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King of the Commuter Rails

The Latin motto on the Great Seal of the State of Connecticut, where I live, is Qui Transtulit Sustinet. In English, that’s “He Who Transplanted Sustains.”

It’s apt, since my corner of the Nutmeg State is chock-a-block with transplants. When I moved the family to the suburbs a few years back, I wondered if I’d end up a Cheeveresque shell. Although I grew up in small town New Jersey, I had become over the years quite attached to an image of myself as an urbane metropolitan.

I’ve seen the movies. I know what living in the suburb does to a man’s soul. It’s riding the train that gets you. The incessant clickety-clack. The enforced quiet. The snoozing and snoring. The brown-bag drinking. Watching with quiet desperation through the windows as the ticky-tacky houses fly by.

What a crock! If, like me, you are fascinated by human behavior, then commuting is the life for you and the train is the place to be.  

I ride the rails with a lot of idiosyncratic people. Serge is a Brazilian oil trader who calls his wife immediately after boarding to inform her that he has found a seat and is watching her as she pulls out the station parking lot. He then commences to hit on every woman in the car.

Ladyfingers is a well-put-together professional woman of a certain age. Her Monday mornings are devoted to a detailed breakdown of the prior day’s NFL action. With RGIII out, she doesn’t think anyone or anything can stop Brady.

Big Bill is a men’s fashion designer. I once overheard him explain to a seatmate that Costco sells wool slacks as fine as any you’d find at Brooks Brothers and at half the price. I immediately went out and bought two pair. Shhh.

My daily commute takes a little more than an hour—just the right amount of time to listen to a Ricochet podcast. But while my ears are engaged my eyes will tend to wander. I hate to admit that I peek at the reading material of those around me.

The thing of it is—people don’t just bring the New York Times crossword puzzle with them on the train anymore. The lady sitting in front of you is just as likely to be watching Homeland on her iPad or shopping for a dress on eBay as she is to be reading the funnies.

I was once on a train that got disabled by an electrical surge during a bad storm. We sat in darkness on the tracks for two hours until an old-fashioned locomotive could be summoned to push us to the next station. As we waited, those with portable digital technology had the time of their lives, playing “Angry Birds” and poking each other on Facebook. The rest of us were living in the Stone Age, staring off into the rainy night and wishing we hadn’t had those two brown-bagged beers.

Sometimes you can’t get a seat and have to stand in the aisle. This is an especially useful perch for playing spy games. I watched over a young lady’s shoulder once as she texted instructions to her boyfriend about precisely how she wanted her Subway sandwich ordered. (6 in tuna w/jala & xtra pkls NO lettuce pls get Mntn Dw Tx XOXO.)

It takes more energy not to look.

Then there was the fellow I sat behind who was reading a book with a curious title: 101 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting Engaged. Wow. I only asked myself two questions before I proposed: (1) Do I love her and (2) Can I afford a ring? 

The craziest commuter train story I’ve ever heard was my friend Paul Beston’s account of fighting his way home one St. Patrick’s Day a few years back. A taste:

Squeezing as tightly as I could, I was able to shake his head up and down vigorously, back and forth, preventing him from throwing punches, as his head bobbed to and fro and the mash of people jostled us around.

It’s a real barn-burner. I should point out that Paul lives in New York State. We don’t usually get quite this level of excitement on the New Haven line, but tempers do sometimes flare in the quiet car.

So I hope you see the verity in “He Who Transplanted Sustains.” The suburbs aren’t as bad or as boring as they’re often made out to be. I wouldn’t live in the city now if they paid me to.

If you’re ever on the 5:08 out of Grand Central, don’t be shy about saying “Hi.” I’m not hard to find.

Just look over your shoulder. 

  1. Nick Stuart

    If you enjoy rail commuting, you’ll enjoy reading Daily Except Sundays by Edward Streeter.

    Then there’s the part at my station where the mob pushes onto the train as if it were the last helicopter leaving Saigon. I’d like the politicians who want to get us all onto the (absolutely maxxed out, long as possible, scheduled as often as possible) commuter trains to drag their chauffered limo derriere out at 6:03 a.m. in -20F weather and fight for a seat on the train like the rest of us.

  2. John H.

    Great post, but…I’ve been on enough Third-World commuter lines, bus and train, to see what a prison this modality can be. ‘Course it would be way different, maybe even a delight, if the things ran. Oh well – at least I can read over people’s shoulders! Do it all the time. Never need to buy a newspaper!

