Commuting — and other indignities (or Dick and Jane got on a train)

Commuting — and other indignities (or Dick and Jane got on a train)

For 18 years, until May, I commuted to work. In the morning, I boarded the train in Fair Lawn, transferred to the PATH in Hoboken, and exited at the ‘3rd Street station in Manhattan. In the evening, I did the same trip, in the reverse direction. I did this every day, in all kinds of weather, despite 9/11 (I went in on 9/1’), and even on bad hair days.

Commuting means getting a lump in the pit of your stomach when someone talks too long at a meeting and you need to catch a train. It means pulling yourself out of bed on lousy winter days in case the snow threatens to affect your travel schedule, eliminating one train out of two. It means living between the "bookends" of morning and evening timetables.

I find that writing about things is both cathartic and therapeutic. Not surprisingly, then, I wrote a piece about commuting. I resurfaced the piece and read it to my colleague, Jacob Berkman, who accused me of being sexist, since men come off badly in my "report." Below are excerpts from that harrowing document. I leave it to the reader to decide if Jacob was right.

A brief note on etiquette

The innocent observer of rush hour — watching in fascination as inbound and outbound commuters vie for train doors and platform space — may mistakenly infer that commuting is a game without rules. That is far from true. But sadly, the game is not played fairly by all. The corrupt commuter may hide behind a newspaper, but his deeds speak volumes.

Women readers: Try talking to your male friends about the etiquette of leaving a train row by row. Watch for signs of boredom, incredulity, or (worse) amusement.

No matter the storm raging outside, the train is generally hot. Men board the train oblivious to the looming discomfort, knowing that they have the ability (actually, height) required to remove their coats and place them on the overhead rack. They also know there’s always a place for additional paraphernalia (newspapers, briefcases) on the seat next to them.

Women do not know this. They assume that seat space is for people. Also, since they often can’t reach the overhead racks (nor do they like keeping people waiting in the aisles while performing overhead maneuvers that necessitate, literally, getting in someone’s face), they tend to keep their coats on and balance the remainder of their gear on their laps or immediately in front of them (thus developing a certain degree of balance and fortitude, which comes in handy in the workplace).

Needless to say, adding or removing outer clothes when one surfaces for the final leg of his/her journey should be done in a discreet spot, at least two feet from the stream of oncoming traffic. To do otherwise is to invite abuse (and possibly physical harm).

Exit strategy

Exiting the train should be accomplished as follows. For those who simply must get off first, it is permissible to head for the door before the train comes to a complete stop, providing that one tramples neither person nor property. However, one must never ask another commuter to move in order to facilitate this.

All other things being equal, commuters should "feed out" row by row, first row first. It is permissible to mutter when someone breaks into the line from a later row. Also, if it can be done unobtrusively, one may accidentally elbow a line-breaker or graze him lightly with one’s carry bag.

When train delays, breakdowns, weather-related events, and "short" trains ("Sorry, folks, we’re traveling with fewer cars this morning") cause an unlucky group of commuters to stand throughout their trip, it would be polite to let these unfortunate folks exit first — but this is never done.

Notes on noise

Men-filled trains are generally louder than their women-filled equivalents. (Women on cell phones may speak equally loudly, but it is clear from their demeanor that they at least recognize that they’re being rude.) Men apparently take greater pride in their discussions, ensuring that anyone within a radius of two train cars can hear them.

Men on trains conduct business with those present and virtually present; engage in beeping, ringing, repetitive computer games; bond with other males by telling jokes and discussing sports events; and discuss religious texts and argue about their ultimate meaning (and sometimes about the meaning of life). Women tend to use their train time in less imaginative ways, although the consistency of their conversation is admirable. In general, while they betray more confidences, they do so in quiet, one-on-one discussions, ensuring that fellow passengers will have to strain to listen in.

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