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I was descending the stairs to the F train at 34th Street. Two trains had pulled into the station, providing an intimidating mass of people to ascend the stairs I was attempting to descend. I didn’t expect trouble in this, since it was a two-lane stairway, of the sort where two can walk abreast on either side of the dividing handrail. I followed the recommended procedure when navigating such a stairway during a two-train exodus, which is to slither down the right-hand wall and sigh loudly at the people looking at their feet on their way up.

Then I saw her.

At first, I thought she had dropped something, and had turned around to pick it up and apologize to the man behind her. She was on the left side of the right lane, and was holding things in both hands, so was clearly physically capable of descending stairs without the aid of the center rail. She made a slightly huffy shrug, and I expected her to turn around after her forthcoming apology.

Then I heard her.

Few words have ever caused me as much pain as the five whining syllables that exited her speaking orifice in the next one point two seconds.

“This is the down side.”

Uttered as if the fourteen angry people stopped in front of her were mentally handicapped for not shuffling into an orderly line on the other side of the stairway, so she, I, and the dozen or so others going down could have our preferred space while the hundreds exiting the train added a few more minutes to their journey.

If I were a quicker, stronger man, I would have grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to slither down the wall with the rest of us. Alas, I am not, and I tried to make my way past without incident. The man directly in front of the whining madwoman just looked straight through her, as if defeated, escaping to the quieter caves of his mind until the she gave up, or was attacked by someone else. The woman behind him was more proactive: she screamed, “Are you fucking kidding me you idiot bitch?” and dived around them, directly into me. Being of the thinner persuasion, I was able to navigate this extra spacial intrusion and make it off the stairwell.

I heard the ensuing argument halfway across the station. Madness is an opponent no tactic can fight but for opportunity, and shame.

Some basic rules of weapons training are to make the weapon an extension of yourself, and know where it is and what it’s doing at all times. This sort of training should be mandatory for anybody navigating New York City.

I have two modes of carrying my bag. For subway navigation, I hold it at my side, so it takes up the minimum amount of radial space, and so I can quickly move it in front of or behind me when the available corridors of motion start to constrict.

Once I’m at street level, if the foot traffic isn’t two dense, it goes over my shoulder, which is comfortable, but requires being aware that my shoulder is now extruding eight inches farther behind me and three or four inches farther to my right. This may seem a small amount, but navigation in the commercial districts of Manhattan during the day is often a matter of inches. A sudden twist of my torso could knock a fellow commuter to the ground, so I have to account for this extended space consumption when calculating safe turns and passages.

Most people fail to expand their kinetic awareness when encumbered with even their daily baggage. This is most often demonstrated by the standing spin, wherein a person with a bag of some kind is talking to someone, then suddenly needs to look in another direction, so they do a full turn and manage to block an entire sidewalk, often hitting a passerby with their bag in the process. The spinner simply doesn’t understand that they are consuming the space outside their body.

You are what carry.

The principles of commuting comprise an art form like any other. They are general guides to an ongoing process, applicable to the immediate situation as well as the practice as a whole, and to the shaping of a life’s work in the form.

The principle of least effort is the primary primary principle, guiding the commuter to be like water, to be still when possible, and flow quickly and easily around all obstacles when necessary.

The secondary principles are derived from the primary: the principle of shortest path and the principle of minimal friction. Shortest path merely merely directs the commuter to cut all corners and seek the straightest road. Minimal friction dictates avoiding confrontation and collision, and strive to appear as though nothing is in one’s way.

In practicing these principles, the commute shortens and eases. Those of the higher ranks will barely seem to travel. He who truly masters of the art of commuting will not commute at all. Or perhaps, he shall own a helicopter.

It’s not hard to forget that my morning tends to begin after much of the workforce has already taken its first break. The crush of the 9 to 5 office workers that comprises rush hour comes after the slower, more staggered commutes of the people who provide the maintain the infrastructure and provide the services that support the businesses full of people who shuffle data and imaginary money.

The city that never sleeps stirs groggily from its half-conscious night dreaming at around five in the morning, downs its coffee, and is hard at work by 8:30. The morning that I and most people with my kind of job deal with is a rushed invasion of already bustling commercial space that most of us unconsciously assume just magically appears at 8:45.

