The Frustrations of Commuting

Aug 24 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], Transit

My commute this morning was more chaotic than normal due to a fire that destroyed a switching station at a major hub on the Long Island Rail Road. The fire happened around midday yesterday and brought the commuter rail system to a screeching halt—with no service into or out of Manhattan except on one line for most of the day. I was fortunate to have missed the mayhem of yesterday's evening commute because I wasn't feeling well, and spent my day huddled on the sofa watching bad television, but the residual effects were strong today. Still, it was an opportunity to see how commuters adapt in these circumstances.

I had planned last night to get a very early start today. But truth be told, when I woke up and found that I still felt pretty poorly (nothing contagious, so don't worry about spreading germs) and the weather was dreary and drizzly, I decided that I wasn't going to extra lengths today to avoid the inevitable delays that I would have to face. I did leave slightly earlier than normal because it appeared that the trains weren't abiding by any sort of schedule and it was a "first come, first served" sort of deal. But as I suspected, it made no difference: I waited for an hour on the platform for a train that I could board. Only one other train had stopped while I was waiting, and it was too packed to accommodate any but the most determined, which definitely didn't include me.

While I was waiting though, I had plenty of time to observe and fraternize with my fellow commuters. On a normal day, riders break up into cliques. We're all pretty seasoned platform campers at this point, so we tend to move in the same circles in the mornings. Within the groups, there is a fair amount of camaraderie—we know who has grandchildren, who spent the weekend gardening, who is going on vacation, etc. Between groups, however, there is little fraternizing. Sure, there's the passing nod as you acknowledge someone who jumped groups, but by and large you hold your position. (You don't want to give up your hard earned spot—there are always lurkers about.)

The railroad delays upset this balance. People milled freely about—though if they could connect with a familiar face from their normal group, they did so. And then the small groups wandered the platform trying to determine the best camping spot for the longer trains that the LIRR deployed to help move the volume of passengers. These little groups seemed to function as a means for riders to take control of the situation: the other members served as sounding boards as riders discussed how much longer they would wait for a train before making that call to the office indicating they would either work from home or take a personal day. It usually took only one person indicating that he was done with the wait for others to follow suit.

All the folks waiting seemed to agree on one thing: the noisy, obnoxious pair of men on the platform who spewed expletives every time they opened their mouths were a public nuisance, and they were given wide berth. These men took turns proclaiming how long they had been waiting for an eastbound train. One would say, "I've been waiting two fucken hours!" And the other would say, "I've been waiting four fucken hours!" Then would come the message over the PA reminding passengers to allow extra time for travel today due to the fire at Jamaica Station yesterday. And the men would start again: "It's been 30 fucken hours! They can't put out a fire in 30 fucken hours??" "I know! The best fucken fire department in the world, and it's been 30 fucken hours!" "They can't fix the trains in 30 fucken hours! I've been waiting four fucken hours for a train."

The rest of the waiting passengers got it. We were all inconvenienced, after all. But they were the only two who chose to scream at the top of their lungs in frustration at 7:15 am. They seemed to make the waiting travelers uneasy—until one woman stepped forward and said firmly, "There's no need to curse. It's rude and disgusting." She looked one of the men squarely in the eye (the other was pacing up and down the platform), and you know what? He apologized. "I'm sorry. I'm so frustrated. I've been waiting four hours for a train to XX."

The pair was quiet for about 10 minutes. Then a message on the PA system advising passengers that September monthly passes were available for sale set them off again. They started shouting again—without the cursing—"Four hours! I've been waiting four hours! That's what wrong with the MTA. They're all corrupt!" This last announcement got a rise out of some other passengers as well—a chuckle rippled down the platform—but I think more than a few folks had expletives on their mind.

4 responses so far

  • Ken says:

    The two vocal complainers are interesting, especially with the notion that others shared their views but were repressing them better. Many of the people who manage to remain more civil on the platform seem to be more free with their feelings when posting comments on blogs about the same incidents. On the platform, surrounded by peers, there is more restraint.

    An old friend of mine always found that to be hypocritical. He firmly believed that you should be forthright to speck your mind even without the anonymity provided my other means of communication. I always liked to believe that people who would wait to blog about such experiences would benefit from additional reflection and more information being available. Other times I think my friend was right.

    Being trained in system analysis and design I tend to have a better understanding about the complex processes and dynamics that are happening and am often more forgiving of such delays. While others rant in such circumstances I am often breaking the system down and realizing everything that must be going on behind the scenes while trying to think about all of the interconnections with other systems.

    Of course having some understanding of such things often causes me even more aggravation when I realize that some delays really are being caused by incompetence. That's when, much to my chagrin, I become a noisy, obnoxious man on a platform who spews expletives every time I open my mouth. (Well, I hope not quite that bad, but I do need better control at times.)

    When confronted with such behavior in others, I often feel embarrassment as part of the discomfort. It's curious that I should feel that emotion as if, through empathy of some kind, I somehow need to apologize for the behavior of the ignorant loudmouth on behalf of the human race. In case any nearby birds are watching, I suppose.

    • kdcosta says:

      "Many of the people who manage to remain more civil on the platform seem to be more free with their feelings when posting comments on blogs about the same incidents."
      - Very true. If even half the people on my platform in the morning had spoken up as the commentators did, they would have drowned out the expletive-ridden rants.

      "When confronted with such behavior in others, I often feel embarrassment as part of the discomfort. It’s curious that I should feel that emotion as if, through empathy of some kind, I somehow need to apologize for the behavior of the ignorant loudmouth on behalf of the human race."
      - You're not alone in this. I have had similar feelings and I am sure there are others out there who can relate. At what point does your embarrassment turn to disgust and annoyance? (Assuming that it does.) The perception of intentional and unintentional may be important here. The two loudmouths on my platform were intentional in their actions, and I think people were quicker to lose patience with them.

      Anyway, trains are still operating at about 60% (which is better than not at all, I know!) And I haven't seen the loudmouths since Tuesday. Hopefully, they found their way home.

  • Ken says:

    "At what point does your embarrassment turn to disgust and annoyance?"

    I think all three emotions build at the same time, though perhaps not in equal proportion. A more difficult question for me is exactly what I am annoyed at? The loudness as a intrusion? The vulgarity (actually the vulgarity doesn't annoy me unless it lacks creativity)? I'd like to say it's mainly the lack of logic and reasoning that usually is the root of such rants.

    I'd like to say that with surety, but emotions are such a hard thing to think rationally about.

    • kdcosta says:

      Actually, that seems like a pretty rational reply. Most people aren't able to ask themselves those sorts of questions--they simply allow the response to occur.

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