notes from the end of the line

CHESTNUT HILL WEST

This is a dispatch from Chestnut Hill, PA, at the Chestnut Hill West station that terminates the SEPTA R8 line — famed by many and reviled by few for its salient differences from the R7 line, which terminates at the Trenton Transit Center, where I transfer to the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line and alight, at last, in Princeton Junction, where I live.

I am not, in case it wasn’t clear, supposed to be here.

I write “where I transfer…” as though it is a habit, but this is my second day at a commute on which I’ve already committed five rookie errors. I missed the train I wanted yesterday morning, this morning, and tonight; I ended up making my connection yesterday morning because I took the Amtrak to Trenton instead of the NJT, which caught me up to the SEPTA train I wanted but relied on the mercy of a conductor to avoid a fine, and today, instead of taking the R7 to Trenton at 6:00, I got on the R8 at some other time and disembarked, a stranger in a strange land, at Chestnut Hill, PA.

For this privilege I wake up at 5:30 and go to bed at 10:00.

5:30? Well, I get out of the house (in theory) at 6:10 to catch the 6:35, which connects me at Trenton at a time I don’t remember (I am, for reasons passing understanding, too proud to tote around a paper schedule, a pride I now resolve to drop), and thence to Philadelphia at 8:04 or maybe 8:06. That puts me in the CCN at 8:30, which might reasonably be viewed as overweeningly ambitious except that I have to leave at 5:15 if I’m to have any hope of getting back to Princeton Junction at 7:04 or maybe 7:06, and thence home at 7:30 unless a pickup by Shin-Yi absolves me of the walk. So 5:30, because you pick — you get a morning or an evening. Or half of each, but it should be intuitive that this is the worst alternative.

R8 FROM CHESTNUT HILL WEST TO 30TH STREET STATION

I will never, unless I am stupid, gripe here about my job per se. Not that there’s anything to gripe about after two days — I wouldn’t tell you if there were, but there isn’t. Still, my job is science, it’s laying bare the secrets of the human mind, it’s shaping the ideas of the new millennium — well, all right, after Day 2 it’s mostly administrivia and wrangling with network printing and spawning laughably ambitious statements of my research goals that will inevitably be revised down and down toward reality in the weeks to come — but why, of all things, would I waste my rapidly evaporating minutes on the soil of my home planet bemoaning my commute? What more soulless, mechanized, generic topic could I have chosen?

Deny the premise, counsels Leo. A group of Pennsylvanian valley girls cluck deep-sunk in trivia as the sun sets behind a wall of urban decay, miles of broken brick mocked by efflorescent weeds and scarred by iridescent glyphs of a thousand private semiotics; and a father says good night to his daughters, one by one; and, later, a couple en route to Trenton on the R7 will find themselves in my position — I will tell them that they’re going away from Temple, not toward it, which is not as bad, to my mind, as getting on the wrong train altogether, but there you have it; and let us not forget what landed me in Chestnut Hill, PA.

30TH STREET STATION, NEAR SAXBY’S COFFEE, AT THE TABLE WITH THE DUNKIN’ DONUTS UMBRELLA

Well, perhaps I should not blame my commute for its own failure, but I have taken this route to Philadelphia without incident before. I have made the shift to early waking with a suspicious lack of fatigue; I cannot help but think that these attentional failures are a residual effect of that shift, although I do hope and expect that they are temporary. But the commute not only (according to me) promotes these failures, it amplifies my frustration as they come, because — and this is, perhaps, one cam shaft in the hidden engine of this doomed thicket of an essay — because I cannot spare this time.

Of course I can spare this time. I don’t have a child to put to bed or a dog to feed; even my wife, for whom I forged this schedule, will have company tonight. What I mean is that every hour is more precious now. Not because anyone is sick or otherwise imperiled, not because anyone is leaving or anything is ended, but because I have tithed twenty percent of my waking life to the Ministry of There and Back Again, and the only way to set yourself right with such a sacrifice for a job paying $37,000 p.a. is to, in considerable seriousness and without regard for the integrity of infinitives, commit to a stern regimen of No Fucking Around.* Which, in turn, will drive you absolutely ferretshit off your davenport if you make rookie commuting errors to the tune of three hours of your life attributable to nothing but your own incompetence.

R7 FROM 30TH STREET STATION TO TRENTON TRANSIT CENTER

It’s a new world. I’m not usually all that bothered by mistakes, really, but this is a context in which small ones multiply. This can’t keep happening. It has to start working. And it will; but it isn’t. And that’s uncomfortable, because I’m a married PhD and did I mention I’m making $37,000 p.a. and the carefree academic lifestyle doesn’t offer much compensation when you’re waking up at 5:30 just to get in 8 plus lunch and see your wife for a few hours before bed.

And this is the time to admit that, in spite of all this wailing, I don’t entirely hate it. After the amorphousness of grad school and the absolute amorphousness of a productive but hair-tearingly inefficient summer, there’s a palpable fascistic thrill in submitting myself to a highly articulated routine, and a still palpable but less fascistic thrill in walking orthogonal to sunrise on a dewy fall morning. Listing back towards fascism, we have the subsequent, quiet thrill of bending my will toward writing and seeing it happen, even on the train without coffee or snacks or computer in sight, seeing words and ideas emerge that will outlast the moment, will actually contribute to the karmic output of the day. One thing about this new job to which my training in psychology has sensitized me is that new contexts afford new associations; new situations afford new habits. There’s a reason that waking at 5:30 is easier now than it used to be, that resisting procrastination in the office is easier, that avoiding snacking is easier — I haven’t created those associations to Philadelphia yet, and if I’m lucky, I won’t, yet another of these curious onanistic dom-sub control thrills to which hackers and geeks so easily succumb.

And let us not forget the entirely anarchic thrill of looking out the train’s window of an afternoon and seeing beautiful deep foliage and pot-bellied, pipe-champing houses where you expected tungsten and concrete, and disembarking into Chestnut Hill, PA, where everything is painted with a fussy eye for detail that seems entirely unfeigned, where the main street on which the SEPTA bus drops off passengers for the train station is actually paved with cobblestones, where there are brooks and retaining walls and long staircases ascending hills and a presence of and accommodation to the third dimension that you forget you missed until, every so often, you see it. I am morally certain that a life confined to Chestnut Hill would be stifling, and I doubt although I cannot disprove that its bizarrely sincere charm extends past the train station and its one main street — but it is not such a bad thing, on a warm fall evening, to put away the threats of terrible sexual violence that your mind lays unceasingly at the feet of the gods of transit for making sport of you and adventure, like a small child creeping deliberately through the thin forest of his backyard to dip his hands into a stream visible from his kitchen window, to the cobblestone streets of this unexpected town so flawless in its sucrose-not-fructose quaintness; to dodge a heroically sweaty prep-school distance runner and abandon all dietary wisdom in an independent bakery with no trace of “indie,” to make the pretty girl behind the counter laugh when she describes the treat that you’ve inquired about and you answer, with a resignation and amusement incomprehensible except in context and certainly out of all proportion to its reasonably anticipated tastiness, “That sounds good” —

— and, after a bite (of the treat, although it would have been hard going to refuse the girl), to pick up your pen and think of what to make of it.

(© Matt Weber, 2009. Section headers indicate approximately where the draft was written.)

* All right, it’s not the only way. You could give up 20% of your goals. Before I started at Penn, my goals were to do well at my job, lose weight, finish the novel, and maintain a good relationship with my wife. I’d rather give up fucking around, thanks.

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