The Invisible Commuter
He’d shuffle down the ramp at Grand Central, and sometimes I would pretend not to see him. A salty backwash of embarrassment at my own incapacity to knock on the window would flood my throat. I was a bad grandson. A bad person. It was part of a larger problem: an inability to extend the smallest gesture of affection to anyone related to me. I couldn’t figure out how to cure it.
In other words, I was a teenager.
I commuted from Westchester County to high school in Manhattan, amplifying the effects of an already acute sense of adolescent alienation. I did so in order to escape certain death at the hands of lacrosse-stick-wielding tyrants at any of Westchester’s prep schools. Instead, I went to an all-boys, all-Catholic, all-scholarship high school where it wasn’t a capital offense to profess a love for Proust. I was so far from every jerk I’d known up to that point in my life I was almost in an imaginary place, a different dimension.
But as it turned out, I was never too far from my grandfather, whose own commute intersected mine just when I felt least capable of dealing with family contact.
I cultivated an identity as a sort of bipolar New Yorker. My relationship to New York relied on public transit. I went to school in Manhattan every morning on Metro-North, and I left it behind on the train every afternoon. This routine required inhabiting what often felt like two planets—one on which I was subject to the arbitrary rules of suburban parental hegemony and one on which I could explore New York’s expanding horizon of possibilities.
From school, I could walk to the Met in five minutes. I could find someone who would want to go to a play with me on a Wednesday night. I could write comically serious poems about my commute and submit them to a literary journal (not very much has changed, it now occurs to me). And because I went to school for free, my mom gave me an astronomical $50 each week to spend however I wanted to. I had a credit card for emergencies. I had a Nextel cellular phone: a microwave-sized appliance that I used to tell my father what time he could pick me up at the station.
How much more independence could I possibly have wanted?
I repaid parental munificence with silence. It was less a simple teenage hormonal imbalance than a pose of blasé urbanity. Plus, I was tired almost all the time, those two or so hours in either direction adding to what already felt like long days.
I never slept through my stop, though I’d often come to with three minutes to spare. I learned how to hear the announcements unconsciously, how to squeeze every second of sleep from the ride home. I mastered the art of holding my commutation ticket open in my lap when I wanted to nap, minimizing the mental energy necessary to navigate my way back to Westchester. I learned how to glide through subway tunnels and elbow my way around the flabby flesh of Midwestern tourists.
I avoided even the thought of eye contact with strangers.
But when I got off the train at Bronxville, I’d feel entirely drained, as though the energy of the city kept me moving throughout the day and my departure from it returned me to a sloth-like suburban state.
Commuting to New York made me feel anonymous and invisible in a way that I normally didn’t—covered from forehead to waist with acne, shorter and skinnier than mostly everyone, usually carrying a giant green Jansport backpack full of books, benzoyl peroxide creams, antibiotics and soaking wet gym clothes shoved into plastic shopping bags.
I relished anonymity. To navigate invisibly gave me the chance to observe others in a way that I though writers should, while at the same time opening up space to ask questions that I thought sounded important. Was I a New Yorker? Was I a suburban kid? What did it mean to spend so much time occupying borderlands between destinations?
And these questions have stuck around. They still complicate most attempts to come up with a snappy origin story when giving an account of my emigration to Chicago. I want to claim New York as a place that I know, a place I have a familiarity with, and the place that shaped me in some impossible-to-describe way. But there’s also something seductive about renouncing the city to Chicagoans, who in turn love the reverse-Gatsby narrative of fleeing New York for the Midwest. On nights with sub-zero wind chills, we gather around pyramids of Schlitz cans and I riff on my escape from New York.
I tell them how “stupid it is for people our age to live there,” that “you can’t afford any of the things that make New York worth it in the first place,” and that “When my friend Charlie came out to visit and saw how huge my apartment is, he just about cried.”
I’m always stretching the truth, of course. For one thing, I’m overstating the extent to which I ever belonged to New York, or how much New York belonged to me. I wasn’t born there. I never lived there. I’ll nod at you like a madman when you talk about that place you get coffee in Flatbush or Williamsburg or Park Slope, but I have no clue where neighborhoods in Brooklyn are. I only know I’m supposed to have “a love-hate relationship with Red Hook.”
