"My God, it has to be 10 years since I've seen you last," he said.
"More like 15," I said. "We might have met sooner, but I don't normally take this train."
"I wish I didn't have to take this train," Billy said, suddenly dour. "This train ruined my life."
"That seems a bit of a stretch," I said.
"It's not the train so much as the trip," he said. "I come in from way out, past Port Jervis. It's a two hour ride, sometimes longer on bad days."
"You mean you couldn't live any closer than that?" I asked, "Sure, if I wanted to live in a box," Billy said. "I tried to find a place over in Hoboken, but found the space so tight I couldn't raise a family. Jersey City was the same thing."
"Closer, but not right on top of New York. There are plenty of places between New York and Port Jervis that are closer," I said.
"Not many we could afford when I started out," Billy said. "I'm fairly well off now as things go, but when I got out of college and we got married, I couldn't afford more than a starter house. We looked at dozens, and most of the ones in our budget were on busy streets or next to highways, no place to raise kids."
"But Port Jervis?"
"We had a hell of a deal, triple the space we might have gotten even in the risky neighborhoods. We just couldn't pass it up. We didn't think we'd stay there. Sheila and I figured we'd live there until I got up in the company, and then sell the house and move closer. But one thing led to another. When I made enough to chance the move, we found the kids liked their school. Then we couldn't leave. I got stuck with this ride, and believe me, it gets to your after awhile.
"No matter what you do to occupy yourself, it gets to you. When I first started taking the trip, I enjoyed the view, full of farm silos and cows. But how long can you stare at cows, or dilapidated farmhouses? What I first thought of as rustic turned out to be rust and dust, and I began mapping out my trip by counting billboards.
"I became so tired and irritable my boss asked if I had trouble at home. He seemed skeptical when I blamed my bad mood on the commute. At one point, I purchased a Sony Walkman, cutting myself off from even more human contact. My secretary, mail boy and boss were hardly satisfying as my family and friends. I had lost the real attention of family and friends to TV and parties I was too tired to attend. Nor was I alone in this. Most of those around me on the train wore the same glazed look, searching out the train window for answers they could not find at home.
"At first, we talked, mumbling our complaints, commenting on the weather, then slowly drawing each other into our confidences to talk. One woman told of her child coming down with a sore throat. Another man mentioned that his wife had gone to Schenectady to take care of a sick aunt. After a while, we knew the important details of each other's families, business dealings, and medical histories.
"We even began to organize light social activities to keep ourselves amused. Although card games had proved inadequate previously, we found that by scheduling events in organized teams like bowling leagues, we could revive the games. This spirit of competition soon expanded into other games as well with some members taking up checkers and others, chess. "As remarkable as all this sounds, our efforts failed to solve many of the problems. Schedules got upset by missing members, tournaments thrown off by Wall Street downsizing, and then, of course, we had the conflict between the checkers and chess clubs. Grim-faced chess masters routinely complained about the other club's cheering, calling the conductor to have it stopped. Checker players complained that bridge tournaments interfered with theirs, and often refused to vacate seats when the bridge club asked.
"Much of this was due less to the activities themselves, than to the closed quarters in which we played. No matter how we occupied ourselves, we could not cease from growing restless. Many of us, who had been fairly athletic, began to notice expanding waistlines. Sitting in these seats for hours at a time left us stiff, and combined with the eight to 10 hours we put in at the office, many of us lacked any exercise at all.
"This realization prompted some members to organize aerobic sessions down at one end of the car. While others, bringing their gym bags from home, jogged the length of the train. Both programs, however, came to an abrupt halt when the conductor protested. We tried to explain our situation to him, but he showed no sympathy, telling us our tickets paid for the seats, not the aisles. If we had an activity, it should be confined to our seats; otherwise, he would put us off the train.
"What kind of excise could we do in such a narrow space? Someone suggested Yoga, and was immediately hooted down. If we wanted to sit with out limbs twisted for two hours a day, staring at space, we might as well just continue with our old activities.
"We were looking for amusement as well as exercise, something that would keep us from going crazy while in route. "Then, one of us - I'm not sure who - came up with the idea of sex. With a little creative camouflage using our coats, we manage privacy screens.
"Then, my wife blew it all for me. She found lipstick on my collar. She wants a divorce. But that's not the worst part. Now I'm going to have to move closer to the city, and won't be able to take the train to work anymore." -Al Sullivan