Subway Blues

Postcard from New York, New York

Beyond the ivy-covered gates of Harvard lurks the “Real World,” where most of us will one day end up. Even those who struggle against entry into this mysterious realm by attending graduate school can only postpone the inevitable. And so, for many, the summer is a time to explore and learn about this exotic place that our older friends have disappeared to. We get jobs or summer internships and are forced to trade in our jeans for suits and our flip flops for heels. We set our alarms for times of day that we never see during the rest of the year. We sit at desks or cubicles for eight hours at a time and have to resort to using web mail instead of telnet.

But perhaps the most jarring part of being in the Real World during the summer is the daily commute. In New York City, where I am working this summer, finding someone who can walk to work is about as rare as finding a reasonably-priced apartment in Manhattan. Instead of being able to wake up minutes before class and still arrive on time, many of us now have to endure at least 30 minutes on one or more forms of mass transportation.

Having gone to high school in Manhattan I am no stranger to the daily commute. This only increased my dread of what I knew would become a stressful daily routine in order to get to midtown Manhattan from my home in Brooklyn. I would have to pay $2 for the pleasure of waiting in a hot, sticky and smelly station. When a train finally came, the only car with seats would be the one where the air conditioning was broken. If I chose air conditioning over a seat, I knew I could expect a ride crammed in with fellow commuters. Then it would be a test to see just how many people could fit in a subway car, while the intercom crackled with the angry conductor telling people not to hold that doors because “there is a train directly behind this one!” Crammed in with fellow New Yorkers, some of whom inevitably would not believe in deodorant, I could also expect the usual panhandlers or people reading from the Bible (why do they always choose the book of Revelations?). And I would have to repeat the process of moving from smelly hot station to crowded subway car two more times each way, since my route required two transfers.

In short, the thought of having to commute was one of the most depressing parts of entering the Real World for the summer.

However, this summer the strangest thing has happened; my commute has become my favorite part of the day. I look forward to the 45-minute trip each way. With the right amount of skill and pushiness, I can usually get a seat for part of the ride. My iPod blocks out any background chatter, requests for money, or biblical verses. And I get to read for fun, which I never have time to do during the school year. I have reclaimed the commute and made it my time. No one bothers me, I am not forced to make small talk or talk at all. My cell phone gets no reception. There is no e-mail, or Internet access. I am surrounded by a sea of strangers who I will probably never see again and wouldn’t recognize if I did. I am anonymous and in my own little blissful world. It has gotten to the point where I don’t mind the occasional delay that extends my commuting time.

In the past weeks, my routine has been forced to change slightly due to circumstances beyond my control. Recent events in London have forced me to be less oblivious to the world around me. I am now more alert than I was, and a little less excited to get on a subway train. And the increased police presence is at the same time both comforting and unsettling because it serves as a reminder that the New York City subway could be a terrorist target. I have also given up my white headphones in favor of generic ones since iPod thefts are rising on the subways. Yet despite these minor changes, I still consider my commute the best time of the day.

Sure, I’ll be glad to return to comfort of Harvard’s ivy-covered walls next year, and I know that I will appreciate sleeping later and wearing flip flops more. However, if I can come to love commuting, perhaps the rest of the Real World won’t be so bad either.

Jessica E. Schumer ’06, a Crimson photography chair, is a social studies concentrator in Mather House. If you happen to see her on the New York City subway engrossed in “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” please don’t disturb her.