Tales From Suburbia: The Commuter Chessmatch

Commuting to New York is Work

The summer morning air was thick with heat and moisture as train 4769 pulled into the Aberdeen/Matawan station at precisely 8:05 a.m., which was a good thing, since the 7:40 train was canceled (Bing ... “Attention Matawan passengers — the 7:40 train to New York has been canceled” ... Bing). That means the 8:05 will be more crowded than usual. 

A Monday during the summer necessarily means that all trains will be crowded. Why? Thousands of youthful beachgoers will have spent the weekend in summer houses in Point Pleasant, Manasquan, and several dozen other beach towns, and will be returning to New York City.

They’ll go straight to work on Monday, after spending Friday night through Monday morning laying out on the beach, soaking in the sun, partying at beach houses and bars, and generally carousing, debauching and engaging in general merry making. Jealous? You bet. 

The platform was crowded, permeated by the smell of coffee and Pantene hair spray. I must say, I’ve always felt bad for the women who, when it’s 85 degrees out, are required to put panty hose on. There are plenty of them on the platform this morning, with their fresh make-up and beads of sweat above their upper lip.

All the good spots on the platform had been taken by the regulars. For the uninitiated, there are unmarked places on the platform where those in the know wait. Then, magically, the train stops such that the doors open precisely where those in the know knew where to go. I don’t do that; I find it too pedestrian (read: “I’m too cool”). Of course, they get the good seats. 

“What’s a good seat?,” you ask.  Not one I typically get. By the time I get on, toward the end of the cattle drive in Matawan — I once heard a conductor tell another conductor that it was time to “bring in the herd” — the only seats left are those in the middle of a three-seater.

I typically have to ask the guy sitting on the aisle, who is playing solitaire on his computer, to get up to let me in. I generally get a look, or a gasp of exasperation, especially if I have to ask them to move their bag off the seat on which I’m about to plant my butt. “O.K. I’ll stand so you can keep your briefcase on the seat.” (No, I’ve never actually said that, but I really wanted to). 

On this particular Monday morning, as I go through the first car, the prospects are not looking good. Most of the three seaters are completely filled up — a bad sign.  Men (boys really), red from yesterday’s sun, some still smelling of beer from last night (or this morning), wear sun glasses and this morning’s hang over. 

Young ladies, also red from yesterday’s sun, sprawl out with their suitcases on wheels in the aisle. What could they have in there? They were only gone for two or three days.

The next car was similarly full, as was the next. Oh, there were a few available seats in these cars, but I passed, based upon the occupant of the seat next to it: the large imposing muscle man, the guy talking to himself, the guy talking business on the cell phone (“So he buys ten thousand cases!! What am I going to do with ten thousand cases?”), the woman who took up 2/3 of a two seater (I feel bad for her, but what can I do?). 

Then there’s the three seater where the two end seats are taken with people talking to each other. I’m not getting involved with that. I’ll sit between them for an hour, while these two talk over me. No thanks. 

Of course, those with a gambling streak might go for that seat, in the hopes that the guy on the outside will want to sit next to the guy he’s talking to and will move into the middle. Then I get the aisle seat. But, I’m not trying that today. I’ve lost that bet too many times. 

Finally, in the fifth car, the mother lode. The winning lottery ticket. Heaven on earth. What every commuter yearns for when he gets on that train in the morning: a small woman alone in a two seater. And she was in the window seat, so I get the aisle! My cup runneth over! 

I sat down, began to read my newspaper, and, before the next stop, I was asleep, as usual. I awoke in a startled state to the electronic version of the William Tell Overture blasting in my ears. It was my seat mate’s phone, and she proceeded to talk for the next 45 minutes about her weekend. (“Like, can you believe Bob didn’t have the guts to show up at the Squan Tavern on Saturday night?”). Maybe I didn’t win the lottery.  

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