The word “commuting” has many connotations and, sadly, few, if any, are positive. Overheated, jam-packed trains and pop-song-blaring cellphones are just a few of the annoyances that approximately 110,000 Metro-North commuters endure daily. Here, a guide to surviving the ride…
To most commuters, Metro-North is a companion in an intense love-hate relationship, transporting them from their cozy Connecticut towns to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. But tolerating the struggle of the often four-hour-a-day commute is rewarded with the peace and quiet of a suburban life. With good, schools, safe neighborhoods and both a Costco and a Saks, our towns allow us to live the American dream. However, the benefits of living in one of CNN’s “Ten Best Places to Live” (Fairfield made the list!) come hand-in-hand with sacrifices — commuting being right up there next to high property taxes.
The Commute, as it’s called with almost proper noun status, is much more than being transported between home and work. It is membership in a special club, the kind with its own set of social mores and secret rituals. We take an inside look at the life of the train gang and offer some advice for getting by if this route is your reality.
Rights of Passage
Any seasoned commuter will tell you there are certain mistakes only a rookie would make. Learning the unwritten rules comes with the territory, but there are some laws of the land that even a “day-tripper” should commit to memory. For a judgment-free ride, avoid these telltale signs that you’re not one of the suits:
Eating an aromatic meal: Yes, everyone bends the “no-food allowed outside the bar car” understanding, but a sardine sandwich at 6:30 a.m. is completely intolerable.
Saving a seat for your shopping bags: A rush-hour commuter will sooner pay you for your entire lot and then promptly leave it in the station than let you occupy an empty seat with Barneys bags.
Raucous conversation: No matter how funny a story may be, immediately it will be considered obnoxious if delivered loudly on a train.
Blasting a car-wide concert: You just downloaded the latest Norah Jones album, but sharing it with the whole train through the highest volume on your iPod will make instant enemies.
Tricks of the Train
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, literally, for commuters traveling into the city. The beautiful Grand Central Terminal has the most platforms (forty-four in total) in the world. Its $250 million renovation, completed in 1996, made the station a more pleasant part of the daily commute. Still, with approximately 500,000 people passing through every day, even seasoned riders need a few tricks to stay ahead of the hordes. Jim Cameron, a fourteen-year veteran of the Darien commute and chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, knows the building inside and out and offers some advice:
The Great ATM Hunt: Stuck running through the crowds for cash? There are actually several Chase ATMs throughout the entire building and they are conveniently located in almost the exact same position on every level, just southeast of the Information Booth.
With the new north-end entrance at Madison and 47th Street, Park Avenue and 48th Street and the Helmsley Building walkways, you can easily enter the station from at least five blocks away. Other hidden access points include 43rd and 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt Avenue, or the shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street (just west of Park).
A Quick Bite, Quicker: In a hurry to get home, but can’t move another inch without a bite to eat? While the Grand Central Marketplace is often just as crowded as Grand Central Terminal, almost every restaurant inside the dining concourse now posts its contact information, exact location, and menu online. Take a moment to browse the websites at grandcentralterminal.com and decide exactly what you want and where to get it before you leave the office.
Go Before You Go: Avoid train bathrooms with a sneaky stop in Grand Central. Head to the Stationmaster’s Office on the second floor of the station’s west end. The bathrooms here are complete with a quiet waiting room.
Fastest Way from the Lower Level: Quickly get from the lower-level train exits to the street by avoiding ramps or stairs. Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. It will take you directly to Vanderbilt Avenue.
Tales from the Rails
No society is complete without its set of ghastly legends. It’s everyone for one’s self once the train leaves the station and, in the case of one example, before it even arrives. These stories prove just how much can happen within the confines of a moving space in less than two hours. Full names have been withheld to protect the commuter!
Erin of Darien reports that she once saw a man stake out several feet of platform space with his briefcase and two shopping bags so that when the train arrived he would be directly in front of the door.
Twenty-year veteran of the rails Jeff of New Canaan witnessed a couple come to the conclusion that they should divorce, to which a fellow commuter proclaimed, out loud, “Amen.”
Jack of Westport says he once saw a three-man chase through the bar car during the evening commute. The men ran through screaming at one another, only to return twenty minutes later for a round of drinks together.
Matt of New Canaan once rode into the city beside a gecko in a plastic carrier.