At the same time, I’m papering over how badly I’ve always wanted to feel wholly embraced by New York: how addicted to the city I felt after even a little time there. And how important I thought it was for anyone with ambition—and literary ambition in particular—to have origins there. So I hope the vehemence of my rejection of New York masks the constant low-grade anxiety about the pressure I feel to just get it over with and move to Astoria (that’s in Queens right?)
I tell friends I’ll move back to New York when I have to “spawn.” Like a sea turtle or something. I feel trapped by the city and by the need to have fidelity to a narrative of quitting it, even though, in high school, I quit the city every day, relinquishing my anonymity and running back to my family. I left the city over and over again.
Isn’t moving halfway across the country, but only once, in some way equivalent?
* * *
The fact that my grandfather, who worked in the city, would occasionally appear in the space between home and school caught me off guard. It complicated the transition from one planet to the other, and interrupted the rhythms of reflection, sleep and zoning out that characterized the valley separating New York from home. It forced me to recognize the weirdness of moving between places for so much of the day.
My grandfather would walk by the train window. Tweed jacket with pleated olive or brown pants. He wore knit ties wrapped into Windsor knots around his thick neck: enormous chunky triangles of cloth wedged between his chin and chest. Always topped with a fedora and carrying a canvas briefcase with the fading logo of a sporting goods company imprinted on the side. I’d sit inside the car, studying him as he walked by, lowering myself into the seat, an untouched Zaro’s black and white cookie beside me, a physics textbook or The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot in my lap.
Occasionally, I’d gather the energy to talk with him. More often he would catch me off guard and simply materialize in the train car, smiling above me with false teeth that didn’t quite fit his mouth, and squinting through slits that I couldn’t believe had eyes in them.
“What are you reading?” he’d ask.
“Oh,” he’d say.
I’d move over and he would sit down next to me. He’d take out a thick pair of glasses, fold his Times into quarters, and read articles about the Iraq war out loud to me. I’d close the Eliot. To talk with him—to listen to his slow, careful reading voice—marked me as a kid. Plain and simple. It wasn’t his fault. I knew it. But I felt embarrassed, called out, childish. And his authority over the flow of our interaction on the train was absolute.
About dating, for example, he once told me that it “used to be easier to get a blowjob after a steak dinner.” And he proclaimed this fact at about a thousand decibels. I had no idea what to say as the entire volume of blood in my body flooded into my cheeks and the top of my head. The car shrunk around me. It sounded as though the engine had shut off. The lights went out. There was only the sensation of being watched and listened to—of my grandfather waiting for a reaction.
Never mind that I could barely look at the Marymount girls in their Nabokovian blue skirts. Never mind that nothing about the real-life mechanical or emotional requirements of sex made very much sense to me (although I knew “what went where”—you don’t get through all-boy Catholic school without a lot of porn).
I probably said something like, “Yeah, well, ha, uh,” and prayed for his stop to come.
He got off one station before I did. He started getting ready when we were still flying past local stops: putting his paper back into the briefcase. Folding his glasses and slipping them into his breast pocket.
“Say hello to your parents,” he’d say as we pulled into Fleetwood.
“Okay. Love you, Grandpa.”
“You know you’re the greatest,” he’d say.
I thought this was just something that men of his generation said in place of “I love you, too.” And it frustrated me to feel like I had done something worthy of this assessment. I didn’t do anything, after all, except parrot his opposition to the Iraq invasion. And nod and shrug and try to keep my eyes open. And listen to the same four stories about sitting out the war on a remote rock in the South Pacific. He’d mostly spent it eating steaks and smoking Lucky Strikes on Tinian, swimming in the saliva-warm water and watching waves of the wounded return from scarier places.
And I never told him that I sometimes avoided him on the train. That it made me sick to duck him. That I felt like familial affection was too much for me. That I felt in ways that I thought he couldn’t possibly understand, alone and exhausted and weird.