    It was from a Brazilian newspaper I didn’t have to buy that I read synopses of soap operas. There were many, and the job was long, but the bus was late and the commuter was in the accustomed state of motionlessness, so I had the time. I had never been able to comprehend these shows when viewed on TV, and hoped to learn what was going on. What I learned was: yes, these things don’t make sense. 

  3. Illiniguy

    Fresh out of college in 1975, I was standing one morning on the platform in Palatine, waiting for the train to Chicago, when it came in on the wrong track. The crowd just stood there and looked at each other. Nobody seemed to know what to do. My roommate and I dubbed the episode “Confuse a Lemming.”

  4. Big John

    Matthew: what’s been your experience with reliability and OTP? Metro-North is one of the nation’s better commuter railroads statistically, and I was curious about your observations.For me, one of the characteristics that distinguishes commuter rail from heavy rail transit (MARC vs Metro from Maryland, for example) is that longer distances between stops allow riders to relax more. The crowding can be similar, but the stressful boarding/crowding/stuffing of each stop offers less chances for the on-board passenger panic level to ratchet up.My favorite people-watching was to note the change in seasons by the changing colors of riders’ clothes. Winter is the black of wool and cashmere overcoats, spring is brighter colors reappearing, summer is a change in skin-to-clothing ratio, and fall is all about sweaters.

  5. Mama Toad

    Great essay. Thanks for sharing.

    I used to live in the Bronx and commute into Manhattan. Getting on the train at 231 St., it was nearly empty and I had the choice of seats. I always loved watching the train fill up as we proceeded south.

    I live in the country now, and rarely get to do much people watching. But it is a fine sport.

  6. Dave Roy

    This is a great essay, and it brought back some memories.

    I never had an hour commute, but I did have 30 minutes and I always read. But I couldn’t help looking around at people and seeing what they were doing, what they were reading, or things like that.

    It’s harder to do now when people have e-readers, but they weren’t very common when I was taking the bus.

    I also remember being a little self-conscious about one of books I was reading, or at least the cover. It was “The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust,” by Jeffrey Herf. It has a bright yellow cover with “The Jewish Enemy” in big, bold letters and the subtitle a bit smaller.

    I usually hid the cover, but I always wondered what my fellow passengers were thinking that I was reading.

    P.S. It’s an excellent book, btw.

  7. raycon and lindacon

    Having a decent understanding of Spanish, I, on occasion, would eavesdrop on conversations on the subway when I was in High School.  The best conversations were the ones about the other passengers.  Once two ladies decided that I was the subject of their interest.  I’ve no idea why, but they were a bit complimentary about my clothes. 

    The fun moment was when I was leaving.  I walked over to them and simply thanked them, in Spanish, for their complimentary attitude.  The looks you get when people realize that you “know” them. 

    Priceless.

  8. 9thDistrictNeighbor

    The first time I rode the New Haven line out of Stamford I sat, alone, in the seats by the door that face each other. At Cos Cob or Greenwich, four men got on and it was made quite clear by their looks that I had chosen poorly. The ad behind my seat contained their running scores for their betting bridge game. If looks could kill, Metro North would still be scraping my DNA off the walls 25 years later. Don’t mess with New Haven line bridge players.

  9. Jolly Roger

    I happen to find riding Metro-North to be one step above torture. Maybe it’s because I ride mostly late at night, but here are some of the more awful experiences.

    1. The night a guy was running around threatening people with a handgun in the car behind me. They had to seal the car off and send three heavily armored cops to nab him at the first stop.

    2. The night a guy slugged a conductor in the face so as not to pay and then jumped off the train between the cars to evade arrest.

    3.  The afternoon the train lost power and a new diesel locomotive was brought in. The train was over an hour late, and we spent perhaps 90 minutes packed into an airless car on a 95 degree day.

    4. Thursday nights in the summer, when hordes of drunk and high teenagers descend on the trains. I’ve had females sit next to me who were really high while there was no room to even stand properly in the car while the males got into fistfights on the train.

    CONT

  10. Jolly Roger

    CONT

    5. The times in the winters that the trains are several hours late.

    6. The insanely high prices to ride on 50 year old, broken down cars.

    7. The frequent times the car reeks of feces or vomit.

    8. The day I got hit in the head full on by a bag some guy did not stow properly.

    9. A young woman high as a kite from a club, who did a face plant into the pole at one stop with a thud, then got off (at an empty station) saying she preferred to take a cab even though she had no money on her.

    10. And the really funny moments, which usually center around guys trying to pick up ladies, such as when one fellow kept “showing off” how much he knew about NYC and actually knew nothing. He kept raving about how only stupid people walk instead of taking the  new express, non-stop subway from Penn Station to Grand Central. Such a train is news to me!

