My PATCO Commute Is the Best Part of My Day

Despite noisy "quiet cars," broken escalators and delays, I still get to do nothing.

For a few years now, we have talked about the damage we do to our brains with our constant multi-tasking. I am a single mother of three. I teach full-time at Drexel, run the Painted Bride Quarterly, and can fool myself that I’m multi-taskng with the best of them. I just bought the LG Doubleplay, Godhelpme, which allows two concurrent functions on two screens.

But during my 30-minute commute? I do nothing. I do nothing to the 10th power. I zone out like nobody’s business, like it’s my job. When I make it to my stop, I have to check for drool.

Sometimes I stand on the train platform in Collingswood and look out over the town, and I cannot believe how bucolic and serene the landscape before me is. I can see church spires and Victorian homes and red brick banks. The PATCO Speedline tracks run parallel to Haddon Avenue, the main drag of town, but I can hear birds, and the breeze on the platform is amazing. In fact, I’ve noticed that unless the weather is very bad, few people wait inside the station, so I assume others also enjoy the peace on the platform.

I take those moments on the platform for myself. My natural inclination when waiting for something is to pull out my phone and answer some email or pull a book out of my bag, but that reflex is squelched, somehow. The breeze blows, I think about whatever I think about, other folks step out on the platform.

The escalator at Collingswood has been broken for months and works intermittently. Since PATCO developed the Freedom Card (a magnetic card with stored value), things are definitely smoother and faster as people move through the turnstiles, though of course there are still problems. Sometimes a card won’t read, folks who don’t travel frequently buy the one-use cardboard ticket and aren’t sure which end goes in where, etc.

But overall, I would rather take the train than drive into the city and think living in a town where we have a subway-esque system like PATCO makes my life far easier than the suburban folk who have to travel SEPTA Regional Rail or NJ Transit. I see my colleagues unable to stop for even the quickest hello with other folks in the hallways, desperate to make it to the train on time. A few of my colleagues won’t even walk to the same station with others, for fear of being slowed down. They cannot have a spontaneous after-work cocktail unless they check the train schedule and drink accordingly, which is more constraint than I can tolerate.

I can explain car commuters most simply: They have to spend too much time on parking and too much time being angry. They are angry about parking garage or lot prices; they are angry about meter prices; they are angry about having to move their cars; they plan their day around when they will have to feed their meters, and they are really angry when, after all of that, they still get a ticket.

Like most commuters, and all teachers, I carry a heavy bag. I have an iPod, at least one book, the Sunday Times Magazine (which I carry all week in an attempt to get it read), and I often have student essays that need to be reviewed. Despite schlepping all of these activities around with me, once I am on the train, I often just sit. I am nosey so I look at what other folks are reading. I listen to other people’s conversations. I note how many more e-readers I see. I admire or scoff at other people’s shoes, bags, hair and outerwear. With the erratic weather, it’s interesting to see some people bundled up in wool coats, scarves and gloves, and the person right next to them in a light jacket and no socks. I am fully entertained by other humans, and the trip goes quickly.

The brand-new “quiet car” program is not successful so far. I purposefully rode that car every trip this week and every time the car was filled with chatter. On one ride, an announcement was made about the quiet car that incited everyone around me to laugh and giggle and chat about what that might mean. It was hard to keep quiet.

Of course, I have had the sketchy engage me in conversation or been annoyed by the cell phone f-bomber. The beggars beg, trains are delayed or inexplicably stop on the bridge, but overall, spending the $5.20 that buys me the trip is well worth it. People talk about how public transportation lacks privacy and makes them feel like cattle. Proponents emphasize the environmental factors. But I can only see what it does for me: It buys me physical and metaphorical space; it gets me where I need to go for 20 cents more than the bridge toll (but obviously, with no parking or gas costs); it allows me to check on the culture’s fashion and reading choices. Also, I get to decide when I’m leaving town, and it forces me to unplug for those 20 or so minutes. For me, the Freedom Card is aptly named.