in New York, but it’s a little more complicated.
There’s a scene in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” in which George Clooney’s character is told by the proprietor of a general store that they’re out of the pomade he wants, but they can order it and he should get it in a couple weeks. No matter what he asks for, the answer doesn’t change.
“Well ain’t this place a geographical oddity,” Clooney says. “Two weeks from everywhere!”
New York isn’t all that different.
Maybe this is an exaggeration, but sometimes I feel like, when you’re in New York, you’re 45 minutes from everywhere. It’s walking distance or it’s at least 45 minutes away. That might come down to a 45-minute walk being just the other side of tolerable for most people, but it’s something else too.
A trip that takes less than 45 minutes on foot very likely takes longer on the train. As with anything, there are certain to be exceptions. The greater the distance, the more opportunities for delay, so there must be a sweet spot at which the ride is fast enough, and the possibility of delay small enough, to justify taking the train rather than walking.
Still, for most short train trips, the possibility of delays or service changes, even of getting to the platform just after the train departs rather than just before, necessitates leaving 45 minutes early. So it still takes 45 minutes of your day, even if you reach your destination with time to kill.
There’s a one-plus-one-equals-three kind of logic at work.
To go to The Strand, for example, I left just before my son went down for his nap. Timed properly, I could leave while he ate lunch and be back before he woke up. On the return trip, however, my train was rerouted up the East Side and I had to get off at Lexington Avenue and 59th, then walk four blocks to 63rd for a different train. The station at 63rd and Lex is like some kind of decommissioned mineshaft, a cavernous monstrosity, accessible only by elevator or a series of four or five lengthy staircases. Then a wait for the train. A transfer. Another wait. And home.
Needless to say, it took far longer than 45 minutes.
You can probably sense by now that I’m blowing hot air. Obviously, some trips take fewer than 45 minutes. They must. Start a timer, board the first train that comes, detrain before your timer hits zero. Voila. Maybe that doesn’t count because there’s no destination in mind, but plenty of people risk leaving for work only 30 minutes before they have to clock in. Fix & Fortify, be damned. I could never be one of those people, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get where they’re going (though I’ve worked with enough of them to know how often they’re late).
The point, however, is not reality. The point is how it feels. Depending on train access, a trip of only a couple miles might take 30 minutes or it might take an hour. A city that already feels too big contains a thousand of those subdivisions, such that a small piece of real estate feels absolutely gargantuan. Sometimes one plus one really does equal three.
And maybe gargantuan is an understatement. A city that covers fewer square miles than Orange County can take forever to cross, no matter the means. Our first summer in the city, Taylor commuted from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to Co-Op City in the Bronx. It took three hours, which is roughly the duration of an Amtrak ride from Penn Station to Baltimore. Geographical oddity, indeed.
And such is the problem facing me every time I hear about all the things I can just go and see.
Wow, you can just go to The Strand? You can just go to The Met? You can just go to Yankee Stadium, to The Apollo, to Central Park, to the Brooklyn Bridge?
Sure, I guess I could, why not.
Peter is a native of Orange County. He studied music in college and subsequently moved to New York City where he lives with his wife and son.