Monday, June 9, 2008

This Is My Life!

Hey, NJ Transit: Commute this

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Each day, more than 1.5 million workers commute into Manhattan. Starting in the early morning hours, bleary-eyed people juggle coffees and briefcases in a mass mi gration from New York City's outer boroughs and the New York, Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs.

For one year, I was one of them. I was a commuter.

And then I escaped.

My daily commute from Hunterdon County occupied at least four hours of every work day. That didn't include stretches of mechanical difficulties, overhead wire troubles, train congestion, major holidays, or even the slightest hint of precipitation.

In addition to the basic stress that naturally accompanies a two- hour odyssey from a quiet, bordering-on-rural town (there is a buffalo farm near my house) to the frantic streets of Manhattan, the good ol' Raritan Valley line boasts an extra bonus: It is not a direct train. The end of the line is in Newark, so you must transfer over to another track to board Manhattan-bound trains.

I never thought it would be possible, but you can get used to even the most horrific commute. Like anything else, once you settle into that routine, it becomes the norm. It took me one week to settle into the role of commuter.

After a month, I felt myself to be a veteran, a position that solidified over months of NJ Transit tor ture. I learned the rules. I obeyed the train etiquette that attempts to make the unnatural constant rush bearable for all those who have to do it everyday.

I learned how to most effectively choose a seat so as not to be squashed or bothered, how to avoid being trampled by a frantic rush of workaholics, and how to pity the oblivious day-trippers who inevitably violate the sacred rules that lend some degree of order to the cut-throat transportation game.

I also got to observe the rela tionships and bizarre interactions of an astounding array of human specimens.

It was the breaks in the routine -- the unexpected inconsistencies -- that did the most damage. It was the delays, missing the train, and dealing with supremely obnox ious passengers that left me crunched up in a crackly leather seat clenching my teeth and curs ing under my breath (or furiously texting any poor family members or friends who might pick up their phones).

You simply cannot appreciate the accuracy of the metaphor that rush hour in New York is a stam pede unless you have been one of the herd.

At times it was a humbling experience to feel as if I were being driven along by an invisible sheepdog nipping at my heels, pushing me up narrow escalators and down claustrophobic ramps to a final destination I had no desire to reach. Often it was a gray-suit guy or a stiletto-heeled woman who was pressing me forward with the weight of their exasperated sighs and profanity-laced mumbling. There's nothing so effective as a strategically swung briefcase to the hip.
My scale of bitterness about commuting also was directly related to my general outlook on my job. After graduating from Rutgers in the spring, I immediately started working at a large, reputable public relations agency in Manhattan.

When friends, aunts, neighbors and strangers heard I worked in Manhattan, they'd ooh and aah. "Oh, how wonderful -- that sounds amazing!" they'd coo, no doubt en visioning glittering skyscrapers. Meanwhile, I was thinking of never- ending train tracks.

After two months of slogging through endless identical days, I realized I was miserable.
Each morning, zooming up the elevator to the 25th floor and walking to my desk, I felt like I was headed for the gallows. Sunday be came a waiting game -- a day to mourn the loss of the weekend and dread another week of sprinting through Penn Station and feeling the cubicle walls slowly stifle my breath away.

It's said that New York is the city that never sleeps. Unfortunately, for many, it's simply be cause they can't afford to sleep anywhere within a 20-mile radius of Manhattan, and must sacrifice re laxation and enjoyment for a multi- hour commute that will get them home in just enough time to return again the next morning.

There's something twisted in the whole experience -- of schlep ping along day after day for the sole not-so-pleasurable pleasure of going to work.

On an increasing number of days -- particularly those that involved commuting for 5.5 hours be cause of disabled trains and count less delays -- I was left wondering: What in the world could possibly be worth it? What could I possibly be thinking to spend that much of my day battling with NJ Transit schedules and getting squashed up against men who clip their toenails on a smelly, overstuffed train?

I also began to think in more collective terms: Why do any of these people put up with this? Is it all for the city? Are the jobs there really that much better? Is the money that much better?
Relatively speaking, I was a novice in the commuting world. If only one year of this commute made me tear out my hair and hopelessly ponder the meaning of life, I truly have to question the sanity of those who have chosen this lifestyle for two, 10 or 20 years.

In March, I got my tonsils out, sat in my house for 10 days straight, and felt that I accomplished more in one of those sweat pants-sluggish days of eating pud ding, reading and masochistically watching the Food Network than in a week's worth of nine-hour work days and four-hour commutes. I realized that I smiled more in an afternoon of slurping Very Berry Strawberry children's Tylenol and apple juice than I did over the past month of my daily working life.
When I got back to the unend ing grind of the commute, I looked around at my fellow commuters and again wondered: In the end, is it worth it?

Finally, something clicked. I quit both my job and the commute.

So, after a year, in the end, my answer was, no, it would never be worth it.

Kathryn Blaze, a recent graduate of Rutgers University, was a columnist for The Daily Targum, the campus newspaper.

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