Metro-North Is My North Star


My dad had his commute down to a science. It was the early 1980s and he was working in what was then known as the Pan Am building, the skyscraper that straddles Park Avenue and connects directly to Grand Central Terminal. We were living in Darien, Conn. at the time, right along the New Haven line of Metro-North commuter rail. Dad could make it from his office down to the Metro-North platforms without ever having to step outside, and he told me that he eventually got the timing down, elevator ride and all, to three minutes. When you’re a commuter, each of these minutes counts.

I have no memory of riding Metro-North with Dad (we moved to Chicago when I was 5), but I do remember having a worldview that was shaped entirely by the New Haven line and the stretch of I-95 that ran parallel to it. We’d start in bucolic Darien. We’d pass by the small city of Stamford, which I thought looked cool because it had big buildings that I thought rich people worked in. We passed through Greenwich, which had a pizza joint I liked. Then we crossed over the border and through Westchester County before The Bronx grew around us. And grew and grew and grew. Trees became scarcer. Yellow cabs swam alongside us. Housing projects shot out of the ground, and in increasingly greater numbers until, finally, I’d see the Empire State Building come into view. New York. The only big city in the world. The new Jerusalem. I would live in that city one day.

And I did.

Though I haven’t lived in New York for over 20 years, it remains the nexus of my personal history. It’s where this company, one I helped start, is based. It’s where I first lived on my own after school. It’s where I enjoyed the massive party nights that I thought college would provide me but never did. It’s where I became snobby about bagels. It’s where I got my first white-collar job. It’s where I lost my first white collar job and went on unemployment. It’s where I met my wife. It’s where my life took its formal shape. My parents no longer lived in Darien when I was living in Manhattan. But they were still in Connecticut, and still accessible on Metro-North. Still within reach. I could visit them on weekends for free food and TLC and did so frequently, often with my wife in tow.

That ride was never fun, and yet I relished it. My job was within walking distance of my apartment on sunny days, so hopping on a train counted as a novelty for me, rather than a daily slog I had to nail down with atomic precision. I loved Grand Central, which to this day instills the proper sense of awe in anyone freshly arriving into the city. I loved the manual departure board, and the flapping sound it made every time the trains changed. I loved buying two giant cans of Foster’s at the entrance of the platform. And I loved pulling into Waterbury and being able to spot Dad’s car merely by the shape of its headlights. This was a long-ass ride: nearly three hours with a tedious layover in Bridgeport. But every time I rode Metro-North, I felt like the ride was worth it. I felt like I was going somewhere.

Two weeks ago, I had to get from Mom and Dad’s house down to New York for a week of Defector meetings. Dad can’t drive anymore, and I didn’t wanna burden my mom with an extended drive of her own. So I had my wife drop me at Waterbury station and, for the first time since leaving New York in 2003, got back on the train. I couldn’t drink on the ride this time, because I’ve quit alcohol. I also couldn’t get high, because it was morning and because I didn’t want a three-hour commute to feel like nine. But I wanted to ride the train anyway, to see if it was the same as I’d remembered.

If you’re unfamiliar with Metro-North, it serves commuters living in Connecticut, Westchester, and the Hudson Valley. If you live in Jersey or Long Island, you mostly commute in and out of Penn Station. Sucks to be you. But if you’re a hoity-toity Nutmegger, you get Grand Central. Up until 2014, you even got a bar car if you wanted happy hour on the go (I bought my beer at the station because it was cheaper). This counts as luxury when you have to commute an hour-plus each way every day like a chump.

I was no chump for this ride. I was a homeowner and small business titan, with no obligations in the city that afternoon save for eating my weight in sushi. I could chill on this train. I could savor the ride, if one can mentally savor sitting in a vinyl pew for hours on end.

