Friday, September 02, 2011


A couple of weeks back, there was a throw-away article in The Wall Street Journal on commuting.

The article started off pretty promisingly, describing the commute of a fellow who, if I did the math correctly, spends about five-and-a-half hours a day commuting back and forth between Olympia Washington and Seattle.

Now that’s a commute.

More than 3.2 million workers in the U.S., or about 2.4% of the nation's workforce, travel more than 90 minutes to work each way, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (According to the Bureau, any commute over one hour is considered extreme.)

So two hours and forty-five minutes each way is extreme even by extreme commute standards.

The next commuter profiled, however, is not exactly someone I’d categorize as an extreme commuter. Twice a month, this guy flies from Lincoln, Nebraska, to work at his office in San Francisco.

To me, this doesn’t really qualify as a commute-commute, which is something you do most (if not all days of the week).

This sounds more like living and working in Nebraska, and going into the home office in California a couple of times a month.

The next person cited in the article flies a few times a month from Connecticut to Vancouver to host a home makeover show. That’s not a commute, either.

No, commute is: getting in your car, hopping on a bike, walking out the door, taking the train, waiting at the bus stop, rattling around the subway, carpooling.

And it takes place almost every weekday, unless you’re one of those lucky folks who can work an occasional day from home.

Although my commute was never particularly extreme – borderline at best, except under extraordinary circumstances – I was a commuter-commuter for many, many years.

I was quite fortunate that my first job out of business school was just outside of Harvard Square. A quick commute on the Red Line, and a reasonable walk if the weather was fine and the subway on the fritz.

Alas, all good things, etc., etc., and our wonderful Cambridge office closed and we were herded out to Lexington.

The building was brand new, and actually quite nice, but working in Lexington meant driving to work for the first time in my life. Which meant buying a car for the first time in my life. (I was in my mid-thirties.) My first car was a used Honda Civic with 50,000 miles and a ton of rust on it. It was also a standard, which I didn’t have much experience with, but – wheeeeee – I learned.

Boston to Lexington wasn’t that bad a commute.

Sure, there were a couple of choke points, but I generally got there in about a half an hour, and back in about an hour.

The real fun began when I got home and had to hunt for a parking space.

One thing I can say for car ownership in a city: you do learn to parallel park.

The Honda, continuing to rust and picking up new quirks, like a driver side door that wouldn’t unlock, necessitating humping over the stick shift while wearing a business suit, was then used on the worst commute in my life: getting from Boston to Lowell for the time I worked at Wang.

Perhaps because I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my job, there was no good way to get there. I always hit pockets of traffic, and those 32 miles were really, really long. During my commute, I also found myself grinding my teeth, so, while others were sipping cups of coffee and munching donuts, I was sporting a dental night-guard while I drove. Which made it kind of difficult to sing along with the oldies, so I started listening to NPR.

The Honda finally died on me, quite literally at the very moment I turned into the dealership where I was picking up my new Mercury Tracer. I got $100 for my trade-in, but the dealer told me if he’d seen the car ahead of time, he would have given me zero for it.

The Mercury Tracer was a nicer, spiffier car than the rust-bucket Civic, but the commute remained odious. One time it took me 5 hours to get home during a really bad snow storm, during which I slip-slid my way home, heart in mouth, gear in second or third all the way.

If the commute was odious, so was the job. I solved both by getting a new job back in Cambridge.

I sold the Tracer through the Want Advertiser and was back in the easy-peasy commuting business, taking the Red Line from Beacon Hill to the end-of-the-line at Alewife. Which gave me, back and forth, enough time to fully read the Boston Globe each day. I’m occasionally on the subway during commuting hours, and I don’t see many people with a “real” newspaper anymore. The Metro, yes – which will only last you a couple of stops, a few more if you do the hard Sudoku. A book, maybe. But mostly absorbed with their smartphones or iPods or Kindles. As the world turns, how people entertain themselves during their commute sure has changed.

Nothing very eventful ever happened to me while subway commuting, other than this one time….

I’d gotten onto a car where there was a large group of African-American teen-aged boys sitting clumped together. They weren’t really scary-scary, but they were pretty boisterous, and I just wasn’t in the getting hassled mood. So I took a seat at the opposite end of the car, across from a nattily dressed little old man in a pair of bermudas, wingtips, a crisp white shirt, and a pale blue cotton fedora. What a nice clean little old man, I said to myself as I sat down.

Before we’d gone a stop, the nice clean little old man was talking to me.

“You, you sitting over there, you want it bad.”


I looked around.

Yes, indeed, the nice clean little old man was addressing me.

The nice clean little old man said a few not so nice, not so clean little old things to me, at which point I decided to remove myself to the end of the car where the boisterous boys were.

As I made my way down the car, the nice clean little old man continued to yell not so nice, not so clean little old things at me, until someone (not me – I was too mortified) told him to shut up. Which he did.

So this was pretty much the most exciting interesting thing that ever happened to me while commuting. Whatever it’s length, I’d have to say that my commute that day was a tad extreme.

After eight-plus otherwise commuting-uneventful years on the Red Line, my company (yet again) bolted for the burbs, and I was back having to drive again. This time in a snappy New Beetle.

The commute wasn’t god-awful, and this time I was smart enough to pay for a nights-and-weekend parking place. Good thing, because spending 45 minutes a night roaming around looking for a parking place (for over five years) wouldn’t have been much fun.

These days, my commute is either five feet, or a mile’s walk to The Writers’ Room of Boston.

There are a couple of things I miss about working full time, but commuting, even if it’s not extreme, is not one of them.

As Labor Day is now upon us, my condolences to commuters, whose commute just got worse now that the vacation season is over and everyone’s back on the road.

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