But I didn’t quite notice that it was only in those train cars (never at, say, family gatherings), that he’d bring up, just for example, fellatio. Or say anything about being afraid on Tinian, sitting the deathwatch at three a.m. underneath tropical constellations. Or ask me if I knew what differential equations were (I didn’t). I got the sense that he felt as though our relationship had different rules on the train—in that netherworld between work and home. That anything we said to each other in Metro-North’s territory had a higher intensity or intimacy.
What I missed in my embarrassment was that he was trying to treat me more like an adult—to talk to me like one of the guys, to create a space for communication outside the rules of family etiquette.
Today I think about him whenever I check the CTA train tracker app on my iPhone while waiting for the L. I stand on the platform, wearing one of his knit ties that my grandmother threw in a bag for me (I only do four-in-hand knots; I can’t manage anything more complicated). I jostle around on the Eastbound #55 bus to Hyde Park. It takes me longer to get fifteen miles across Chicago than it used to take to traverse the distance between the suburbs and the Upper East Side. His absence feels especially immediate on cold, solo morning commutes.
I think about everyone around the hospital bed the night he died. Everyone went to the city to be with him. My father held the phone up to his ear. I was 800 miles away and I might as well have been on a different planet.
To Chicago, I’ve brought his routines, his clothes, and one of his unused briefcases that my grandmother found tucked behind a stack of papers in the study. She handed it to me in its original plastic. I think about the Prince or Wilson or Nike bags he carried to work. He never used so many of the nicer things that he bought for himself—too afraid to ruin them. I feel the weight of him in my hands; I wear his memory around my neck.
When I used to see him in Grand Central, I wondered if I was staring into some unavoidable future for myself. Fifty-five years of commuting down the same twenty-two-mile stretch of Metro-North seemed unfathomable to me. He’d been doing it so long that the railroad had changed names more than once. How could such dull repetition not change a man? Break him? How had he survived it?
I respected the life he had made for himself, but bristled at the idea that I would live the same way. He left the Navy in 1945 and spent the rest of his life in the business of ladies’ hats. Sequins, faux fur trims, metallic bindings, butterflies on the end of nine-inch long hatpins, gaudy lace veils—this was the stuff my grandfather trafficked in, the reason he commuted every day. He’d fed a family of five selling those hats. Played tennis on the weekends. Went to the Catskills. Lived the life that I had read about in so many midcentury novels written by American men.
If I can muster a feeble justification for why I so often slunk down into my chair to watch him pass, it’s maybe because I was hoping to see him living something of that real life. Not just the part of his life where he was my grandfather. I held onto my anonymity, fascinated that I could catch my grandfather not in the mode of grandfatherliness—of imparting the right politics, reading the right newspapers, having whatever counts as a normal teenage sex life—but rather inhabiting that same in-between space that I did on his way home from New York.
And I worried. What if I myself never ventured more than a few blocks away from an office on 34th Street? What if New York became to me what it had become to my grandfather? A giant concrete office that I’d one day commute to on the Metro-North maglev. A rote set of work responsibilities and routines. Always a visitor, never a native. Packing my lunch to save money. Always scrimping. Walking home from the station at the end of the day in the snow and the sweltering heat, in the violet hours of cruel, rainy April afternoons. Raising children who’d lose their hair and start to look like me, and enduring the company of ungrateful grandchildren who would one day ignore me on the train.
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Eliot despaired on his daily journeys into the heart of London. I have no trouble picturing him as he trudged over London Bridge in the sleet, his hair neatly parted, masking a panic that simmered beneath his skin as he surveyed the crowds. In one of the most famous passages of The Waste Land he is essentially just really bummed about his commute:
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
I thrilled at much of that poem the first time I read it. But when it came to Eliot’s dread upon his commute, I wasn’t sure what to think. Even so, there were unnerving personal overlaps between his poem and my grandfather’s life that made me wonder if I was missing something. “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet,” wrote Eliot. “Flowed up the hill and down King William Street.”