I got one of those pews to myself. Such are the perks of getting on the train somewhere just south of Ontario. I stared out the window and watched as the train slowly chugged out of Waterbury. Same as in the early aughts, it would not go much faster. This part of the New Haven Line passes through the Route 8 corridor of Connecticut, which is studded with towns that used to make stuff but no longer do. Naugatuck. Seymour. Derby. And Bridgeport, which is the largest city in Connecticut but has little else going for it. On Metro-North, you pass through these towns at a trot. You familiarize yourself with their contours. They became the signposts of your existence.

I tried my best to not just stare my phone the whole time. Before phones, all I could do on Metro-North was read, stare, or drink. I usually chose the last two of those options, watching the street lights go blurry as my Foster’s quickly lost its effervescence. It was a tedious ride, but it also gave me room to dream big (I’m gonna be a star one day) and dream small (I hope Mom has a bowl of Cheetos waiting for me).

Now I have a phone, which makes commutes easier, but not more profound. This is especially true of train travel, which is the best mode of short-range travel for anyone traveling alone. No driving. No stoplights. No airports. Just you and the world passing by. Thus I made a point of taking that world in as best I could. Just like when I was in my 20s, I saw a lot of things from the train window that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The aggressive overgrowth of early summer vegetation. Attractive two-block stretches of otherwise unattractive burgs. Mansions situated on distant hills. Shambling rowhouses on flatter land. The Naugatuck River flowing lazily toward its rendezvous point with the Housatonic. And people: people rushing, eating, waiting, talking, begging, working, trying to nap. Not all of these sites were picaresque, but they still told a good story if you looked hard enough. You could watch that story unfold on the backs of warehouses, on graffiti painted onto highway overpasses, and in piles of loose scrap metal. The detritus of recent civilizations.

I have lived through such civilizations, so while much of the sights along my ride were new, there were also glaring reminders that it was no longer 2003. The vinyl upholstery in my Metro-North car was new, and presumably less prone to sticking to the bottom of my thighs. Some of the cars we passed by were electric. Old buildings were gone. New buildings had sprouted out of the dirt. At 47, I’m now one of those guys who points out random landmarks and cries out to everyone, “That used to be a costume shop!”

Now that’s real old-man shit, but there’s a reason that old men do that, because it’s a hell of a thing to live long and see the world around you change in real time. I can tell you, “I was alive before iPhones!” as a vain lament, or I can tell you that exact same thing as a way of letting you know that I have lived through some crazy shit. This is the age when you realize that your own life has become a history book of its own, and this ride was a reminder of that. The New York I once lived in had Twin Towers, fro-yo shops every six feet, no legal weed, and ad agencies that housed all of my career ambitions. The New York I was now barreling towards had, same as me, more visible miles on it.

But I couldn’t wait to get there, because it was still New York.

I got to Bridgeport and had my memory jogged in an unwelcome fashion. I saw that my connecting train was arriving in three minutes, which I figured gave me enough time to take a piss. When I came out of the john, the train into Grand Central had already arrived. That’s OK, I thought to myself. They’ll hold it until the scheduled departure time. Wrong. The doors closed before I could get on. I smacked on one of them, like a character at the end of a romcom, as the train set into motion. I screamed WAIT and STOP many, many times.

That’s when I remembered. Oh right, no one gives a shit.

Another train came 30 minutes later, taking me deeper into my past. Darien. Stamford. The endless, imposing Bronx. I caught fleeting glimpses of Long Island Sound from my window, which then turned into glimpses of Manhattan from afar. We’re close, I thought. After all these years, my favorite thing about New York was still the anticipation. The people. The streets. The energy. What will I see there? Who will I see there? What incredible things will happen to me?

Everything outside went black as the train went subterranean. I could feel the city above me, even though I couldn’t reach it. The train crept along and I squinted out the window to see the darkened tunnel slowly—so slowly—expand to accommodate room for an approaching platform. Once the platform came into full view, I thought I’m here. Every time I make it to New York, I feel like I’ve made it.

I wasn’t alone. The conductor came onto the PA to announce that we were now approaching Grand Central, which prompted everyone aboard to grab their things and line up in the aisles so that they could get off the train as fast as they could. So that they wouldn’t lose a single minute.

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