  11. KC Mulville

    I’ve been a rail commuter, off and on, most of my working life. I’ve found that it helps if you can (as I can) fall asleep at a moment’s notice, and despite the noise and bustle. The MARC commute from Martin State airport (where I catch the train) to Union Station DC was almost exactly an hour – which allowed me two naps. Gold. 

    There was a five-year interval where I worked from home, then got another job where I went back to the train. In that interval, things had changed dramatically. Everyone … I mean, everyone … now has a hand-held device. 

    One side note, probably worth a post of its own: on commuting. I currently work in a secure facility, so I have to be onsite. It’s also with a team, so being with the others is important, and usually more fun. But the wear & tear & cost & time of a commute is a real drag. Having worked from home, I know the difference. Commuting is a huge pain, but there’s a balancing virtue in “going to work,” and having a separation between home and work. 

    Wonder how others feel …

  12. Illiniguy
    KC Mulville:The MARC commute from Martin State airport (where I catch the train) to Union Station DC was almost exactly an hour – which allowed me two naps. Gold. 

    Commuting is a huge pain, but there’s a balancing virtue in “going to work,” and having a separation between home and work. 

    Wonder how others feel … · 36 minutes ago

    I’ve worked at home most of my career, and the difficult thing is making yourself go to the “office”, shutting the door and doing your job. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. As to the naps, the lack of commuting time gives me the time for a siesta about 2:30 every afternoon. Gold.

  13. shelby_forthright
    We take the train whenever we go into the city which is about twice a year. It’s MUCH better than fighting traffic and worrying about parking. As for using it for my daily commute, I don’t know how much I’d enjoy it. It IS a great place for people watching.
  14. RushBabe49

    On trains:  Here in the Puget Sound area, we will never have the population density to support any kind of real “mass” transit.  Maybe that’s why the Sound Transit light rail cars run mostly empty all day long, AND the taxes to support it are 35% of my annual Car Licensing Fee.  The Sounder train that is supposed to run from Everett (20 mi north) to Seattle has been unable to run for months due to mud-slides on the tracks. We pay for trains that never run! They are actually considering shutting it down due to low ridership.

    On commuting:  In a previous job, I drove from Everett to Issaquah (60 mi) daily.  My current commute is 9 mi round trip on surface streets-heaven!  Big companies around here are required by law to have a “commute trip reduction” plan in place, to discourage single-occupancy vehicles.  I LOVE filling out their form every year-I will NOT consider ANY other form of transportation other than my single-occupancy SUV.

  15. Matthew Hennessey
    C
    9thDistrictNeighbor: Don’t mess with New Haven line bridge players. · 6 hours ago

    These guys are still around. They probably always will be.

  16. Matthew Hennessey
    C
    Big John: Matthew: what’s been your experience with reliability and OTP? 

    My experience has been generally good, but about once a month something will happen that will delay things — a downed tree, a disabled train, a superstorm. Typically, the MTA’s response will be to lie, and then lie some more to cover up their lies. I once heard an announcement at GCT to the following effect:

    The 5:08 and the 5:29 have been combined, they will leave at 5:29 from track 104. 

    Which, if you think about it, is a pretty clever way of saying that the 5:08 has been cancelled.

  17. Jerry Carroll

    In my commuting from S.F. to Marin County in the pre-device era EVERYBODY slept on the homeward leg. “It looks like the buses are full of dead people,” a friend said.

  18. Jimmy Carter

    A nice fun story, Hennessey.

    Years ago, Me and some Friends would do Our “people watching” at DFW airport. Oh… the people… the clothes… the mannerisms… what a world.

  19. Johnny Dubya

    My father rode the New Haven line between Fairfield County and Grand Central for three decades and hated every moment of it.  I think he would enjoy it even less today.  The modern Metro-North cars have fixed seats that are uncommonly uncomfortable.  As a child, I remember occasionally taking the train into the city with my parents to see the circus or a Broadway show, and the old cars had springy seats with movable backs, so you could create facing seats if you were traveling as a family (or playing cards).  Of course, there was smoking in those “Mad Men” days, and I’ll never forget the smell of tobacco on my (non-smoking) father’s business suit when I hugged him after he walked in the door at the end of the day.

    My mother and I used to laugh at the sameness of the commuters standing on the railroad platform.  All male, all white, all wearing dark Brooks Brothers suits and white shirts, and all carrying leather briefcases.  Until JFK made going hatless acceptable, they all wore fedoras.

    Today, I ride NJ Transit into Manhattan, and the diversity of the commuters is something to behold.

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