Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Adventures in Social Anthropology: A Far Too-Involved Analysis of Amtrak Boarding Customs on the NE Corridor


I took the train to DC today (I was only there for 3 hours, Ellaree, which is why I didn't call you!) and spent 7 glorious hours riding in style in Amtrak's regional coach class (What can I say? I'm a high roller, baby).

For many years now, I have cultivated my contempt for Penn Station's Amtrak boarding system. For those of you who have never been, imagine a vast room, in the center of which hangs a massive board displaying train departures. The trains are listed for hours in advance, but the gates (which line the periphery of the room, accessible via escalator) are not posted until roughly ten minutes prior to departure. Crowds of harried travelers gather beneath the giant board, staring up at it intently, hoping to be one of the first to see the gate number flip up and therefore get a running start. The gate number appears a few seconds before it is announced over the intercom, see, giving seasoned passengers the opportunity to leap across luggage and baby strollers and possibly score a plumb position in line (being one of the first on the train means, of course, that you can lie across two seats and fake sleep immediately, thereby ensuring peace of mind for the duration of your journey).

Normally I hate this system, because it breeds anxiety in people like me, who care deeply (for no reason that is apparent to them, no matter how hard they soul-search) about being the first in line. There are two sides to the room--East and West--and gates numbered 1 through 16 on either side. Stand in the wrong place and you could have a fifty yard sprint ahead of you. I tend to stand in the center just in front of the sign, my legs bent slightly as if bracing myself to lift something heavy. I find that this position affords me an extra bounce to propel me towards my destiny as first in line.

It never occurred to me that this system of boarding might actually suit my temperament, until today when I arrived at Union Station for my trip home. I arrived twenty minutes before the train was supposed to leave and checked one of many departure schedules. The gate was posted already--not a good sign. My mood darkened when I turned the corner to find a line snaking a hundred feet or so from gate K26. Not only was there a line, but also a vast seating area ahead of me in which travelers had camped out for God knows how long. As soon as the gate opened, these people got up and glommed on to the existing line, making it four times as wide. I was trapped behind a man with a giant rolling suitcase and was therefore forced to inch along slowly and wait my turn.

It was while I was waiting that I realized how perfect Penn Station is for me. It rewards the fast and obsessive and punishes the slow and oblivious. It scratches the very particular itch of people who feel superior when they correctly guess which side of a room to stand on for maximum proximity to an Amtrak departure gate. It is chaotic and unfair and anxiety-producing. It is so gloriously and unabashedly New York.
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