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Moving Books

One of my anxieties about moving is that commuting time was my reading time.  Enforced sitting for over three hours a day meant consuming book after book.  Now I have to carve out time to read.  Life has a way of filling the time you have.  I say the following fully aware that you’re on the internet now, but one of the biggest time drains is the worldwide web.  Humans are curious creatures and the web offers to answer any and all queries.  (It still hasn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to the meaning of life, however, IMHO.)  Even when I’m working on my current book, a simple fact-check can lead to surfing and before I know it, I’m out to sea.  That’s why books—paper books—are such a good option.  A footnoted source meant another trip to the library, and libraries led to more reading.

I’m a Goodreads author.  I like Goodreads quite a lot, and I actively accept new friends there.  In the past I set goals of reading 100+ books per year.  Aware back in January that a move might take place, I lowered my expectations.  I figured, even without commuting, that 65 books would be attainable in a year.  Of course, Goodreads doesn’t count the books you write, only those you read.  I had to tell even Amazon Author Central that Holy Horror was my book.  Moving, however, is a liminal time.  Every spare minute is spent packing.  And you still owe “the man” eight hours of your day.  That rumble that you feel is the moving truck growing closer.  Reading time has become scarce.  I fear I’m becoming illiterate.

And Goodreads makes me think of Twitter.  I’ll just click over there a while and wonder why I can’t seem to grow a following.  Ah, it turns out that you have to tweet often and incessantly, with erudite and trenchant things to say.  The birds chirping once a second outside my window can’t even keep up.  Problem is, I have a 9-to-5 job, and I’m trying to write Nightmares with the Bible.  And there’s just one more fact I have to check.  Wait, what’s the weather going to be like today?  Gosh, is that the time?  I have to get packing!  That moving van will be here only hours from now.  I need to calm down.  The way to do that, in my case, is to read a book.

Dawn’s Early

Early to bed, early to rise, and people’ll think you’re weird. At least in my experience. Making an island into the place where hundreds of thousands have to commute to get to work may not’ve involved a great deal of foresight. My bus leaves early, and I don’t argue. On the days when I work from home I still rise early—I’m old enough that constantly shifting schedules is more effort than it’s worth, so I like to greet the sun with coffee in hand and say to it, “what took you so long?” This time of year I like to jog at first light when I don’t have to commute. As I do so, I notice where the lights are on. You get an idea who sleeps in and who doesn’t.

With all the political nonsense about lazy immigrants, I wonder what time congressional leaders get out of bed. I sometimes go jogging before 5 a.m. The lights I see on at that time of day are often those of the apartment complexes where immigrants tend to live. The affluent houses of the white are generally dark. If you have the luxury of driving to work in one of your cars, you can afford a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest. Immigrants often take the bus. In fact, the majority of early morning commuters, it seems, are not the privileged classes. It may have been Benjamin Franklin who said “Early to work, early to rise,” but it was the foreigners who saw the wisdom of his words.

It’s a sad nation that denigrates its hard workers. I realize I’m looking in the mirror as I write this, but sitting at a desk all day is not hard work. My first job, starting at 14, was physical labor. Most of the time it was light enough—such things as painting curbs, bus shelters, or fences. At other times it involved sledge hammers under the hot sun. The kinds of jobs few people enjoy, but which are necessary. Jobs that don’t pay well, but will keep you alive. Now I sit behind a desk and have to jog just to stay healthy. I see the monied in Midtown walking slowly to their expensive health clubs where they can sweat and let other people see. And I know that there are many out there—immigrants mostly—who are sweating from doing the jobs that likely pay less than the membership fee for this swank gym. And I wonder which is healthy and wise. The wealthy part is fairly obvious, even this early in the morning.

Creating Afterlife

Once upon a time I wrote a book on commuting. It never got beyond my laptop, but I often wonder if it was simply premature. Some stories from public transit can be quite amusing. A few weeks ago I posted on how a woman spoke up after our bus missed it’s turn off the highway and made us all late for work that day. No matter what you think of developers and speculators, one thing we can say for certain is they lack imagination. If you’ve driven this stretch of highway 22 you know that the exits look very much alike. Early in my commuting days a young woman took the empty seat next to me on the way home and asked where we were. “I miss my stop because they all look alike to me,” she explained. She had a point.

So one morning last week I was in my usual seat, reading along, when the driver—new to our route—missed his turn off the highway. The same woman (for we are mostly regulars at this forsaken hour of the morning; if this doesn’t ring a bell search this blog for “commuting”) said, “No need to turn back, they have another bus coming.” I was pleasantly surprised at the learning that had taken place since the last time. I am, however, old enough to remember Greyhound commercials and their slogan, “Take the bus and leave the driving to us.” I also thought of those passengers waiting like evangelicals for the second coming for a bus that would never show up. Our gain in time was their loss. Such are the dynamics of life in a universe not built on the principle of fairness.

