The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three lifelong friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. The three of us live in very different places: urban, suburban and small town. That means the three of us travel from A to B in different ways. It’s been said that life is a journey, not a destination, so we’re talking about our daily journeys.
As I hinted at last week, I’m a proud NYC public transit commuter. Most mornings I catch the B/Q line from Church Avenue, and most evenings, I’m hopping off at Parkside. My regular commutes average 45-60 minutes each way- depending on day, hour, which theatre I’m headed to—and train karma, of course.
New York residents, like people complaining about traffic in car-dependent cities, love to complain about the MTA. But we also love to tell train stories. Everyone has them. Seriously. Just introduce an anecdote in a group, and you’ll unleash a related stream of experiences— at times hilarious, tragic, disgusting, soul-affirming– tales of eerie coincidence, bizarre circumstance, near-disaster, poignant encounters. The reason we have so many stories is that when you commute by train or bus, you commute with people— not next to them in a climate-controlled, sealed pod of metal– with them. You don’t sympathetically witness the child having a silent melt down in the car next to you at the light…the child is kicking and jostling YOU and screeching in YOUR ear at impossible pitches. The couple fighting on the way home from the party they just attended—you’re there, too. And sometimes, you are the person crying on the train, tears sliding quietly down your nose. For better or worse, you see, hear, touch, (and smell) your fellow man.
I complain occasionally about the train (I’m looking at you man clipping his fingernails, or you, Mr. Conductor making unintelligible, gobblydegook intercom announcements). Mostly, though, I love my commute. I love time to read, crossword, think, make lists, play podcasts, observe. It’s a chance to decompress from my day— physically and mentally separating my workday in Manhattan from my home life in Brooklyn.
Also, I like my train stories, or perhaps more specifically: where they come from. Commuting forces me to cram myself in with humanity, sitting and standing with people of all ages, geographic and cultural backgrounds, life situations, moods—going different places for different purposes. It requires patience, but I also think it moves my thinking (while literally moving me) in another important way.
Here’s a sample of things I’ve seen on the train:
- Someone being silly-stringed
- Woman transporting giant potted palms (She informed me they were for her porch…so she doesn’t have to see her neighbors naked through their window anymore)
- Man wielding a samurai sword
- My friend Molly, literally seconds after texting her: “Hope to see you soon!”
- Eating, kissing, handstands, peeing, vomiting, drawing, opera-singing, drug- use, preaching, balloon-animal making, fingernail painting, mariachi bands…
I could continue, but my point is that eventually nothing surprises you anymore. Instead of hardening or inuring me, though, I actually think it’s opened me up. Traveling with people, even without direct engagement or conversation has the capacity to stimulate empathy and compassion. If I’m paying attention, being with strangers reminds me of the uniqueness of individuals, and forces acceptance that my life and moment-by-moment experiences are just one in the sea of experiences happening around me.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the proverb that you shouldn’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
I commute about a mile to work every day. Most days, I pack my diaper bag, strap my daughters into their car seats, double check to be sure I’ve brought a snack and drive in.
But, some days I walk.
Just before my second child was born, my husband and I decided that we wanted to try only having one car. We work together, so we commute to the same place every day. We have two kids, and I didn’t want to have to get car seats for the other car. On top of that our second car was getting older, needed repairs, and we were driving it so little that sometimes the battery would die from under-use. We sold the car and didn’t replace it.
I was excited by this development in my life because it was an opportunity to experiment with consciously appreciating what I have and only having what I need. For my life, I do need one car, but I don’t need two. Consequently, there have been days when due to the occasional need or want for my husband and me to not be in the same place, nap time or bed time that I have found myself walking to or from work.
This has given me the opportunity to walk a mile in my own shoes.
The mile between my home and my work is not the kind of place that people in my community usually walk. The side walks are well kept and it’s a safe community, but it’s also along a busy road and most people drive.
When I walk, I notice how far a mile really is. I notice how green everything is, the sounds of local wildlife and cars, the temperature (usually hot), and how much slower it is to walk than to drive. In my car, I’m at work in 5 minutes if I get stopped at every possible stopping point. I feel like it’s a traffic jam if I get stopped at a red light. But when I walk, it can take 20 minutes.
I find that when I walk to work, I start my day energized and focused because I’ve used my body. Or if I walk home, I’m relaxed and ready to wind down. I get some of my best ideas and do some of my clearest thinking when I’m walking.
My commute has given me the sort of luxurious experience of knowing I have what I need to travel to and from where I need to be and that if needed, I can put on my shoes and my feet will take me where I need to go. It’s weirdly freeing to know that I can get by without all the “things” that are supposed necessities for modern life.
The world is full of advertisements (I pass by 3 billboards on my walk to work) that are telling us that we don’t have enough, that we need the newer, better, bigger thing. But, my feet will get me to work just as effectively as my car (maybe not as quickly and certainly not as comfortably on a rainy day!), but this small act of going against the grain of modern life has made me weirdly happy.
I live in one of those cities that hovers around the bottom of most top ten lists for the worst traffic in America. One of those cities that is big, but not big enough to justify the sixty hours annually our people spend in gridlock. At rush hour you can hear our groans rise up from the streets like the anguished souls of the damned crying out from the river Styx.
Of course, secretly we’re damn proud of that stagnant smog-swamp we crawl through every day. We compare and judge: Whose misery is the most miserable? Whose despair is the most complete? We suffer with a righteous pride, the martyrs of suburban sprawl.
I used to commute from the burbs to downtown, but I had a different secret. I didn’t hate the traffic. I didn’t even “love to hate” the traffic. I actually kind of liked it.
I’d leave work as I think most people do, full of crushed dreams and existential crises. I’d maneuver my sedan through a nauseatingly winding parking deck, dodge the jaywalking hipsters, glacially slide onto the freeway, and start inching my way home.
But the thing about gridlock is once you’ve reached your lane, you can make the whole drive in a semi-dissociative state. So I’d turn up the radio as loud as I could stand, and just sing.
I could turn the car into a solid bubble of sound, where it’d be just me and Lady Gaga, usually. Two souls burnin’ roads. That’s where I could own my anger and my fear and my strength and my faith. That’s where my spirit could mend. My own Electric Chapel.
And if it took me an hour to get home, that might be just right for me to walk through the door as myself again.
It’s as if there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. For me, I could be bounded in a gridlock and count myself a Queen of infinite space, so long as I have my Artpop.
But I won’t betray my people. If you ask me about the traffic, I’ll tell you it’s hell. Pure misery.