My grandparents had lived together in the same apartment on William Street in Mount Vernon (you can’t make this stuff up) for more than forty years. My grandfather quite literally flowed up the hill and down William Street every day.
Could I identify with Eliot and still imagine that my grandfather had lived a happy life? Which one of them was faking it? Was Eliot exaggerating the despair of his daily grind or was my grandfather exaggerating his contentedness with his life? With his kids? With me?
I’d feel our nearness and our distance in those express rides north, as the train spit us out of the tunnels on Park Avenue and over the river into the Bronx, then into the stone canyons around Tremont. On we’d go, toward separate stations, in different cars, delivered back to Westchester’s jewel-green lawns where my father would be waiting for me in his pickup at the station.
“Did you see Grandpa?” he would ask as I slammed the door shut.
“No,” I’d say, settling back into a pattern of monosyllabic grunts that comprised my speech for the better part of 1998 to 2003.
I wrote my college essay about my commute—about how New York saved my life by letting me be “who I really am.” But I remember that essay felt like a pose: like I was trying neatly to sum up a disconcerting and frustrating and exhilarating and alienating daily ritual during which my relationship to New York, my grandfather, my scarred face, poetry, and so much else got thrown into a tumbler. Instead of owning up to the complexity of my relationship with New York, I tried to boil it down into the simplest possible descriptions.
When I left for college in Virginia, I introduced myself as a New Yorker. I wrote my first column for the school newspaper about the foreignness of the South to a self-proclaimed “Yankee.” I thought it made me sound more interesting than if I were to tell people I came from the suburbs. But within a few weeks, they started asking me to clarify. No one wanted to be tricked into having a conversation with someone from Syracuse, Ithaca, Upstate. So I got into a rhythm.
“Well. Just outside of the city,” I’d say.
“What, like Long Island?”
“Oh, about a hundred people in my dorm are from there. Most of them play lacrosse.”
“Well I commuted to the city when I was in high school,” I’d say.
“Great. Well I’m going to go commute over to that tall Southern guy over there on the other side of the room, as far away from you as possible.”
The commute to New York became a kind of justification, and a way to fit myself into the city without having ever lived there. Did this make me a kind of New York imposter? It felt like it. Even a decade after leaving, I have the strongest sense memories of New York when I’m commuting on the L. A few weeks ago, at the Clark and Lake stop, two Asian saw players broke out into Dayenu and then Hava Nagila. Suddenly I was on the subway platform at Grand Central, waiting for the uptown 4.
The city has come to play a kind of fantastical, idealized role in my past—a role I bet most people who move there think that it can play for them. But it also plays a deeply personal role that is wrapped up in family and inheritance and self-discovery. As long as I return as a visitor, New York remains the permanent location of my first attempts at articulating what I wanted from adulthood. A site of memory and idealization and definitely-not-real-life.
I avoid living in the city so that I don’t have to revise my already-tenuous relationship with it.
We’re used to the notion of a commute being the process of moving between two places. Of shuttling between home and work. But more important is the effect the trip has on the commuters. We’re the ones who change, alter, mutate—undergoing daily two-way processes. We allow ourselves to be bored, to be distracted, to be anonymous, to be in sync with the rhythms of the city. We shift into and out of “work mode.” We read, tweet, look out the window, text, read Game of Thrones, and look at the cute girl across the way and hope she knows that we’re listening to Fiona Apple and are really sensitive.
This perspective makes the commute the most important and complex part of one’s day: a time during which we inhabit many different modes of thinking. It makes it possible to be from and of two places—from both Manhattan and Westchester, Naperville and Chicago, Los Angeles and wherever it is that people who work in L.A. commute from. Viewed this way, the commute becomes almost as important as the places themselves—mental spaces in which we can be many things as once.
It allows us to be good students, confused grandchildren, lost twenty-somethings, confident young professionals, Eliot fanboys, New Yorkers, Chicagoans, ex-boyfriends, pseudo-academics, and people who miss people who are gone.
* * *
A-J Aronstein teaches at the University of Chicago and lives on Chicago's Northwest Side. Follow him at @tastyspoonful.