Life on the LIRR

FullSizeRender-14I gave two speeches near Syosset in Long Island yesterday. Since one was a breakfast speech, I came in the night before, and with Amtrak cancellations, it worked best to take a 3:25 p.m. Pennsylvanian from Philadelphia to NY's Penn Station, and then take the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) out. With the connection I wound up on the 5:17 p.m. Port Jefferson line train. I walked out to platform 18, and realized I had stepped into a particular subculture.

New York's suburbs have tons of what are sometimes called "bedroom communities." In theory you can drive into Manhattan from various points in New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut, and Long Island. The distances aren't that far; 50 miles would get you halfway out Long Island and well past most of the places you might commute from in Connecticut. But unless you leave at 5 a.m., traffic makes such journeys nightmarish. So lots of people go by train, with communities built up around stations, particularly the ones that make express trips to Manhattan. Then these communities are defined by the trip time, in minutes, from Penn Station or Grand Central. Syosset is 53 minutes away on the 5:17 p.m. train.

There were two bar carts on the platform, selling beers to passengers wishing to start their happy hours right away. I would say 80 percent of the people on that platform were men. They did not stand randomly distributed around the platform in the way people do while waiting for the subway, or the way we wait in PHL for the Amtrak trains to come in. The men stacked up in little clusters, three deep, right by the spot where the doors would open when the train came in (though, interestingly, not exactly where the doors opened. It seems there is some variability of where the train stops, so the pod had to shuffle over a few feet). The pod is about establishing order for grabbing a seat, since there weren't quite enough seats for everyone. The beers contribute the possibility of pleasure; the uncertainty of getting a seat a chance of misery.

Since I had taken my spot in the pod, I got a seat and read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio until the train emerged from the tunnel in Queens. Then I alternated reading this tale of another sleepy little town defined by the trains coming in and coming out, and watching out the window. I am not sure if Long Island has such characters lurking there, waiting to be discovered and confided in by the George Willards of, perhaps, the NY Daily News. But in any case, the apartment buildings became strip malls and houses and we eventually pulled into Syosset where the symphony of this commute continued. The men streamed out. There were cars lined up to pick them up, cars that are likely there every day at 6:10 p.m. Few people go there who are not part of this daily show. I asked a train station employee to point me to a cab stand; there was only one ancient cab in it and I had to convince the driver to take me to my hotel. He didn't agree to it until another passenger came over and asked to go to a restaurant in the same direction.

When I discussed the LIRR with some people at my speeches the next day, many told me of family members who'd made that commute daily for decades. One woman said her father had done it for 35 years. The men in the pod stand close because they are trying to get a seat, but one reason they can stand close is they all know each other. It is the same faces day after day as the seasons and years pass.

A certain thing happens when people have kids in New York City. Some stick it out for a while, but many families elect to move to the New York suburbs for understandable reasons. You can get more space; you can send your kids to the local public schools. That's what eventually led us to find a suburb, albeit one out in Pennsylvania, and since neither of us really commute, the exact distance into Philly wasn't terribly relevant. These New York parents quite often originally intend to both continue commuting into Manhattan, but often one of them — generally mom — then decides she can't stomach it anymore. Both of them are at least an hour away from the kids, which makes it hard to get back if there is a problem, and the hour each way adds up to at least two hours each day spent apart beyond time devoted to the job. So she stays home for a while, or gets a job locally. Such jobs generally don't pay as much as Manhattan jobs. The family's income goes down and there is more pressure on Dad to continue making that daily trip on the train. Sometimes the suburbs are cheaper, but sometimes they extract other costs, paid daily on the 5:17 p.m. Port Jefferson line train of the LIRR.

In other news: Thanks to everyone who posted on the List of 100 Dreams thread! Commenter Ahlia is our winner (I used a random number generator to choose a winning comment). She'll get a signed copy of Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker (about Bosker's achieving one of her dreams of becoming a master sommelier).

