Pumped-Up Excuses For a Wet Rush Hour

The Greek philosopher Zeno of Cittium hasn’t been seen in about 2,300 years, but rumor has it that the real reason for Mayor Bloomberg’s recent trip to Athens was to unearth—pardon the pun—a relative of the man who was the founder of Stoicism, in order to place him on next year’s $75 million Mayoral re-election-campaign payroll.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times used the phrase “stoic commuters” to describe how New Yorkers reacted to maddening three- to four-hour delays in their morning schlep to work. The foul-ups highlighted the Mayor’s inability—three years after 9/11 and one year after the great blackout—to come up with an emergency plan to deal with natural or man-made disasters.

As you know from reading the newspapers, busy spinning the excuse du jour of the Pataki-Bloomberg appointees to the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the cause of this fiasco was rain.

Yes, plain old rain—as distinguished from an earthquake, a hurricane with 150 mile-per-hour winds, a tornado or a mudslide. Rain that had been predicted for three days. And rain that has fallen on a regular basis since the subway opened in 1904, with trains that ran faster than they do today.

Which brings us to the core of the problem.

An M.T.A. flack spun the story that many of the subway’s pumps are 70 years old and were not designed to handle so much rain. He told half the story. According to sources in the M.T.A., some of the pumps are actually 100 years old. Try to imagine Bloomberg L.P. using typewriters built in 1904. But that was only part of a problem that accounted for a $95 million hit on the city’s economy—a figure described by an unnamed city official (one guess) as “paltry.” The other dirty little secret of the bean-counters in City Hall is that the Mayor’s underlings cut back the number of sewer drains cleaned every year, which is why you saw photos of flooded streets in Soho, not far from the Mayor’s proposed football stadium for the rich.

Welcome to Olympic Village.

The ancient pumps that did work—we will leave aside those that didn’t—were actually sending water into clogged sewers. There was nowhere for the water to go except back down to the subway tracks.

The Mayor was impatient, as always, with whining New Yorkers. (They must have momentarily forgotten that they are Stoics.) “The delays were 10 minutes at best,” he lectured. Clearly, he had not taken his beloved No. 6 train that day or peered out a City Hall window at the Brooklyn Bridge, which was swamped with “commuters” walking to work. Later, he was forced to say that his previous statement was inoperable, but no one in the press corps asked him why he hadn’t gone on television to tell us just how bad it was.

And it wasn’t just the subways. Outer-borough workers sat on buses for up to three hours on highways that were gridlocked; there were no M.T.A. bosses to tell drivers to take the buses off the highway. The cops who arrested bicycle riders to placate visiting Republicans were nowhere to be found directing traffic, closing off streets or rerouting behemoth tractor trailers. Manhattan workers watched one empty bus after another traverse cross-town streets while overloaded downtown buses just kept passing them by. There were no announcements on the trains except that perfectly modulated voice apologizing for the “unavoidable delay.”

City Hall management, anyone? Yes, you Stoics—in the Orwellian double speak of government these days, every delay is “unavoidable.” But the chief bean-counter actually crowed last week about his management style: His minions hassled us with a record 9,997,000 parking tickets!

Those 70-year-old pumps were installed in the IND subway line, which opened in 1932—a mere seven years after construction began. In all likelihood, they were built by some benefactor of Mayor Jimmy Walker, the rascal Tammany sachem who admitted to spending $2 million on himself and his sycophants over seven years. He wrote songs, once asked his lawyer if he thought Diogenes “was on the level,” gave us Sunday baseball, battled the Prohibitionists (who in those days targeted drinkers, not smokers) and made the town laugh. That is, until the October 1929 Wall Street crash, when we discovered the ramifications of unbridled corporate (not municipal) greed.

But walk around the city and you will see our globetrotting Mayor’s name, James J. Walker, on plaques attached to firehouses and schools and courthouses—but not to baseball or football stadiums.

You are free to remember that he was the last Mayor who actually built a subway line with pumps that still work.

And free to think about the difference between being a Stoic and a non-complaining mope. Call 311.