Back when I lived in Massachusetts and worked full-time in Boston, long before the concept of telecommuting was an option, I spent hours each day with my train friends. For many years before that, I lived in towns without a train and had bus friends. You spend eight hours a day in the office and have what they term your work husband or wife, or work friends, but no one talks much about the train friends. For most of my work career, I spent about three hours a day on a train or bus, longer with Cape (Cod) traffic in the summer, or snow in winter, or train engine or track issues. Even if I use the lower end of three hours a day that’s sixty hours a month, side by side with the same people in an enclosed space.
There are some train friends I still talk to either on Facebook or email, or visit when I’m home, but others…I wonder whatever happened to them. This concept may be foreign to Californians who almost exclusively drive to work, alone, listening to podcasts or audiobooks. With the advent of telecommuting, this next generation will have a very different life/career experience than I did.
The routine of waiting for the train, and chatting with people who would all sit in the same seats every day, of updating each other with stories of our children or spouses or our work drama, was the cornerstone of my life for so many years. I have one friend, Joanne, who I met on the train when Ivy was very little. Her daughters were younger and they all attended daycare together. Ivy must have been about six as that was her age when we moved to Bradfield. Twelve years of sitting together except for vacations or meetings that pushed us to later trains. Over that time, there was so much we went through. Joanne and I were isolated in our two-seater or sometimes in a three-seater with a third rider. We saw each other’s children grow from tiny to adulthood. We saw each other through illnesses in ourselves, our children, the passing of her in-laws, her husband’s side career as a Jazz Clarinetist, moving houses…the time her nephew was on Biggest Loser, several cars, my marriage and divorce to Husband # 2, and the subsequent rebounds until I met my Ryan and moved away.
For a time there was a young woman with a toddler daughter who rode the train with us. She reminded me of when Ivy was the same age and I took her on the train to work/daycare from my previous town. We’d watch as this woman chatted happily with the conductor. He’d carry the little girl with him sometimes and let her “help” collect tickets. We were all very surprised to hear one day that they were not a couple but just friends, and she would be moving to California to marry her military fiancé. It was sad seeing her go and the conductor seemed hard hit but we heard later he visited her and her husband and daughter in California.
There was another woman at my stop who reunited with her high school boyfriend when they were in their late fifties, both divorced. It was an adventure hearing about their long distance relationship and hoping along with her that it would work out. It did. I was there when she got the call her mother passed away and she was crying and trying to hold it together. She retired at one point and I lost touch with her but having that years’ long vignette, it was something.
In the early years, when I lived on the other side of Boston and took the southbound train each day I used to sit with a really nice heavy metal guitarist named Randy. He worked for an insurance company by day. He later moved up to New Hampshire and got married so I didn’t see him on the train after that but thankfully I am Facebook friends with him and still get to hear about his adventures. He got a mention as a fictional extra in one of my novels.
When I first started on the workforce in the late 1980s, I used to take a bus and sit with a man named Fran. He played hockey at night and one time came in and had knocked out a tooth. He came to my first wedding to Arnie G. Over time, he met a divorcee with children and moved away and we lost touch but I really enjoyed talking to him. He was my first commuting buddy.
During my second (albeit brief) marriage, I met Steve, a long-haired architect who had been with a woman in Italy briefly and worked on a grape orchard but now was a landscape architect for a firm in Boston. He boarded at another stop and I saw him all the time for a short time then only sporadically. When Joanne was selling her condo, I sent him to check it out as he was looking for a place and I thought it would be fun to have him in my town. He really brightened a dark time for me, as that second marriage held more downs than ups. He was working to get his Master’s degree and loved his job. It seemed months went by and he wasn’t on my train, then one day he appeared again. I had news I said, I was leaving Husband # 2 and was so happy. He had news too. He found out his ex-girlfriend was carrying his baby and planned to raise it with her current boyfriend. The bigger news was that he had been diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was crushed about all of it. He was, at that time, about the coolest person I knew. He was worldly but down to earth, and intelligent and witty. He had so much going for him.
He blurted it all out, his new life plan. He was forgoing the Master’s, quitting his job, taking all his retirement money and living as much as he could before his body betrayed him. He was on the fence about getting to know his son. Would it be cruel to let the baby become attached to him only for him to die? Was it worse to not know him at all? Big questions for a train friend whose sessions were just a bit longer than a therapist’s.
He’d researched the disease thoroughly and was most upset that your body failed you long before your mind did and people were just shoved into nursing homes. One thing he wanted to do, he said, in the few conversations we had before he stopped riding the train, was to make homes specifically for ALS patients. Even then he’d hatched the beginning of a plan. He’d get donors and funding and he’d make a difference before he “had to go.”
And he did. All those things. We were MySpace friends then, this was pre-Facebook, so I watched his journey. First it was skydiving, then scuba diving in foreign seas. Much later I saw a picture of him holding his toddler son and I smiled that he chose to know the boy as long as he could. Then I started getting emails about fundraisers and eventually about the construction of the treatment center and nursing home for the ALS patients. His first home opened in 2010, the Steve Saling ALS Residence, the first long-term care facility for people with this disease. I was happy to read an article about him (as I was writing this blog) to see he designed a tool for patients to control devices wirelessly. He made the grounds of the facility beautiful and the grass wheelchair-resistant. He found ways to allow the residents to go outside and “live,” not just exist for years in bed, forgotten and sad. The article from 2017 said he went to his son’s school for a presentation. His son was ten years old then. So much time has passed since I knew him and despite his challenges, he has indeed made a difference. He’s still making a difference as new facilities inspired by him are sprouting up.
There were dozens of people I got to know on my morning and evening commutes. Living where I do now, and telecommuting almost 100%, meaning I’m home with the dogs and the cat and four walls, there is a palpable absence. My day used to consist of taking the train to work, then sitting in a cube for eight hours next to people who did the same thing. I’d start the day with train friends, then have different conversations with the work friends. On the way home I might have a different pack of pals depending on the timing and which train I was on. There was so much routine and guaranteed socialization that I didn’t have to seek out. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time on social media now, to fill the gap. I am blessed to have some good friends here but I don’t see them for hours every day. I don’t have the luxury of having them help me process even the most mundane of situations. I sit quietly at home and I work. I see Ryan and sometimes friends, and all the processing of mundane situations happens almost exclusively in my mind.
I don’t miss the expense of the train, or the time lost that I could be home. But sometimes there’s SO much home time. Writing this makes me think I should go in the office more, make some connections again. The trend of giving people a better life/work balance is wonderful, and I enjoy the option I’m given to stay home, but there is a part of me that misses the long group commutes and my train friends. Even the ones who weren’t my close friends but fixtures in my day, the ones I made small talk with, and who I wonder about.
There were the bad rides, when the AC or heat was broken, or the time we ran over the man who jumped in front of the train. But on the flip side, there was an incredible sense of safety when I hastily boarded my train home on 9/11, and the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, and to a lesser extent during countless snowstorms or hurricanes. I was always grateful to step on board to see my friends and head home.
There’s no lesson to be learned here, just a glimpse into my Carly past, and a shout out to the MBTA.
Thanks for the memories.