Friday, September 2, 2011

The Rhythms of My Commute

I was back on the job this week, and with my new work comes a brand new commute, the longest I've ever had. Not that I'm complaining. My last job had the shortest commute I've ever had, about a five minute drive from door to door, but it was a job that nearly killed me. The shortness of the commute only gave me more time in which to contemplate my state of utter unhappiness. In fact, the commute may have been too short; I only had time to listen to one and a half songs on my car stereo, and was plunged too quickly from the quiet of my apartment to the cacophony of work. That usually meant trying to wake myself up with something loud and driving, with "Teenage Riot" by Sonic Youth and "Keep on Knocking" by Death being my two favorites. On overcast days, I would mix it up with The Fall, whose songs exude the grim grey skies of Manchester. "Hey! Luciani" also made for great steering-wheel drum playing.

Nowadays it takes me twice as long just to walk from my apartment to Newark Penn Station, where I have to catch a train over to the city, and then take the subway to the upper west side before getting out and walking another ten minutes to work. I have to say that I do really enjoy the walking, it gets my heart beating without exhausting me in the morning, and starts the blood flowing again after sitting at my desk all day long. (No teaching yet this week, though. When classes start I might be lumbering my way home, half-fallen over.)

I've had walking commutes before, back when I was a student and when I was researching my dissertation in Germany. As in those days, I am beginning to know every single crack in the sidewalk on my morning walk, and have even started seeing some of the same faces. Since I leave about 6:30 in the Ironbound, the sidewalks are full of construction workers waiting for the van ride to the job site and domestic workers boarding the bus. There's quiet conversation, joking, and an air of taking in a little freedom before a day spent in dull, enervating labor. It's a very different street scene in the upper west side, which is crowded with women walking small, yippy dogs and men wearing tailored suits and impossibly luxurious Italian shoes, toes tipped to the sky. They walk with an air of purpose, striding down Broadway as if no one is on the sidewalk in front of them. Deep down I envy the odor of power that I get a whiff of as I pass them without even a sideways glance in my direction. I often wonder how their decisions at work in Wall Street that day will alter the lives of the builders and maids back home in the much less exalted neighborhoods of Newark.

This week I also faced the fateful decision of which train to take from Newark to New York, since I would be a sucker not to buy a monthly pass. I had a choice between the PATH (the Port Authority train, to the uninitiated) or New Jersey Transit. It was a tough decision, because the PATH is about half as expensive as NJT, but NJT is about twice as fast and five times more comfortable. The PATH train is basically a subway train between Newark and New York with a stop in Harrison and several in Jersey City. (There's another line that goes to Hoboken, which is, believe it or not, gentrified hipster haven, and not hipsters as in Frank Sinatra, the town's most famous son.) During the crowded rush hour, I usually have about as much of a chance of getting a seat on the PATH as Rick Perry does of getting the Sierra Club's endorsement in the presidential race. And let me tell you, there's nothing like being wedged jeek to jowl with complete strangers, some who have their headphones turned up so loud you are inflicted with a kind of buzzingly muted ear torture, while a creaking old train on a crowded track moves with jolts and jumps that slam you into aforementioned complete strangers. On top of all of this, the air inside, especially in the older cars, is a sooty diesel ether that reminds me a cross between Victorian London and a poorly ventilated bus terminal.

For the first few days this week, I tried to tell myself that it was worth it because it was so inexpensive, but after impulsively spending the extra money to take NJT home on Thursday and sitting in relative luxury leisurely reading a novel while being whisked along on gently rocking, smooth ride, I decided that my long-term sanity depended on having this nice little time to myself to decompress at the end of my working day. So this morning I bought my monthly pass on the NJT, and was rewarded with a comfortable seat in which to read the Times while watching the rising sun bathe Manhattan's glorious spires in a breathtaking red-orange light. In any case, I grew up in a cheapskate family where I always had to endure the shoddy, cheap version of everything, from store-brand ice cream to Go Bots instead of Transformers. It's nice to spend the extra money to get the higher-quality option for a change.

The arrival points in the city on the different trains are also pretty distinct, but I'm not sure which I prefer. The PATH drops me off at the World Trade Center, and the last part of the journey snakes right into Ground Zero. The station, still under construction in the wake of the attacks, lies very far underground, and thus means a long escalator ride to get out. The commuter is then dropped smack dab next to the site of a horrible atrocity swarming with cranes and infuriating tourists trying to look between the cracks in the canvas-covered fence. I can't count the number of times I've been there, and my heart still fills with sadness and sorrow, the dust of the dead lingering in my nostrils.

That said, lower Manhattan is my favorite part of the city, and I tend to like breathing in the vital spirit of its streets when I walk two blocks from the PATH station to the subway. The NJT train, by constrast, drops me off in Penn Station, the product of one of the heinous crimes against architecture in America's history. Penn Station had once been a marble monument to the ascendancy of the Iron Horse, the kind of building to make a beautiful ruin to be admired many centuries hence. Instead, it was the victim of the wrecking ball in the 1960s, and it effectively became the basement of Madison Square Garden, a building with all of the dead-eyed monolithic functionality of modernism and none of its daring invention. Its ceilings are quite low, making a tall person like me feel antsy and claustrophobic. It really does feel like a low-rent basement, and its full of low rent chain eateries and stores. Today I saw the K-Mart in its depths for the first time, the store that embodies my childhood spent subsisting on shitty, cheap clothes. For a functional space, it is remarkably dysfunctional. The track numbers for trains leaving the station usually aren't announced until a few minutes before they leave, which at the end of the workday means frantic, pushy crowds dashing madly once the number is called in an atmosphere of rushed nervousness.

Despite these complaints, though, there is nothing quite like train travel, the most relaxing way to get where you're going. And as much as I might moan about the pushy, rushed nature of my commute, there is nothing to compare to sitting back in a gently rocking train car, waiting to be transported on a clear morning into the beating heart and throbbing crotch of American ambition.

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