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TUNNEL OF LOVE? // MARTA MADNESS

It's easy to make friends when you're trapped in a subway with hundreds of other people during rush hour.

"Going to an event this evening?" I asked my fellow traveler.

"Basketball," he replied. "And you?"

"No," I answered. "Just riding around in circles."

He stood there for a moment, then glanced over his shoulder for an avenue of escape, but there was none. A sea of sweaty bodies and two steel doors blocked his path to freedom.

The man's options: ignore the weirdo or face the threat head-on. With the defiant look of a cornered mountain lion he chose the latter.

"What are you, some kind of kook?" he said. "You like rubbing up against strangers in public places?"

Before I could answer, the train slammed to a stop. The conductor announced, "Five Points Station," and my newfound friend fled in disgust.

The brief encounter would be the first of several in an arbitrary, subjective, totally unscientific _ yet well-planned and deliberate _ study of human nature.

How would hot and tired commuters, driven close to the breaking point by an overloaded mass-transit system, react to a couple of overly friendly guys with nothing better to do than take up space?

The question, apparently overlooked by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, needed to be asked. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority had suffered greatly since Opening Ceremonies at the hands of the foreign media.

Close to a million people rode the rails each day to the various Olympic venues. Could MARTA be doing more for its customers during frequent delays?

To find out, we visited three MARTA Stations (the Omni, Five Points and Peachtree Center) infamous for their unruly crowds.

"Let me in! Let me in!" a man yelled as he forced his way into a packed car as if it were the last lifeboat on the Titanic.

"We're not in that much of a hurry," Terry Christen said as the train pulled away. "If you just wait for the second train, there is always a seat."

Christen waited patiently as a uniformed MARTA police officer moved people along the platform.

"It is like making a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich," MARTA Police Officer Steve Daniels said. "You've got to spread it out or you have lumps."

Lumps cause mad rushes for the door. And one thing many MARTA passengers haven't figured out is that it is easier to get on a train if you wait for other passengers to get off.

"This is bad, but not as bad as the subways in Paris," said Jodi Anderson, who was on her way to see men's gymnastics with her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah. "I'm a high school principal and have to deal with 1,200 adolescents every day. So I'm used to this."

When the next train finally stopped, an army of flustered passengers swarmed out like ants.

"To the end of the platform," Daniels said as he herded people like cattle. "To the end of the platform."

We followed the herd up the stairs, then crossed to the other side, where another throng awaited.

"We've already lost a third of our group," said Susan Evilsizer, who was trying her best to keep the rest of Girl Scout Troop 148 of Charlotte, N.C., intact.

"We never really liked them all that much anyway," one of the girls quipped.

"Now. Now," Evilsizer said.

When the next train came to a halt, the scout leader ushered her girls in, but the usual backup slowed the parade to a trickle and Evilsizer was caught in the doors.

"Girls! Girls!" she yelled as a hand reached out and pulled her inside. As the train pulled away, she waved goodbye.

Trying to go back up the stairs to the top floor of the Omni, hundreds of people waited at the foot of the escalator.

A solitary guard held the crowd at bay while the moving staircase went up empty.

"We've got to do this or it will overheat," he explained. "This thing runs 24 hours a day."

After a two- or three-minute wait, he dropped his arm and people scampered up the escalator as if it led to the last helicopter out of Saigon.

But five minutes later, the station lobby was empty. Then another train pulled in and hundreds of people pushed and shoved their way up the base of the stairs again.

Up top, another MARTA police officer watched the scene unfold below. The cycle repeated itself again and again. Feast, then famine. Feast, then famine.

"I'm glad I'm not down there," he said. "I'd rather walk."

Not me. I had a ticket to ride. The fun had just begun.

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