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6 Responses to Life on the LIRR


  1. Gillian says:

    I commute from southern Westchester, sometimes by train and sometimes by car. Our town is a brief 34 minutes to Grand Central by train. But there are things within our town that hinge on the train commute too. Homes that are walking distance from the train are at a premium. The public schools and two if the nursery schools are all within walking distance to the train. When I take my kids to school we go to the big school, the nursery school and then I have just enough time to swing by for a coffee before catching the 9:07. Conversely, on the way home everyone in my train car is from my town. That car offers the quickest walk home. However, I think because we are situated closer to Manhattan we have a lot more moms who continue to work in our town and the surrounding ones. Having grown up on the west coast, train commuting does seem a uniquely east coast phenomenon.

    • @Gillian – if one is sitting on the train it can be pretty pleasant as a commute – but yes, when people do something 10 times a week, every minute adds up. There can be a big difference between a 30-minute train ride and a 50-minute one, and I suspect it affects the choices people make. It affects prices of houses too, of course, which is something that is going on. the longer the train ride, or distance from a station, the less housing costs.
      And it is a very NY phenomenon to think of towns as being “minutes” from Grand Central, or Penn, as opposed to miles (a more unusual unit of distance).

      • Gillian says:

        The NYTimes recently had a graphic on their website that looked at price/sqft, public school ratings and commute. It was interesting to look at, but it used average commute of the population living there not minutes to NYC. This was super deceiving. It made place in far northern Westchester and the eastern end of LI look much more attractive than they would be for someone trying to get into Manhattan daily. In this case this is definitely a time vs. money calculus.

  2. jennie says:

    Your post has me thinking.My husband drives 25 minutes to a larger town for his job, but I could almost walk if it weren’t for the rural nature of our town. I live about 5 minutes by car from my job. Because I am closest in proximity to the kids, I seem to do all of the back and forth. Even though my husband arrives home before I do, I am usually the one who does all of the little trips back and forth. I wonder if I did have to commute farther would I be more organized in my trips. Because it is such a small thing to run back and forth, I probably waste a great deal of time not thinking through my afternoon errands. If I really thought about it (and tracked my time more thoroughly) I would probably find that I lose an hour or more just by not being conscientious. I may even be losing more time than if I had a larger commute. It seems like nothing to arrive home and realize I am out of milk and pop into town to get more. The whole trip probably takes 15 minutes, but over time, and the fact that I do something similar almost daily…. hmmm.

  3. J. says:

    A similar culture exists among Metra train users in the Chicago suburbs. Midwesterners are willing to strike up conversations with familiar-looking strangers on the platforms, and regular commuters who hit it off often start sitting together in a particular train car–especially on Friday evenings, when young women in short-shorts sell beers to the homebound crowds streaming down the escalators in Union Station. My father rode the Burlington-Northern line for 25 years, and had friends he only socialized with on the inbound or outbound trains. They celebrated promotions, retirements and other milestones by bringing coffee and donuts to share on the inbound ride–or mixers and snacks for the outbound ride’s cocktail hour (Metra conductors look the other way if alcohol drinkers are discreet and dispose of their trash). There are kiss-and-ride lanes and years-long waiting lists for parking spaces near the suburban stations.

  4. C says:

    You’ve painted a bit of a negative picture for those who commute, but I’d like to offer a different perspective: I lived in Brooklyn and commuted into Midtown for years – that subway commute was 45 min and full of jostling/pushing and rude passengers (at times). I moved to a CT suburb and now my train commute is nearly an hour. But in that morning hour, I start emails for the day, plan out my work and goals, read news relevant to my industry, and do other projects from my laptop that don’t require an internet connection. On the way home, I finish up work or respond to emails (to login and send once back at home and kids are settled), I read for fun, order groceries online, find last-minute birthday gifts on Amazon and generally manage the house as much as I can from my phone. By making these hours work for me as much as I can, I find I am more productive than I ever was when I lived in the city. And I always get a seat, so that helps 🙂

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