When You’re a Train Commuter, You Live in a Tourist Community

Maybe it’s all the stuff going on down at Occupy Wall Street lately. Maybe it’s all the thoughtful time and reconnections that unexpectedly came with the ten-year anniversary of September 11th. I don’t know what it is, but lately I’ve been thinking more than usual about my place in my community. So that means I have to understand more about what my community is.

I had an interesting talk with a professional poet a few days ago. He is on his way to Israel where he will spend a year writing about “identity.” That seems sort of close to what I’ve been exploring myself, in a way. We all have identities within our community (and of course we all have multiple communities we pass through each day). During our talk he mentioned things about living as a “migrant” and he used an academic word I didn’t know (and can’t remember) which essentially means “the essence of a community – the thing that makes it different from other communities.” The word was something like “hi-mot” – that’s my bad try at remembering it phonetically. Later I read a poem of his (last thursday), which concluded with this beautiful summary phrase:

this is probably what you meant when you said you wish i’d pick a world to inhabit and stick with it

I am a train commuter. That’s my world. It means I spend many hours each week on a commuter rail train. That means I experience more of the ups and downs of that type of travel than most occasional travelers ever see. I happen to do this in a busy metro area (New York), and twice each day I pass an airport and a busy regional rail station (Amtrak) at Penn Station. Every day I see people who are traveling to and from the world and the many cities in the United States. Mostly I (and all of us train commuters) ignore them, and just hope that we can get a seat on the packed train before they do. I call the other people “tourists,” but that’s a little misleading because many of them are not sight-seeing or lolly-gagging. But I call them that since they are not part of the daily-grind train commute – they are interlopers.

The poet might call them “migrants.”

One of the unique things about my train commute (which makes it different, even from the otherwise very similar commute through the East Side’s Grand Central, is that there are many people carry or dragging large heavy bags of luggage. That’s the “hi-mot” of my train commuter community.

And one of the interesting quirks of Penn Station is that the most natural connecting path that most commuters take from the regional and commuter rail to the city subway system includes a few flights of stairs – one down and then one up – and it does not take you past any of the many elevators or escalators in Penn Station. That tourist path happens to be the same one I also take, twice each day. Many of the hyped-up (more efficient?) commuters most likely think I am tourist as they elbow their way past me, since I typically wear casual clothes (I spruce-up a bit at the office), a large back-pack (don’t worry – I know how to avoid the random bag inspections), and I lolly-gag, mostly because I enjoy walking more than I enjoy being anyplace in particular. In my book, there’s no point in ruining a good walk by degrading it to a mere commute. Walking is special, don’t waste it.

Twice each day I pass a stairway area which is a trap for tourists with large rolly bags. And I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out which ones need or would appreciate a little help – mostly based on how they slow down and seem a little cautious as they approach the stairs, or how they are very old, or very short with a very tall suitcase – stuff like that. Sorry for stereotyping, but that’s the best way to determine who would appreciate a little help.

I usually simply ask, “Can I give you a hand with your bag?” I never know for sure what the person’s reaction will be, or whether they will be startled by my approach. Almost universally they seem very surprised and appreciative. The most negative reaction I have ever gotten was, “No that’s okay.” Not bad.

Among the positive reactions recently:

  • A man and woman in their 50’s with several very large bags. I carried the woman’s bag. The man went on and on telling the woman how nice that was. To me it was no big deal. That interaction cost me twenty-five seconds on my commute.
  • A woman struggling and huffing and puffing up a much longer staircase with an unusually heavy bag, moving aside to let the hurry-walker commuters push past on their way down. When I offered to carry her bag she said, “God bless you!” At the top of the stairs she grabbed and hugged me warmly. That interaction, including the hug, almost made me get to my evening train with less than five minutes to spare.
  • Two women, each pulling a large rolly. I make an offer, they are surprised, and less than 15 seconds later I have been bestowed the title of “Angel.” She kind of went on and on about it – “You are an angel, you are an angel.” That interaction, including doubling back on a path I only took in order to carry the bags, set me behind about twenty seconds. Nobody noticed when I walked into my office twenty seconds late for work.

I once told a friend that the problem with walking is that is became a form of transportation. That’s not entirely fair, because historically there was of course a time before trains, cars, and bicycles when walking was the only form of transportation. Oh, and horses. But what I mean when I say this is that we spend most of our transporting time nowadays on mechanical vehicles – those machines take us about 98% of the way through all of our travel for the day. The relatively few moments that we get to walk between subway connections, from house to train station, from car to retail store, whatever it may be – those are precious moments where we can enjoy the act of walking.

I learned everything I know while walking – that’s what I often tell people – because it is during walking that I disconnect from any one thing and float in a world where my mind is free to reconnect and calibrate more appropriately. Any time I get stuck on a task at work, I get up and take a walk until my mind is clear again. It always works. If you visit the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan, you can read about the monks who walked around the circles of these same cloisters many years ago, meditating. We don’t often think of walking as meditating nowadays, but it’s the same thing.

And the “hi-mot” of the meditative walk I take each morning and evening, through the crowded busy life of New York City, is the wonderful opportunity to connect with appreciative people, thirty seconds at a time, while carrying bags.

I recommend you also make this part of your daily commute – I doubt you will be disappointed. 🙂

Image credit: antroares from the Open Clip Art Library

2 Replies to “When You’re a Train Commuter, You Live in a Tourist Community”

  1. I tried googling “dictionary essence of community” and mostly got definitions of “essence”. However, there was also “ubuntu”, which seems like a lovely definition of individual-in-community. But I did not find your poet’s-ear phoneme’s “hi-mot”. Yet. 

    Also, I took a Comparative Religions course decades ago; as part of this, we visited a Buddhist temple to practice sitting and walking meditations. I think iPods (and I love mine) prevent more walking meditation than cars do. 

    I enjoy your writing and the unpretentious heart you put into it.

    1. Thank you for your feedback…

      I think I am going to leave my “hi-mot” without further investigation. I could ask the poet for the actual word, but then it might turn out that I misunderstood and the word doesn’t have the interesting meanings I’ve already attached to it and grown fond of.

      I agree about iPods. I also like listening to music sometimes but personal devices like iPods, phones, and trade paperbacks are seriously distracting walking commuters from enjoying and seeing the world of the here-now. I believe that causes more problems than most people would like to admit.

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