The bus can be a microcosm of the moral universe. Evangelists, for example, believe all people must have the opportunity to catch this express bus to Heaven. The bus that comes after the express makes more stops, somewhat like Catholic Purgatory, increasing the suffering for a while, but ultimately making the goal. Missing the bus completely are the Hell-bound for which some claim we must turn back while others insist we press on; there will be another bus. In this case, the same passenger insisted that we help those left behind just a few weeks ago. This led to lengthening of her own stay in Purgatory, so when it happened again she decided those waiting were simply too hard to reach. Or maybe she’d come to believe in predestination. Perhaps it was on some ancient bus that ideas of the afterlife emerged. Experience teaches that much depends on factors beyond your personal control.

Real Dreaming

I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?

This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.

Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.

Power in the Bus

“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…

The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.

Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.

Odd One Out

The older I get, the more I realize I’m the one that’s weird. Go ahead and say it, “You’re just now figuring this out?!” This epiphany came to me on a stiff breeze. To understand you have to get the idea of commuting on New Jersey Transit. Although twice in one week my route was blessed with a brand new bus, the general operating procedure is to use the oldest, least reliable buses on my route. It is one of the longest routes the company runs into New York City, which means that it is one of the most expensive. You’d think they’d use their best buses, but then you’d be thinking like me. Breakdowns aren’t as frequent as they had been for a while, but other discomforts are fairly common. Just this past week, for instance the heat was stuck on high. Add about 50 bodies to an enclosed, overheated space, and well, let your imagination go.

Now interstate buses aren’t like the school species. The windows don’t open. There are, however, two escape hatches in the ceiling. When I got on board I noticed immediately that it was a sauna bus. The last time this happened (and yes, this wasn’t a unique situation in my experience) passengers opened the escape hatches to create a breeze. Problem was, it was winter this time. The day was struggling to reach 40 degrees outside. As we hit the highway the wind was blowing full against those in my row and I learned what wind chill really can be. There wasn’t much traffic, so the bus was tooling along at about 65. I could feel my left eye beginning to freeze up. My book pages were flapping wildly in my blue-tipped fingers. The personal nor’easter cut right through my winter coat. In my row we were lined up like eskimos, all bundled up. There were no free seats to which we might move. I couldn’t reach the hatch to close it. Nobody said anything.

Here’s where the weirdness comes in. As I child I was raised being taught that true believers think of others first. Other people may not see it, but I consciously try very hard in subtle ways to make sure others get what they need before me. I’m learning not everyone necessarily thinks that way. If I had a degree in fluid dynamics I might be able to describe airflow on a speeding bus. Instead, let me put it this way: the guy who opened the hatch was sitting in the row in front of it, out of harm’s way. The icy blast didn’t hit him, but it did everyone behind him. Passengers tend to think of themselves first. I’m sure I do, too. Just trying to get home after a trying day of work is, well, trying. It’s just that some folks try not to do things that cause others pneumonia, no matter how warm they feel. But then, I’m the odd one, I know.

Weather Psalm

As the northeast coast digs out from yesterday’s nor’easter at least we can thank God that no business days were lost. At least none based on the status of New York City schools. Some NYC businesses base their decision on whether an adult snow day is in effect or not on the decision of whether or not to close the public schools. If kids are expected to make it to school, well, pull your socks up, thrash through the snow, and get some work done. I was fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the event that began like a snoreaster. By the time I would’ve usually been on the bus it wasn’t snowing. Roads were wet, but it seemed like a normal day. So it continued until about 10:00 a.m. Then it really did snow.

I’ve commuted long enough to know that, as grueling as getting up early and trying to get to the city may be, the evening commute is always worse. It may seem hard to believe that there are traffic jams before 7:00 a.m. most days, but around 5:00 p.m. all bets are off. The news vendors were lamenting the fate of those who had to find their way home in a foot of snow, even as it was still coming down swiftly. Nature doesn’t abide by our work schedules. Many companies don’t care if you can’t get out—you chose to work in the city. If it takes you three hours to get home, that’s not a work problem. It’s a personal thing. On personal time. Choose wisely.

All of this makes me reflect on the way we think of work these days. Commuting into the city shouldn’t be a dangerous job like being on an Alaskan fishing boat is. Chances are the actual daily work consists of sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen. Eye strain, carpal-tunnel syndrome, and boredom are the only real dangers here. Unless you’re taking the George Washington Bridge, carpool tunnel is a far more sinister threat. If you make it home in time to come back in tomorrow, then it’s all good. We do this so that we can earn money to spend, mostly online. We haven’t quite got to the point yet where we can wire our physical bodies to the internet so that we can stay at home and work 24/7. But it’s coming, just like the next nor’easter. In the meantime, I have a bus to catch.