How Big Government Big-Footed Aly Kassan

Pursuant to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s mandate that we lower our voices and suppress our petty dissents (except when dissenting from tired liberal dogma that might have been the ruin of the city but for the Mayor, in which case dissent is welcome and ought to be shouted at high decibels, civility be darned), I uttered no foul oaths when informed that my beloved Q train would not be lumbering across town for most of what remains of the 20th century.

Whether my fellow users of public transit have been able to keep a firm grip on their emotions in recent weeks I cannot say. With the No. 2 and 3 trains in disarray, thanks to the system’s astoundingly uncoordinated repair schedule, I suspect that we bedraggled mass-transit users are not feeling very civil these days. No doubt the Mayor would accuse us, in his civil way, of being “anti-car” because of our insistence on traveling underground.

Due to circumstances that of course are beyond the control of any single human being or human-made institution, the tunnel through which the aforementioned beloved train travels will require a bit of repair work for the next 15 months. This bit will cost $44 million in public funds, which is a nice bit, contract-getting-wise. It is especially nice, contract-getting-wise, when you consider that the aforementioned tunnel is but eight years old and that it chewed up some $868 million in public money during the course of its faulty construction. It’s nice to be in the subway-contract-getting business these days. You build, you build poorly, and you rebuild. Thus you create jobs and drink toasts to the booming economy.

If the public schools were operated along these lines, or if the social service agencies were shown to be similarly slipshod, surely we would hear colorful obscenities pouring forth from even the most civil quarters of City Hall. But we hear no barnyard epithets directed at those deemed responsible for the failure of an $868 million tunnel to survive the ravages of eight years, even though a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority insisted that the tunnel’s design was not a nearly billion-dollar boondoggle, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Perhaps City Hall has chosen to lead by example with this civility business; ordinarily, the faceless, unaccountable overseer of mass transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, could have expected a kick in its bureaucratic groin by now.

To those who say that the actions of government do not affect the lives of ordinary people, please say hello to an Egyptian immigrant named Aly Hassan who peddles coffee, bagels and other essentials from a cart outside the Q stop at East 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Mr. Hassan is an immigrant from the Ellis Island Book of Dreams: He rises when a certain subset of Manhattan is stumbling through the last few hours of its nightly depravities; his morning reading consists of Egyptian-language newspapers and New York tabloids, and he follows American politics and sports more closely than most native-born citizens. He left his business briefly about a month ago when his mother died in Egypt, but he was back on the job on a Monday morning, hours after flying to New York from his homeland. (“I kept thinking about my business,” he explained. “I didn’t want to take a day off. I can rest later.”) He is, in fact, a living argument for the pro-immigration crowd, whose members include the Mayor himself.

Mr. Hassan has built a working life for himself around the arrival and departures of the Q train, so it was with some dismay that he greeted news-delivered by your dutiful correspondent-that the Q train will be terminating at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue until some time in mid-1999. That was on a Friday morning, and the bureaucrats at the M.T.A. had yet to spread word of the impending change not only to the likes of Mr. Hassan, but to the 12,000 or so daily riders who were taken by surprise on Monday, Feb. 23, when they were advised to take, of all things, the N and R trains. They are called N and R trains because they generally are Not Running.

That morning, the sidewalk in front of the Q stop at 63rd and Lexington was lonely, indeed. “They’re killing my business,” Mr. Hassan said, shaking his head and pointing to a mountain of unbought pastries. “Why didn’t anybody tell me? I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

A few days later, Mr. Hassan was a bit more sanguine-he was cheered by the sight of a few regular customers who journeyed north from the 59th Street station, muttering uncivil adjectives in front of the letters N and R. “Maybe I can get by,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m still scared. But I’m not going to change corners. That’s like starting over, and I’m not going to start over.”

Spoken like the scrappy immigrants of yore, some of whose descendants now tend to lump the latter-day new arrivals with the criminal and tax-dollar-sucking classes. But Mr. Hassan’s unbought, uneaten fare suggests that his cautious optimism and old-fashioned American spirit may be for naught. His cart, his business, could be gone tomorrow.

All because we spent nearly a billion dollars on a subway tunnel and couldn’t get it right.

How Big Government Big-Footed Aly Kassan