March 5, 2019
Montclair, New Jersey
It was 16 degrees outside. I wouldn’t go to the gym today, I decided.
I met James in the kitchen and kissed him on the cheek. He had Greek yogurt with blueberries and I have a bowl of Trader Joe’s bran flakes with my coffee. He showered and left for work. I read a book for work and finished my coffee, lingering on the living room sofa, deciding to catch the 9:09 train instead of the 8:17. It’s the train that always makes me late. I showered and dressed, and headed off on my walk to the train station.
The air burned my nostrils as I breathed. The sun was bright but the sidewalks were still icy and snow-covered in spots from yesterday’s storm, so I walked in the street. I should have sprung for the Lyft, I thought, while I skipped over icy patches and broken macadam. One mile and 20 minutes later, I arrived at the train station. The train is five minutes late, which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t so cold.
There’s a video that surfaced online last October. It was taken on a rush hour NJ Transit train bound for Montclair. The 6:10 from Penn Station, by far the worst in terms of congestion and sheer number of people, tired and shuffling into a small, wood-paneled train car. The car offers little insulation from the clanging noise and bumps of badly maintained tracks, especially if you’re standing in the connecting vestibule between the cars because there aren’t enough seats and the lady in front seat closest to the door won’t move her Bloomingdale’s bags.
In the video, a commuter is standing in the crowded train car, holding a book in one hand, the other hand on her hip. The train has just stopped without warning and the power has gone out. The train is very dark, save for a few backup lights. She berates the conductor, also a lady, for the lack of accountability, the miserable service and the high price of tickets. All things that are out of the conductor’s control. She remains remarkably calm as the passenger yells, a maddeningly placid expression on her face. She is a font of zen.
A man shouts at her, “You don’t have to work there. Quit your job!”
If adults on planes become big sleepy babies, clutching blankets and neck pillows, nursing bottles to soothe themselves on long flights, then commuter trains turn us into cranky toddlers, punchy and outraged to learn that our destination is not Disneyland, but the dentist. We place our trust in the engineer. We hope that the signals that prevent trains from crashing into each other work. We hope that the 100-year-old bridges with questionable maintenance records that occasionally get stuck in the up position don’t collapse. We hope that the train won’t crash into the terminal, like it did in Hoboken 3 years ago. A woman died, Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, an attorney, married with one child. She was standing on the platform and crushed by falling ceiling debris.
The train crawled through the tunnel and we arrived at Penn Station at 10 a.m. I moved with the pack of commuters slowly up the out-of-order escalator and into the main hall. I ran to the subway, caught the C local train and took it 4 stops to Spring Street. It was almost 10:30 by the time I arrived at the radio station where I work.
That evening I left work at around 5:45, which left me just enough time to get to Penn Station to catch the 6:10 back to Montclair.
I waited for the train on the lower level of Penn Station in an effort to avoid the chaos of the main hall. I stood among the sweaty hordes of commuters surrounding small screens that displayed departure times and track numbers. The automated voice overhead announced that my train was delayed, with no estimation of how much. The disembodied voice apologized for any inconvenience..
At 6:45, they announced the track for my train, and crowds immediately rushed to the stairwell down to the tracks. I saw that a man who’d been mainlining Bugles had finished, and had moved onto his tall boy, the can sweating through the brown paper bag. He drank it with a straw.
I shuffled down the stairs. Someone jabbed me in the side with her umbrella. I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and I turned around to see a man who looked a bit like Tom Petty. He smiled and said, “You have pretty hair.” I turned back around immediately and pushed forward into the crowd and down the platform.
This train, like every rush hour NJ Transit train, couldn’t accommodate the overflow of passengers. I walked further down the platform in the hopes of finding a seat, but settled for standing in the coupling area between the cars where it was loud, bumpy and a little dangerous. I was pressed against the door, and hoped that it wouldn’t suddenly open like it did one morning when snow blew into the train car.
The trained slowly chugged through the tunnel into the Meadowlands. Eventually we came to a complete stop. A garbled voice overhead announced that we were being held at a stop sign due to an Amtrak signal problem, or Amtrak overhead wire issues or Amtrak train traffic.
The train rattled along, crawling to a stop every few minutes, slowly inching its way along the corridor once we left Newark Broad Street station. I calculated the time I had spent commuting so far today, and thought about how long it will take to get home tonight. My fellow passengers were sleeping or working on laptops or reading through stacks of papers. We rolled through the Meadowlands, the mucky water frozen over in parts with cattails poking out like lonely tufts of hair on a balding man. A bright white egret rested on a piece of wooden debris. We rolled over the bridge, and I was amazed, as always, that it held the train and didn’t collapse.