The first time I took a Path train it was like stumbling across another New York, a city just under, or to the side of, the one I knew. It happened one day late in winter, when a conductor’s announcement about train traffic into Penn Station forced dozens of us off a New Jersey Transit train at Newark. So we took a Path train to a place called Journal Square, and then got on another Path train that went under the Hudson and then right on under the city. It let passengers off at Christopher Street and 9th Street and bent on up to 33rd as if it were a subway, but it was an orange and brown plastic thing, wider and flatter than a subway car, with different kinds of people in it, mostly sitting down. And in the corridors and stairways of Path stations, there were strong winds.
I was bored with my life; I wanted to make the Path train my new thing. But there were problems. I live in Brooklyn and teach in New Jersey. To get to work, I had been taking the L train to the A train to Penn Station, and then the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor train to the town where my school is, and then a shuttle train to campus. Four trains each way, about four hours a day. Taking the Path train, which connects with the L at 6th Avenue, cuts out the trip uptown to Penn Station, but it takes two Path trains to get from the L train to the first New Jersey Transit train, and then there is still the shuttle, bringing the total number of trains to five each way, and making the trip about twenty minutes longer. Five trains each way means ten trains a day, which is easier to add to itself than eight, which I like, but adds up quickly; during a four-day work week, it was forty trains. On the other hand, on the way home, when I got off at Newark to take the first Path train to Journal Square, I had only to walk a few yards across the platform to transfer, through a turnstile that sucked in my Metrocard as if that’s what Metrocards had been for all along. This seemed easier than arriving at Penn Station at rush hour to fight through a quarter-mile of angry, anxious people to get to the downtown A. Less walking meant, too, more time to prepare for class or grade essays, but more trains meant more interruptions in the middle of grading or prepping. On the other hand, more trains meant less money, but only two dollars less.
For years, I have been teaching college students to make sense of the world by writing essays—the genre invented by Montaigne, solitary and virtuosic in his tower library, or strolling through the gardens of his estate, to which he had retreated because he’d grown weary of court life, or so the story goes. Like Montaigne, the essay wanders at leisure through its evidence, and anything and everything, he decided, can be evidence. I tell my students that the essay lays down on the page the very shape of the work of the mind, its extraordinary capacity to see the stuff of the world and understand it. I tell them that Cynthia Ozick says the pleasure of the essay is the pleasure of the mind slowly uncovering its ways of knowing, reason’s strip tease. What Ozick says is that in this way, what an essay gives us, in the end, is like a woman’s body, warm and whole.
But I couldn’t make sense of the trains. It seemed crucial to make a decision about them. The more I thought about the merits of each route, however, the more they seemed chillingly equal, or something worse than equal. What feels better, I tried to reflect: more trains, or more walking? What feels worse: math, or interruptions? What are you more scared of: crowds, or grading? What do you want more: a new city, or silver? What do you need: more time, or a new city? What is worse: orange, or grading? What are you more terrified of: math, or crowds? More trains or more interruptions? Walking or time?
About 1.5 million people commute into New York City to work every day. Around 50,000 New Yorkers make the reverse commute—living where the rents are high, and pushing against the tide through Grand Central and Penn Station, riding Metro North and the Northeast Corridor and the Long Island Railroad, and taking the LIE and the BQE and the New Jersey Turnpike to Long Island and upstate and New Jersey, where the salaries are low. I don’t know how many of us are non-tenure track academics, but we do a peculiar kind of math; we travel to teach at LIU and Rutgers and Bard and Princeton and the SUNY campuses because we cannot give up living near the possibility of going to an art opening or a decent reading or a good show, although thanks to the disparity between our salaries and our rents, we live ever further out in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx, making our commutes longer and the possibility we will have time to attend said cultural events more and more slim. I know someone who commuted from the upper West Side to teach at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, four days a week. I know someone else who commuted to teach at Johns Hopkins, which is in Baltimore, and four hours away. I know someone who takes a plane, bus, or train to teach in Pittsburgh every week, just to live here, barely at all.
Sometimes you get to the end of reason’s strip tease and the body is a corpse, or there’s no body. One day that spring, I lost my ability to take the trains. For a week, I sat in a red armchair in a corner of my apartment while my mind scattered and stopped. It wasn’t that the evidence was in too many categories, or that I wasn’t smart enough to analyze it. It’s that the trains weren’t evidence of anything; life turned out to be the opposite of an essay. But I had to start going to work again or be fired. What helped turned out to be wearing sunglasses and listening to gypsy music on my iPhone. I started making arbitrary decisions. I took the A train on the way to work, and the Path train on the way home. Eventually, summer came.
As fall approached, and with it the time to start taking the trains again, my boyfriend at the time got some money, a gift from his grandfather, who’d told him, before he died, to leave me, because I wasn’t Jewish. Even so, he used his grandfather’s money to buy us a used Mini Cooper, pepper white with black stripes, made of parts 60% from England and 40% from Germany, by BMW. Then I found out I am Jewish, but on my father’s side, so it might not have mattered.
So for a couple of years, I drove. I could take the Williamsburg Bridge to the Holland Tunnel, or I could take the BQE to the Verazzano. Either one might be a mistake; without warning, any New York highway can turn into a parking lot, and there is nothing to do but wait, master of your own vehicle, but with no real options. I started to like driving, though, its different loneliness, its surprises. Once, racing off the Verrazano Bridge onto the BQE late at night, I came upon a stretch of highway that not only had no potholes, but—for a long moment—no cars. I held my breath and drove. I thought it might be the rapture, but this was New York; others would have been left behind. I thought I might be in the wrong city, but then there it was, in all its dark geometry, rising up across the East River and all around me, rock walls lit from the inside and glowing.
The empty highway was a coincidence, evidence of nothing, but in this city, that’s how it is. It’s not a place to mistake for the kind of aristocratic garden where you could press your mind into the shape of an essay that would reveal a wholeness underneath everything that moves, like a woman’s body, as if women’s bodies are ever whole. There is no leisure here. Not for most people. I want to warn my students: life is, in some terribly important ways, nothing like writing. There will be whole days and years of crap you’re better off not trying to make sense of, problems not worth solving, whole paragraphs, like the one about the Mini Cooper and my relative Jewishness, that are just random, and if you try too hard to reflect on them, connect them to some idea, you can lose it completely. But I suspect they know this already, better than I do. I want to tell them: there is no best way into or out of this city; there is no warm body. Beware the seduction of understanding. Your mind’s strongest suit will not be reflection; it will be its ability endure repetition, and to let things change.
I have been thinking about the winter when I stopped taking the trains because last year I moved into an apartment that overlooks the J/M/Z trains. They cross the Williamsburg bridge a few yards from my windows, all day and night. The boyfriend & I split up and we sold the car and I’m taking the trains again, four or five each way, eight or ten a day. There’s nothing to figure out about them; they’re just trains. But it’s like living in a new city, above or to the side of the one I knew. In the morning, I can walk up along the bridge to take the J/M/Z, which is closer but there are steep stairs, and the train I need comes infrequently; usually, instead, I walk down Bedford to the L, a longer walk, so that I can get my coffee from the bar on the corner and say hello to Jimmy, who works mornings.
At night, I can’t take my eyes off the trains, which rumble past my windows on the bridge’s high rails in an electric repetition uncountable as an ocean, unthinkable as love or sex, lit up from the inside, silhouetting their passengers in unconscious or self-conscious poses of stress or ease, rocking them loosely together until they scatter out into the streets of this city that keeps us travelling in circles, trying to find it again.