As my delayed 5:37 train out of New York rolled into Newark’s Penn Station, I was feeling the brunt of a fierce but familiar bi-temple headache. As I stood to leave the train, I saw my good friend the Web Developer in the next car. Before he could look my way, I ducked into the safety of the dimly lit vestibule. My withdrawal had nothing to do with monies owed or a tawdry affair gone sour—it was all about me. I’m what Dr. Phil might call a “serial avoider.”
When it came to the commuter social scene, I didn’t want to socialize on the train—period. It was my selfish time. I could work, read, sleep, or just stare out the window; things I couldn’t do while trapped in a two-seater trying to make small talk. It wasn’t personal, I was an equal opportunity avoider—I dodged everyone—though it wasn’t always easy.
Once on the platform, I was eager to make the mad dash to my connecting train; but I couldn’t. Instead, I paced myself down Track 3’s staircase in an almost stalkeresque fashion. I followed my friend the short walk along Market Street, keeping a generous distance up the urine-scented stairs to Track 5. My forced reticence was kicking at the boundaries of an already commuter-worn patience. Most days would have seen me taking the stinky stairs two at a time, little old ladies and women with babies be damned.
I reached the platform at the top of the stairs just as the Web Developer stepped onto our awaiting train. I made a sharp left and ran two cars back before jumping on. It was packed. I looked around waiting for my eyes to adjust to the faces of the people around me. While some were familiar—Bad Comb-over Dude and Smelly Construction Worker were across from Sleeps with Her Mouth Open—I was relieved I didn’t know anyone there. I put my laptop bag on the gritty floor of the vestibule and leaned up against the metal door. Finally, the end of another brutal day in mid-level IT management, where lately the concern I would be outsourced or downsized was outweighed only by the fear that I wouldn’t. Grabbing my iPhone I tuned-in Dave Mathews’ “So Damn Lucky” and tuned-out the world.
Feeling the rhythmic tick of the wheels on the tracks, I turned to look out the window as we passed a block-long, abandoned warehouse. Against the dark red of the brick backdrop, I caught my father’s middle-aged, professorish reflection staring back at me. God, when did that happen?
A tap on my shoulder broke my gaze. It was our heavily-tattooed, terminally-angry NJ Transit conductor. “All tickets,” he growled. I held up my bright orange get-out-of-Manhattan-free card, returning his souless, I-hate-everything look. His eyes locked on mine as he started talking at me. I pulled out one of my earbuds. “ . . . vestibule” was all I heard. “Sorry, what?” I asked, not sorry and already knowing what. “No riding in the vestibule,” he deadpanned. Before he got to “bule” I had my earbud back in and was reaching for my bag. “Excuse me,” I said as I pushed the door-open button a little too hard and slid past him. I fantasized about turning and saying, in my best straight-guy voice, “You know you could be cute if you smiled more.” Fortunately, I was only tired and cranky, not stupid.
Realizing my exit from the safety of the vestibule had me going in the Web Developer’s direction, I stopped. How far back was I? Which car did I see him get on? Damn. As I was contemplating the two staircases—one to the upper level, the other down—I felt a tug at my shirtsleeve. I froze and slowly turned toward the most recent invasion onto my person. “Hey, I didn’t see you get on,” I said, truthfully, when I saw my next door neighbor the aging Model-Actress-Receptionist. I continued before she had a chance to say anything. “Sorry, sooo much work to do. I’m just heading to the front of the train where it’s quiet,” I lied, just wanting to get to a safe, acquaintance-free zone.
I took the down staircase as I pulled out my iPhone and pretended to check my email. Along with headphones, this was always good for getting through train cars or along the platform without “seeing” anyone. Halfway through the lower level of the car, I had such a strong sense that I shouldn’t look up, I did just that. I glanced up for a split second, which was just long enough to lock eyes with the Web Developer. He was sitting facing me, just inches away from the stairs to my freedom. “Hey,” he said, “I thought I saw you earlier, sit.” I obeyed. We fell into an easy banter about weather, late trains, and house repairs, the usual chat topics. But for the first time that evening I felt a sensation bordering on relaxed ease. After 10 minutes of small talk, it was my stop.
“Hey, great chatting,” I said, truthfully, almost wanting to stay longer. “But I’m getting off here.” I grabbed my bag and stood.
“So that’s why we never see you at our station anymore,” he said. “Why is it you drive two towns over to catch the train?”
“Oh . . . um, so I can catch the express in the morning,” I lied, knowing he would never understand the lengths to which I’ve gone to avoid any sort of commuter socializing. “But I’ve been rethinking that strategy lately; it’s sometimes more trouble than it’s worth.”