Commuting at seven to a 9 to 5 job is a calmer experience. Because the noise hasn’t hit its stride, the engines revving and gates screeching seem starker, and more in focus against the quiet. Because the sidewalk population is still far below critical density, commuters walk calmly, and seem possessed of purpose and determination instead of fear and calculation. The people awake and serving coffee seem happier than anybody drinking it. I expect this is partly because it takes a certain kind of person to wake up at sunrise, and partly because that’s better for your body clock anyway. Once, long ago, I made a point of having a couple hours to myself before going to work, and enjoyed my week days much more than I do now. But my New York is a city of the night, because a country boy loves the city for its lights and shadows, not its honest face.

A few years ago, before I had an iPhone, some people stopped me while I was walking to the train and asked me how to get to Skillman Ave. I looked around, uncertain, then shrugged apologetically and told them I couldn’t help them.

On the way home that day, I happened to glance up at the street signs and found Skillman Ave. It was exactly one block from where I’d had this morning encounter. I had crossed it thirty seconds before saying I didn’t know where it was. In fact, I’d crossed it twice a day for two years.

I bring this up because there’s a school of thought that suggests my familiarity with my route should make me sensitive to any change, but in truth, I never get that familiar with any of my routes. In a new route, I usually navigate by address the first time, then by landmark, but within a week, I’m going by muscle memory. The landmarks I no longer need are the only things that still grab my attention, since the repetitive locating I did the first week burned various mantras in my head like “turn at the church” and “bear right at the gas station.” Everything else in those first few walks was categorized as “not the church” and “not the gas station.” Once I know a route, I switch on autopilot and spend the walk thinking about coffee and what to do once I get out of work.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that I don’t notice things like buildings going up or falling down along my route. Unless something actively blocks my path or makes enough noise to annoy me, I’m either checking for traffic or not really there at all.

I’m not even sure if the gas station is Sunoco or Shell. Damned if I know the denomination of the church.

It took me a while to realize it, but there’s no substantive difference between my commutes to and from work. Roughly the same number of people at each station, roughly the same chance of subway catastrophes, and the dour half-awake expressions of pre- and mid-coffee morning travelers are difficult to distinguish from the exhausted and drained slouches of the evening passengers. The evidence of ego seems as crushed by semi-consciousness as it is by a fully realized work day.

The slight, cosmetic differences are seasonal. The end of day subway exodus in the summer is the moment the pace of the day finally slows. In the winter, its cold and dark, so this doesn’t happen until people get to their homes and bars. The environmental oppression is roughly equal between seasons; the exhaustion caused by hurrying through the cold creates the same physical muting as the in-tunnel summer heat that simply robs you of the ability to move.

My exit point in Brooklyn involves crossing a street with a four-minute long light. Most of the time, we all cluster at the corner and peer down the streets, hoping for the rare break in traffic during the endless Don’t Walk light. We look past each other in much the way we walked past each other ten hours earlier, when we weren’t ready to communicate, now not bothering because we have nothing left to say.

When I fly, I try to schedule a departure at the airport as early as possible. Planes leaving at six or seven in the morning tend to be less crowded, and leave on time, because the delays and problems haven’t had time to stack up, and the kind of people who schedule early flights are also the kind of people who get there on time, so on a lucky day you can even leave early.

The L train at rush hour displays similar behavior, which I had forgotten until this morning. For no apparent reason, I was wide awake at 6:30. After making coffee and watching The Daily Show for a bit, I headed to the train with every intention of making it to work by 8:45. I had two things going for me: I was leaving an hour earlier than usual, and I can combine the hat I recently bought with my hoodie and my shades to do a passable impression of popular image of a gang thug, so people get out of my way more quickly.

The Departure Paradox states that if you commute at the particular point on a subway line where the trains can no longer absorb the rush hour traffic, it does not matter what time you leave during the hour of the rush. In my particular case, the rush hour is between 8:15 and 9:15, and if I exit my apartment door during this time, I will arrive at a random time between 9:30 and 9:45 regardless of when I leave.

