Commuter Blue, Commuter Pink

Welcome to the New Year! Well, not so new, really, but I’m slow blogging. Below is another example of how my opinions change over time. The first column is from September 1996, shortly after I took my a job in New York City. It’s a major bitchfest about my commute. The second post is from September 2008, shortly after I got an iPod, which revolutionized my commute in new and exciting ways.

The first week it was exciting.

commute-commuting-taxi-people-cars-new-york

A good seat is hard to find.

The second week it was cute.

The third week it was bland.

The  fourth week it was tiresome.

By week five, it was down-right grim.

I’m talking about the daily commute to my new job in New York City. We’ll talk more about the job itself in future. Today, we’ll examine the ordeal of “getting there.”

Long Day’s Journey Into Shit

The day begins with a 20 minute drive that usually takes twice that long because of traffic. Then it’s time to get on a crowded bus and hopefully find a seat. If not, you wind up standing, trying to keep your balance and prevent sprawling flat-out in the aisle while the bus wheels around hairpin turns. This bit of fancy footwork takes another 20 minutes.

Arriving in Port Authority Bus Terminal is were the real fun begins. There are two choices for someone in my shoes (namely, me) — if you’re early enough, the weather is cooperative, and your legs feel strong, you can take the leisurely 25 minute walk across town. If not, it’s time to face, (gasp.) the subway!

You’ve probably heard a lot of terrible things about the New York City subway system. Now that I’ve been a rider for several weeks, I feel qualified to say, EVERYTHING BAD YOU’VE HEAR IS TRUE! The subway “adventure” begins with an ominous decent down several crowded escalators. Then it’s a brisk walk through a long underground tunnel that has the air capacity for twenty people, but always contains about two hundred. The walk is brisk because YOU CAN’T BREATH DOWN THERE! I’m amazed every time I pass through this dank dungeon that I don’t see the skeletons of commuters who didn’t make it piled up against the walls. I guess the PA Transit Authority comes by ever half-hour or so and clears them away.

At the end of the tunnel is another series of stairs and, finally, the subway trains. I’ve been told the trains are “much cleaner” than they used to be, but to me they still seem like a human Pietre dish; I’ve seen just about every kind of body fluid and secretion within the confines of these “meat wagons.”  Riding the subway is an adventure in itself. If there are no seats, you become a “strap-hanger” (the “straps” are actually stainless steel rings which always feel disturbingly greasy.) Strap-hanging makes standing on the bus look like a walk in the park. With quick starts, abrupt stops and unexpected twists and turns, you’re fortunate if you don’t wind up in the lap of some guy who looks like he’s been riding the trains for days, and has forgone the luxuries of bathing or using public restrooms.

It’s time to move up after the subway: two escalators and a flight of stairs. Sometimes the crowds are so thick, you could probably lift your feet off the ground and still make it to the exit doors of Grand Central Station. From there, it’s a two-block walk to the office (and these are those long avenue blocks.) After an hour-and-a-half of traveling, you’re finally at the office. In another eight hours you’ll reverse the process in order to get home again. Oh, joy.

Poem for the Misbegotten

I know I shouldn’t complain about the commute. Thousands of people do it every day. A friend of mine has been commuting to New York City for eight years. He tells me you get used to it after a while. My theory is, the bus and subway fumes kill enough brain cells to make it tolerable.

In the midst of this dismal commute, there is a brief moment of enjoyment. It comes during the darkest segment of the journey, during the “tunnel walk” from Port Authority. Hanging above your head, every 15 feet or so, are little phrases. Together they make a poem. It goes:

commuters lament

The Commuter’s Lament by Norman Colp.

“Overslept,

So tired.

If late,

Get fired.

Why bother?

Why the pain?

Just go home.

Do it again.”

The first time I saw this I was expecting to see a Nike logo or Pepsi ad following it, but none came. I realized it was simply an eloquently phrased public service announcement, a commuter’s prayer. It is a poem written by Norman Colp called “The Commuter’s Lament,” and it’s been in the Port Authority commuter tunnel since 1991. (I’m not unhappy to report that “The Commuter’s Lament” was vandalized by optimistic poets in 2011.)

It summed up the desolate chore of earning a living. It made me smile, then laugh out loud (nobody seems to mind when you do this in New York City.) Sure, I hate the commute into work everyday, but so does everyone else. I was miserable, but I had lots of company.

Anyway, the commute has certainly altered my lifestyle, (as well as lightened my wallet.) I have to go to sleep by 11 p.m. or I won’t be able wake up for the journey the next day. In fact it’s getting late now. You’ll excuse me but I have to get up tomorrow and “do it again.”

reprinted from Wayne TODAY September 1996

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