Ginger makes sure it's Ice Cold in Harlem

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The Independent Online
I am still trying to defend my actions during the blizzard of the century that the weather forecasters have cutely christened "Ginger".

On television they had been saying that my commuter line into New York was working fine. Honest. No mention of crippled carriages and frozen third rails. And the train had pulled into my local station, a ghostly plume of powder behind it, bang on time. Little did I know.

Little did I know, for instance, that what I thought was the 8.36am was actually the 6.36, exactly two hours late. And little did I know, even though I have ridden this line for over a year, that once into greater New York, my line loses the overhead electric cables and switches to that dreaded third rail for power. Third rails are not much good in drifts as big as sand dunes in the Sahara.

Compared with the suffering of some others in the storm our little drama was no more than an inconvenience. Even so, I never did make it to Grand Central. When finally, we slithered into 125th Street Station in Harlem, we had been on that train for just over six hours without refreshment, with only one lavatory in a carriage with standing room only, and mostly without heat.

For one day, we were the cast of one of those Hollywood disaster movies. Ice Cold in Harlem, perhaps, or Appointment with Ginger. It added pep to the script that we were almost all well-heeled and cosseted suburbanites from Connecticut's Gold Coast.

The trouble-makers, two of them, happened to be in my row of seats. The first was a sour-looking gentleman who only once unglued his eyes from a copy of the New Yorker to complain that I was disturbing him by talking to the news desk in London on my mobile phone.

The other was across the aisle; a younger, athletic-looking man. He did not miss a single opportunity to bark insults at the conductors whenever they passed, accusing them of incompetence and of lying to us about the situation. "Oh yeah, 15 minutes. Will that 15 minutes end today or tomorrow?" or, to a white-haired conductor, "Hey, old man, you don't know how to run a railroad. Why don't you retire and go home".

It was probably after about two hours when we had just made it out of Fordham, a stop in the Bronx, that we began to realise our plight was serious. "We are having trouble making contact with the third rail," came one of the last messages over the address system before all power was lost and it packed up. "You folks should have stayed at home". Well, yes, we were beginning to get that part.

After some agonising minutes of jerky stops and starts, the train and the third rail finally parted company. And that was that. We were in a shallow cutting, with a playground behind a high chicken-wire fence. It wasn't long before the children began to take interest. In small groups, they waded through the snow to peer through the wire at the train. "Yes, there are people in here. Help us!" a man shouted. For the first time, the whole carriage laughed.

We laughed again when another man rang home on his mobile and asked his wife if we were on the news. Apparently, we were.

Then came hope of rescue. A diesel train was on its way to take us off our Marie Celeste and into New York. About an hour later, the diesel pulled up. We whooped with excitement. By now, most of us were freezing.

We waited, the diesel roared and - it chugged away again without us. Only later did I discover that the so-called rescue team on the diesel had forgotten to bring along the little draw-bridges need for us to get from our train to theirs. Great.

In the end, it was five engineers who tramped down the line with gas blow-torches who saved us. One by one the contact pads beneath the carriages were thawed of snow and finally, just as the blizzard outside was easing, we were on our way.

At 125th Street only one door would open. Just opposite it on the platform was a billboard advertising Jamaican Airlines and teasing us with a beach scene of palms and turquoise waters. Behind me, as we filed off, I head a voice saying: "We were kids when we got on this train."