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Commuting Conventions

The Daily Ritual of Getting to Work



Mr. X tacks on an additional 15 commuting hours to his already grueling 50-hour workweek, for the peace of mind, piece of lawn, and excellent schools that suburban life affords his wife and two children. It’s worth it. Most of the time. On this particular bitterly cold January morning, Mr. X gets into his car at 5:44 am—one minute later than usual. He pulls out of his driveway, relieved to see no snowplow on the road to slow down his daily trip to the train station. He drives slightly over the speed limit, just enough to make up the lost minute, but not so much as to risk being pulled over by the police.

He stands on the train platform, stamping his feet to keep out the cold that is already seeping through the soles of his oxblood leather shoes. Over the loudspeaker a droning voice announces that there will be a delay due to excessive snow on the tracks. Sigh. Mr. X longs to be Captain Kirk and beam himself to his office desk in the financial district. 

Overcoated commuters huddle on the platform like cattle, their breath steaming in the frigid air. The train finally arrives and Mr. X joins the herd of frozen figures who inch forward shoulder-to-shoulder, jockeying to be the first through the doors. The train is packed. The regular early morning smiles and nods of greeting have morphed into empty stares and exhalations of despair as a territorial fight for familiar seats begins. It occurs to  Mr. X that positioning one’s self on the train has a lot in common with real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. Like a warrior, he expertly scans the car to assess his options. Minimal.

His regular seat is occupied by a harried businesswoman on her cell phone, giving high-pitched directives to either a beleaguered nanny or an unfortunate husband—he can’t tell which. He could slide into a two-seater next to a heavyset man who is alternately peeling a hard-boiled egg and swilling coffee. No way. He will gag. Alternatively, he could awkwardly approach the four-seater already occupied by three commuter souls. This would force him to interlace knees with a complete stranger—in this case a very tall man with a Marine buzz cut and a Brooks Brothers suit. Not ideal. His last option was to stand in the vestibule, pretending to read the Wall Street Journal, knowing that his sciatica will kick in and that he’ll be chilled to the bone. Not happening.

Mr. X nudges his way to the four-seater. He smiles a tight smile and wedges himself into the seat by the window. He soon lapses into a daydream about his “train bliss”—the aisle portion of a three-seater where the window seat is occupied by someone who is physically large, a person who has a lot of baggage, or an individual who looks too crazy to sit next to. This allows for plenty of legroom and pretty much guarantees an unoccupied seat in the middle. Recently, Mr. X has been experiencing frequent train bliss thanks to a vaguely disturbing-looking man who wears four jackets and utilizes a child’s stuffed animal in a clear plastic bag as his pillow. Sadly, he’s not onboard today.

Another sensory challenge on his daily commute is noise. Headphones are a must to drown out the blowhards, nasal talkers, and obnoxious cell phone users. Recently Mr. X was forced to listen to a graphic play-by-play about a man’s prostate surgery. Then there was “the great strip club debate” which involved a group of intoxicated Wall Streeters. 

Personal hygiene violations are also rampant. Mr. X gives an involuntary grimace as he recalls the guy who clipped his toenails. Another took his shoes and socks off and rested his foul-smelling feet upon the opposite seat. Really? Then there was the Popcorn Pig, who, oblivious to his own slobbishness, furiously stuffed his face with a three-foot long bag of popcorn. Mr. X finds himself strangely fascinated by the young woman who daily, performs a 45-minute makeup application. The before-and-after transformation is remarkable.

The train shudders to a halt. Mr. X exits the car at Grand Central with a kink in his neck and nagging lower back pain, thanks to sitting with his legs crooked to the side. Wearily he climbs the stairs to head to another toxic environment—the trading desk. But then he remembers that it’s Thirsty Thursday. He can celebrate the near end of another exhausting week with a roadie (or two) for the trip home. 

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November 2018

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