Commuting is terrible.

This is not exactly a new revelation. Last summer, I took the bus downtown, a trip that only took about a half-hour and had the hidden blessing of making me buy a 30-day CTA pass. Inching down State Street was sometimes excruciating, but I quickly mastered the art of being able to stand and read at the same time without falling down. I learned the rhythms of south-bound rush hour traffic and played the game of guessing who was a young professional who happened to live in Hyde Park and who was a UChicago student intern to pass the time when my eyes were too tired to read tiny print.

Commuting from the suburban wasteland that is northern New Jersey to Penn Station is another beast entirely. I take the train, which lets me skip a ride on the subway once I get into the city. In the mornings, I’m usually too tired to do anything but stare out the window. I love the views of the city on the El, but my train rides have reminded me that trees with their jewel green leaves are pretty in the sunlight. Yesterday, I saw a crane perched in the swampy marshlands that sprawl around Secaucus Junction, where everyone gets off to transfer somewhere. (I much rather see cranes than the raccoons and possums that make up Chicago’s urban safari.)

Still, pretty scenery does not make up for the fact that public transportation is now remarkably inconvenient and much more expensive. A roundtrip nowadays costs just under $20. I can no longer walk to the nearest train station or bus stop in New Jersey. And worst of all, after 6:30 pm or so, trains only depart towards the suburbs once every hour. I’ve been wasting a lot of time waiting for trains to take me home. I’ve been using it to read (old habits die hard), but I would rather just go home and eat dinner.

I have picked up a few other things about my adventures on NJ Transit:

  • If I ever get lost or forget to find out which train will actually take me to Penn Station, I just follow the harried looking people dressed in shirts and ties and closed-toe shoes. (They also typically carry newspapers and e-readers or type furiously on smartphones.)
  • I have yet to ride a train that has been eerily empty. Even at 8:30, there are people in work clothes filling the seats.
  • Train conductors have amazing memories. I want to discover the secret of their system. (How do they remember all those faces?)
  • Seriously, I can waste up to four hours getting from one place to another. Four hours!
  • No one likes sitting next to each other. There are three seats to the left of each aisle and two seats to the right. Once someone has occupied a seat, it’s as if they spread cooties on the rest of the others. Having ridden the 172 right before 10:30 classes on very rainy days, I find this all vaguely ridiculous.

While most train-waiting does lead to intense boredom, something intriguing did happen today. I arrived at Secaucus at about a quarter to 8, which left me about forty-five minutes to kill before the train headed in the direction of home was scheduled to leave. I sat down in one of the benches in the vestibule and opened my book (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, in case anyone was wondering) to read when I spotted a security guard hovering beside one of those yellow “Caution! Wet floor!” signs. The bench behind the sign was empty except for a black and white houndstooth purse. People, spotting the vacant bench from across the room, passed by, wanting to plant their tired bottoms onto the seat, but the security guard shooed everyone away and kept speaking into his walkie-talkie.

I was sitting on a bench connected to the one with the houndstooth purse. As all the posters and public service announcements have taught us, unattended bags that have been abandoned by their owners are always, always, always a cause for concern. I’m half-reading and half-wondering whether I should move to a different bench. If there was actually a bomb in that bag, I’d be in a very bad position. Concern about my mortality was fleeting because then I would have to move, which meant I would have to find a new bookmark for my book, and all the other benches were occupied, and besides, a guy who had just ordered pizza at the cafe had looked at the guard and handbag and proceeded to sit down at a table directly behind the possible bomb-filled purse anyway, so whatever this thing contained obviously couldn’t be that dangerous.

As I contemplated my possible course of (in)action, another guard arrived on the scene with a friendly labrador retriever. At this point, the people around me began to stare. The dog started sniffing around the bag, the benches, my ankles, the ankles of the people sitting next to me, pausing at a man munching a sandwich. After two minutes of this, the new guard gave a thumbs up to the one who was standing watch and shooing tired commuters away. He nodded, folded up the wet floor sign, picked up the houndstooth purse with as much daintiness as a slightly overweight security guard could muster, and the two walked away.

And just like that, people started drifting onto the empty bench. And like all the other world-weary passengers waiting to go home, I went back to my own business.

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