I 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).