There’s an interesting experiment going on over at WNYC’s New Tech City. This week’s podcast (which you should totally subscribe to, by the way) talks about the value of boredom, and invites listeners to put away their phones, and just allow themselves to zone out for a bit. Various experts say that being bored from time to time may have benefits, and that by filling every moment of our day with texts and emails and Facebook and Candy Crush, we’re starving our brains. Brains, apparently, need time to wander and ponder aimlessly. Thinking about nothing at all, it turns out, is an important step in thinking creatively.
It got me thinking about how much time I used to spend trapped in subway cars, just killing time doing nothing. And how much I miss it.
I spent a solid ten years commuting into the city, most of them from Rockaway Beach (1.5 hours each way on the A Train) with stints from Forest Hills, Queens (25 minutes on the E or F) and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (about 25 minutes on the F from the other direction). But since 2001, I’ve been freelancing from home, and my commute amounts to the time it takes me to walk from my bedroom down to the basement.
But you know what? I miss it.
No, you didn’t misread that. I really miss the A Train.
More specifically: I miss my morning commute on the A train. You see, the one benefit of a long commute is that it usually means you’re at the end of the line, so you catch the train on schedule every day, and usually get a seat. I preferred the 7:40am. A Express from Rock Park, front end, corner seat by the window, on the east side of the aisle. From there, I could enjoy the morning sunshine and views of Jamaica Bay before the train headed underground, at which point I’d let the monotonous roll of the train on the tracks rock me into a trance. (The evening commute? Not so much. The train back to Rockaway is crowded for most of the ride, and there is often a connection that must be made, outside on a freezing cold, wind-swept platform. It takes forever and is generally pretty miserable.)
But in either direction, commute time was time that I had entirely to myself, even as I sat (or stood) in a sardine can packed with strangers. For the whole of the 1990s, I spent in excess of 15 hours each week in that corner seat—or tethered to a pole on the way home—during which time I devoured novels, listened to albums (Entire albums! On CD!), or just stared into space. And looking back, despite all the stalled trains, funky smells, “sick passengers,” and subterranean preachers expressing concern for my eternal soul (and let’s not forget the occasional grope), I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Once you’ve got a family and a house and even just a part-time job at the same time, spending three hours a day sitting still, alone with one’s thoughts (or one’s Sony Discman) seems positively decadent. And today, when we are never far away from a pinging text or email, it seems completely impossible.
While I don’t think I’m overly attached to my cell phone , I do find that the intertwining of life and technology does make it difficult for me to just NOT BE DOING for a little while each day. I guess that’s what I miss about the commute: It was a time when I had an excuse to zone out and let my mind wander, or indulge in something that might, on its face, seem unproductive, like reading a novel or listening to music. These days, I spend much of my time just absorbing information—Important information! Things I should know! Keys to becoming more productive! Info I can use on the job!—that I sometimes neglect to take proper time to ponder and process it all. Thinking and reading and learning all great, but it’s pretty hard to hold that stuff up at the end of the day and say to yourself: Look at what I accomplished!
I never felt guilty that I wasn’t Getting Things Done on the train. I mean, what could I do, really, other than read and reread and re-reread advertisements for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor? But as a work-at-home freelancer (and a parent, and a less-than-enthusiastic home manager), the thought of sitting on my couch for an hour staring into space, or even just taking the dog for an hour long walk to nowhere, seems almost irresponsible. I should be working! Or cleaning the house! Or tending to that neglected project! Or reading that Important Book by that Important Person about that Important Thing!
Why do I feel like every hour of my day is supposed to be devoted to Getting Things Done? Maybe a ride to nowhere on the city’s longest, coolest line every day would straighten me out.
I’m sure my romantic feelings about the A Train are colored a little bit, at least, by nostalgia. After all, one reason why I freelance is that the thought of going back to an 11+ hour work day (factoring in a minimum of 8 hours at the office plus the commute) sends shivers down my spine. I’d also wager that, were I commuting every day, I’d quickly evolve into one of those people who can’t go for a second without checking her phone. But for now, when I do head into the city for a meeting or to meet up with friends, I still find myself sitting in that corner seat by the window, taking in the view and letting my mind wander.
I know a lot of people hate the A Train. Yes, it could be better (and I, like every other Rockaway local, do have some thoughts on that). But I just wanted to tell all the haters out there that there’s still a few of us who really love to Take the A Train.