STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/14/2015

SPORKS Installation 20: A Commutist Manifesto


On the commuter train into Boston, I religiously sit in the quiet car, employing odd tricks to ensure a two-seater to myself, such as putting my bag next to me and pretending to rifle through it. It is the kind of semi-deplorable trait that non-New Englanders cite as evidence for the common misconception that northeastern types are cold and unfriendly.

So let me clear the coastal air here and say that silence is not always an unwillingness to listen to a stranger; sometimes it expresses a desire to take in all the strange surroundings. Meeting people where they’re at, in other words, requires acute attention to that at. 

No matter what I’m reading during the morning commute—student papers, say, or the the novel Infinite Jest, heavy with Boston locales—on each trip I reflexively look out the window at the same points, usually where land meets water. Out the windows looking east, serpentine tributaries carve smoothly into the marsh and smokestacks give way to harbors in a way that worries me; we’ve been an industrial people so long, such sights appear serene.

Through the window on the other side: urban decay brightened by bold swaths of graffiti, names like ICH and DROID. Faded logos of long-gone companies now merge in a seamless chain with sprayed art, and for miles the landscape is a run-on sentence: NOW LEASING GLOBAL FUGUE MAPLE HALT EVERGREEN CUTZ#ERAX.

The places that run on either side of the tracks have become living galleries, curated by so many graffiti artists and businesses because there is a cross-section of regional econo-culture that passes through every day. In some weather the window becomes a mirror: You see yourself ghost-like and seated, a reminder that you are a part of all the decay, the renewal, the slice of sun through cloud-cover bouncing off a skyscraper like a tower of Babel fighting for light. 

What does it mean to pass so many lives so fast on a daily basis? Which houses today will be the ones to break their routines, and how many people’s routines involve daily fantasies about breaking routines?

On a recent commute back to the North Shore, my train was stuck at Chelsea, the first stop. A frazzled blonde woman was ushered down the aisle into the quiet car where I was sitting, and brought into the bathroom. Soon after the conductor explained that the woman was having a panic attack. A nurse and then an EMT, both off-duty, stood and offered their services in an urgent but unassuming way. After they calmed the woman and helped her to a seat on the train, an old man yelled, “This is the worst train ride ever!” No one rose to rebuke him; no one rose to concur. He yelled more loudly, “I DON’T HAVE TO BE QUIET!” Still we sat there, not giving in to his ploys to roil and disrupt, and he moved to the side, finally, it seemed to me, hearing the message quiet and clear. 

As I walk from my Back Bay office to the subway, I am amazed at how different the city’s car culture is from the train. Boylston Street is a wild, metallic tangle of honks and screeches, of Doppler Effect sirens and pedestrian fists pounding on car hoods. In cities, there is a myth that cars create a kind of hermetic, armored extension of self, not so much about protection but a false sense of individualism. Most of the time, getting cut off is less about reckless driving than about reacting when a stranger has taken away a driver’s lead.

The subway is an intermediary between street rage and commuter rail zen. The sardine-can experience of a Green Line trolley tends to yield a sense of together-in-the-mess. During a recent unprompted conversation, a stranger regaled me with tales of his love for the train, and how it taught him to coexist in such a diverse place. “As you get older, y’know, as you grow, you realize that’s all anybody is: people,” he said. “There’s nothing weird or specific about it." As we pulled into North Station, I opened my mouth to ask his name, to seal this exchange in some meaningful way. But as the squeal of an arriving Orange Line train sounded, he bolted up and started running, saying only, “Oh shoot—that’s my train.”

UPDATE (4/14/2015) I originally wrote this article in late fall. In the winter that followed, Boston went on to gather a record-setting 110.3 inches of snow, sending the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Company (MBTA) into months of delays and cancellations. My commute was often more than doubled (if actually getting on to a train was even possible), and I spent many standing-room-only rides crammed in the vestibule like cattle, hoping that Temple Grandin would swoop in and save the day. A few trains were cancelled for the inexplicable reason "due to heavy ridership." In other words, had I known what coining #Togethermess would actually come to mean, I might have second-guessed that whole "commuter rail zen" thing.

Bryan Parys is an editor and writer at Berklee College of Music and teaches writing at Gordon College. “It’s too bad you couldn’t just write ‘together-in-the-mess’ as just ‘togethermess,’” said his wife, Natalie. Well, why not! This is the 20th Sporks, so why not go nuts and introduce a hashtag: #Togethermess.


Bryan Parys