The Discreet Charm of Commuting

by Joshua Michtom

Commutes are nearly inescapable, mostly reviled, and scientifically proved to be bad for us. While Eric Jaffe at Citylab makes the case that no commute at all is actually a bad thing too, that is not a problem that most of us have. But are there not some hidden gems, some small pleasures in the daily trek?

For a while, I was one of the so-called mega-commuters, covering sixty miles thrice a week with a combination of bicycle and train travel. It was stupid, but because I am fundamentally an optimist, I tried to focus on the happy parts: exercise! quiet time! seeing the sun rise! At the time, I would have told you that I actually didn’t mind it, but now that I have a five-minute bicycle commute, I can say that it sucked. Still, it had its charms.

Short commute notwithstanding, in my current job I sometimes have to travel to far-flung parts of my state (you wouldn’t think Connecticut had far-flung parts, but it does). Today, needing to go from Hartford to Stamford, I chose a two-hour train ride over an hour-and-a-half drive and carried my computer so I could do work on the way. I would say it was pretty great, except that when I arrived at Stamford, I found out that one of the other lawyers involved in my case was sick and had called the court to reschedule, so I just turned around and went back to the train station. Still, the fruitless voyage got me to thinking about the little aesthetic pleasures that make even awful commutes tolerable. Herewith, a few examples:

• On Metro-North, the commuter railroad serving New York City’s northern suburbs (including Connecticut), the conductors punch holes in tickets. As they make their way through crowded cars, some of them call out, “Tickets! All tickets please!” but many announce their presence with nothing more than the unmistakable clip-clip of their hole punches, and this morning I realized how strangely soothing that sound can be.

• Early morning commutes, as mentioned, are stupid, because getting up early is stupid. But there is a multisensory pleasure to being on the street when a city starts to wake up: truck sounds, coffee smells, chattering radios, and bright morning sunlight make cities look their prettiest, and the day seems to exude a marvelously light, rosy mixture of promise and ambition, like capitalism without the bad parts.

• In my early twenties, I commuted nine miles each way by bicycle, most of it through busy Brooklyn and Manhattan traffic. Because I had a place to change and freshen up at work, and because I was young and vital and foolish, I rode hard the whole way, racing for every green light, weaving among cars, and being generally relentless. To keep this frenetic pace, I listened every morning to the same forty-five-minute mix of up-tempo 90s hip-hop, dancehall, and James Brown, on an unlabeled clear plastic cassette in my heavily battered and duct-taped Walkman. About once a week, somewhere between Sunset Park and Midtown Manhattan, I would feel myself dragging and realize that it was not I, really, but Shabba Ranks or The Roots or Rakim who was slowing down, and then I knew I needed four new double-A batteries for the Walkman. Every aspect of this was wonderful.

And you, dear readers? What are the little pleasures that brighten your daily slog?

Lunch bag illustrations by the author