Train Man

There’s very little talking on the 8:16 a.m. express to Grand Central, but that doesn’t mean it’s quiet. The air-conditioning roars like a turbine, and the steel wheels clatter on uneven tracks. Occasionally, though, the electricity switches off for an instant, the lights dim, and the air-conditioner stops, and a trip on the speeding Hudson River line becomes as serene and fluid as a summer canoe ride on an Adirondack lake.

Commuting on Metro-North means joining a unique subspecies that flourishes in an ephemeral, in-between world – neither city nor suburb – governed by its own set of codes. It’s the kind of mini-culture that occurs often in nature: little ecosystems at the edges of larger ones, like the fish that hover where a fast current meets a slow one because that’s where the food is. Commuter culture has a short half-life, it flickers into existence for only an hour or two a day, but its impact on Homo commutatus is enormous. My family lives in the suburbs – they have an actual life there – and most of my co-workers really live in the city, but I’m caught in some sort of twilight zone between them, and the worst thing about it is, I sort of love it.

Everything about commuting is built around repetition: the same train each morning, the same spot on the platform, the same route through Grand Central, the same faces around you. Those faces breed a peculiar intimacy. You know these people because you see them every day, but you never speak to them.

This ironclad routine – built around the MTA timetable – promotes a special metabolism. Commuters develop the sensitivity of Olympic athletes, becoming finely attuned to small variations as they try to shave a few seconds off the drive to the station or the walk from the office to the train in the evening. And commuters have an unsettled, nervous energy, a quickening that manifests itself as their inner clock announces that a train is leaving in five minutes and they had better start to hurry. Non-commuters see this in their spouses or co-workers – an acceleration that comes from nowhere – and ordinary New Yorkers have come to take for granted the spectacle of panicked businessmen running full-speed down the sidewalk, dodging and swerving like broken-field runners.

The commuter comes to distrust all change. Change is a crackling loudspeaker announcement that signals a late train or, worse, a shorter train with fewer seats (which screws up your platform placement). Change means a new schedule that takes effect on an odd date (the current Hudson line schedule is “effective June 24 through October 26, 2002”).

Commuters don’t want to mess with our two-hour-a-day culture because there is something sweet and fragile about it. Because it is our secret safe haven from work, from family, from everything. It is like a private club, where the old members are snoozing in a comfy chair with the newspaper across the lap, where younger members are chatting amiably, where others are catching up on work (how much more productive we are on the train than at our desks) or reading novels or magazines, listening to music on their Walkmen.

What else do you do on a train? Sometimes, feeling perverse, you look out the window. Commuters are always on the move, but we still have a vivid sense of unfurling place. The Hudson line is ideal for this, with its boats and barges and Palisades sunsets. In the morning, when the southbound train approaches Spuyten Duyvil, where the Hudson and Harlem rivers intersect, the train sweeps around a bend and the Henry Hudson Bridge comes into view, creating a perfectly framed landscape with a long, silver train (it’s the front of your own train!) plunging through it. As the train slips deeper into the Bronx, the majestic river views give way to dreary apartment buildings and an industrial landscape of cement plants and vacant lots filled with rusted cars and construction equipment. Finally, the line drops into darkness beneath Park Avenue with a whoosh and a roar. Nobody is talking, but it’s never quiet.

Train culture may be evanescent, like the life of a mayfly, but it is reliable and predictable, and that is a comfort to the peripatetic commuter. On September 11, last year, I came out of the northern entrance of Grand Central and saw the first tower burning. I know exactly what time it was, because it is always the same time. For the rest of the day, the streets outside my office were filled with thousands of people walking northward, trying to get home. Late that night, the streets were empty and Grand Central Terminal was surrounded by troops. Though I had heard the trains weren’t running, I still made my way down to the station. I am, after all, a commuter, a creature of habit.

Grand Central was empty. But the board listed a few departures. I climbed aboard a completely empty Hudson local and rode it home. The trains were running. It was a beautiful night, and the views, as always, were spectacular.

Train Man