Once the traffic volume reaches critical density, problems start piling up. A train is no good to you if you can’t get on it, but frustrated commuters will try anyway, thus delaying the trains, thus creating more trains with too many people, etc. As the trains get fuller, probability demands that someone will have a medical emergency as often as not and pass out at a major station. Delays multiply and feedback and a twenty-minute train ride rapidly, so to speak, becomes an hour long. This process is already in full swing by 8:30, and slowly winds down, ending by 9:30, so the later during the rush hour you leave, the shorter your trip is likely to be.

Today, the L train made it to the river, then turned back due to a sick passenger three stations into Manhattan. I gave up and worked from home, on the grounds that if a 400 ton train couldn’t make it across the river, I wasn’t going to either.

If I died this morning in the manner I suspected I might, this is what my obituary would say:

Peter Welch was killed by a bacon delivery truck while crossing Hester street in Chinatown. He died as he lived.

Wherever a new job lies, the habitual commute emerges quickly and is fairly immutable. There is nearly always a fastest route, and barring construction, dead trains, or desperation for variety, there’s no reason to change it. Given two or more paths nearly equal in length, I switch between them, but even that switching will start to take on a predictable pattern.

When walking through Manhattan, the regularity of the experience can be shocking. Previously, when leaving from my girlfriend’s apartment, I would get my coffee, smoke my cigarette, walk down to Grand, turn right, cross Forsyth, turn left at Chrystie and walk next to the park, then right at Hester, after which it was a straight shot to Baxter.

Unfortunately, I always ended up having to wait for a light when crossing Chrystie at Hester, which meant always having to wait for a light at Bowery, and those are both long, cold lights this time of year. The Keep Moving Principle is important to optimizing a commute, so this bothered me. I eventually noticed that every time I got to Chrystie, the light was about to change in my favor decided to risk the nasty stretch of Grand between Chrystie and Bowery in the hopes that it would get me to Bowery in time. Unfortunately, the stretch is bad enough that it’s always about five seconds too slow to make the very short light on the other side.

Still, that put me in the game on the long block between Grand and Hester. This block is pretty clear, except for one guy handing out restaurant flyers approximately 30 feet south of the Grand and Bowery corner, and I walk pretty fast, but there isn’t quite enough time to make it the whole length of the block before the lights cycle back to the long wait. However, since traffic is pretty clear, when the light turns in my favor, I can cross about 35 feet before the actual crosswalk and weave through the stopped cars on the far side, thus traversing the Chrystie/Bowery portion without stopping.

To summarize: wait 5 to 10 seconds at Grand and Chrystie. 40 seconds down Grand, turn left, pass the flyer guy at 30 feet on the right, cross 35 feet before the crosswalk.

Every. Single. Time.

And it will be exactly like that until someone changes the timing on the lights or the weather warms up and slows everybody down. Though today a guy crossed the sidewalk in front of me with a freshly butchered pig over his shoulder, so that was new.

There’s no better example of existential futility than waiting for public transportation. There’s little anger on the subway platform during a long wait, because there’s nothing to be angry at. Even a bus has a visible driver who can receive an angry glance; a train might have a head sticking out of a window, but probably not the head responsible for navigation. There’s just an anonymous tube that may or may not show up at any minute. Until it does show up, there’s nothing you can do.

At one point during my first regular commute requiring public transport, at UMass, I caught myself and my fellow commuters craning our necks to see another two feet into the distance, looking for the bus, and I suddenly wondered why we bothered. It was never going to make the bus come faster. At first I thought it was like sports fans believing they were contributing to the game through a TV, but the truth is people just want to see the headlights at the soonest possible moment, because the thought that this time it will never come is the creeping dread the ego must disprove.

Once I realized this, I tried to be Zen about it. I stopped looking, turned up my headphones, and read a book, not noticing the approach of the bus until it was there. Now, craning to look down the subway tunnels is pointless anyway, because in the train stations I frequent, you feel the breeze from the oncoming train before any other sensory evidence.

But something about being underground makes it worse. The idea that a train may never come is sister to the fear that everything you can’t see might not be there, and there’s not much to see in a subway station. After half an hour, the thought begins to tug in the basement of the brain: maybe this is all there is. A walkway filled with strangers, next to a tunnel leading into darkness in both directions. Darkness that may or may not contain trains.

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