Megan of Ridgefield reports a rare tale of commuting compassion. “One time Chelsea Clinton asked me if a dirty child’s mitten was mine,” she says, “which was nice, but it was clearly a child’s and very dirty.”
Commuting is all about compromise. You get gorgeous property in a safe community with normal-sized grocery stores. But you give up a home base in the city. In the battle of grid-dwellers vs. suburbanites, the home base card is powerful. Without a place in the city to call home, many commuters are at a loss for some of life’s most basic needs. Here’s how to get what you need:
Best Commuter Gear:
Check out Flight 001 (originally developed for frequent flyers). It stocks everything from neck pillows and reading lights to aromatic creams for overtired eyes, 96 Greenwich Avenue, 212-691-1001, flight001.com.
Same-Day Dry Cleaning:
You never know when a jostle on the train will leave you coffee-stained on the night of a company event. Try one of these commuter-friendly spots for a quick clean while you work. Some will even pick up at your office. Bonne Cleaners & Tailors (leave it before noon, pick it up by 6 p.m.). 56 East 34th Street, 212-689-2998.
Attacked By an Armrest:
According to a New York Times article (and countless commuters), the armrests of the M7, Metro-North cars (of which 336 are in service) have a special penchant for ripping pants. If you find yourself caught with a snag, call the Metro-North Safety and Claims Services at 212-340-2183. They will reimburse the cost of your item, but be prepared to receive less than you paid on account of depreciation.
New Outfit in a Pinch:
Did the M7 attack you on your way in? Pick up a new outfit before the workday begins at the Banana Republic inside Grand Central. It’s open at 8 a.m. for this very reason. Call ahead from the train and have a salesperson pull your size, 107 East 42nd Street, 212-490-3127.
These affordable storage options are like a city apartment closet — just larger. Try Manhattan Mini Storage’s “Storage Closet” (4 x 4 x 4, as low as $29 a month) for keeping a few extra suits, your golf clubs and any other athletic equipment safely in the city, manhattanministorage.com.
Whether you’ve forgotten to buy an anniversary gift or don’t have appropriate attire for post-work plans, trained day-shoppers will serve as your secret elves while you toil at the office, Insider Shopper Inc., 212-691-0004.
Passing the Time
It’s true that an MP3 player can help pass the time for those who forgo the early-morning nap. With new video technology, riders can save late-night television for the morning trip. Apple’s iTunes store boasts more than 500 television episodes and movies as well as millions of Podcasts in everything from NPR’s morning news to a soothing meditation from Tibetan monks. Dr. Donald Wetmore, author of Beat the Clock and president of the Productivity Institute in Stratford, Connecticut, says an hour-long daily commute could give you the rough equivalent of ten college courses annually, provided you’re using the time to learn. So figure out what you want to become an expert at and grab a book or CD on the subject. There are plenty of other creative ways to pass the time:
Shop in your seat:
Online shopping may be the way most of us shop, but catalogs are still a great place to find ideas to earmark for quicker online searching.
Stick some stationery in your briefcase and surprise someone special with a handwritten note. Yes, the Post Office will still deliver those.
Almost all handheld devices, and now many cell phones, offer everything from Sudoku to Solitaire through free downloads online. Check out pdamill.com for options.
Why We Ride
How do experienced commuters deal with the fact that after five years of travel they will have racked up sixty full days commuting? Twenty-year commuting veteran Rich Westfall of New Canaan, says, “The only way to do it, is to just do it. If you start thinking about the trip, it’s much harder.” Most commuters echo this mind-over-matter approach. Westfall adds, “I always felt sort of proud commuting. It’s what I did for my family so that they could be safe and taken care of.” Now that’s finding the silver lining.
Did You Know?
• Every day commuters stand in the same “clumps,” according to where the train is going to stop. Co-clumpers greet one another but cross-clumping can raise suspicion.
• Metro-North is a pet-friendly railroad. Almost all animals are welcome and not required to be in carriers. Surprisingly, the only complaint that’s been reported had to do with a Saint Bernard who wandered up and down the aisles licking commuters’ faces. The strangest animal tale, according to one newspaper report, has to be the dog who got on and off at the same stop every day for months, without his owner.
• The time spent in four years of commuting is the rough equivalent to the time spent earning a four-year college education.