In the evening, the commuter train headed north can be a lively, convivial snuggery, particularly late in the work week. Drink glasses clink in the friendly cocktail joust - imagined, of course, as the containers are largely aluminum and often swathed in paper bags - and there's the day's-over banter of anticipated leisure just at hand. If not happiness, then relief; the slight easing of the career and the mortgage at bay, briefly in the speeding cars.
Then there are the unhappy, the morose, the bitter. They too have their place on the evening ride, spouting loudly into cellphones, reading through a late brief, pecking like mental patients on their Blackberries as if the world really cared. These angry and driven ones are also part of the late-day crowd, which is active, engaged, and noisy.
By contrast, the early morning train is the sacred ashram of the commuter towns, a reverent place where people whose lives are recorded by the quarter hour in Outlook can retire, and read, and think.
Do not break the silence - do not chat loudly or prattle on via mobile or blow out your own eardrums while subjecting neighbors to a dissonant static inflicted by iPod - or prepare to suffer the riders' common sneer, their joint but silent censure. Watch the eyes as they roll. The mouths as they turn downward. The shared glances that say: "this one's too damned much, didn't someone tell her the rules?"
Morning riders want to read the sports, dig into their Richard Ford, or laugh (silently) at the foolishness of David Brooks. They want to make a few notes, focus on the challenges ahead. Or they want to doze, to look out the window at the same kabuki landscape: the same towns, the same backyards, the same warehouses, the same Bronx, the same Harlem. They roll by. They're cues that the track hasn't changed, that it still leads to Grand Central, that work and a paycheck still await. Visual mantras of the daily grind.
All the morning cars are quiet cars, as this is the time for introspection or the head-on fatigue that comes from too little slumber. For 29 minutes or 47 minutes or 73 minutes if you live in the farmlands of the Valley, commuters can sink without fear of conscience into their own, private reverie. They can think. Just let the thoughts wander, little markers like those on the hillside at Woodlawn.
This is not the active commute, either. Happiness and anger, distress and elation are all muted. We keep it together, because we're at the start, not the end. The best way to observe this silent morning sacristy of business at rest is in the tunnel on the long, dark approach the Grand Central. There, the various lines get packed together, and the trains must often wait in the recesses for a few minutes until the path can be cleared to Lower Level 111 or Track 29 upstairs.
Looking from one car to its neighbor in the darkness, the dim light shows the other riders. A red car: are those New Haven people really different from me? They seem to read the same newspapers. They seem to snooze and lean on the windows. And they seem to stare back, wondering about those Harlem Line types and their lives in Fleetwood and Tuckahoe and North White Plains.
It's hazy in those tunnels in the morning, and the glass on the older trains isn't what you'd term clear. So the opposing crowd of packed-in commuters is shown in loose expressionist tones, dabs of gray and red and green that form the whole - the painted mirror of our lives. Lately, the trains have been overcrowded. This is caused, the railroad tells us, by wet leaves on the tracks. So the ride is less pleasant and many people stand. It can drag on, uncomfortably.
The conductors jump on the PA to remind us to be neighborly and not place our bags on the middle seats so that someone can claim them (always the choice of women, and some grown men of last resort). Sorry for the delay. This train's short four cars. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Generally, if I'm well-seated - my first choice is always the window - and have my music on (quietly) and the paper on my lap, a commute extended by five or ten minutes can feel like a gift from the heavens. More time to read. More time to think. And the very pleasant but short-lived feeling that I've postponed the world.