Free-Floating Hostility

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Rail Time

I get a lot of funny looks when I say I'm commuting from Davis to Berkeley five days a week. There's the Mildly Impressed, the Full of Pity, the You Crazy Fuck, the I Just Don't Get It...Californians are not used to commuting, especially not by public transport. My train ride (assuming it's on time) takes me 1.25 hours, plus about 20 minutes on the bus between campus and the train station. Factoring in waiting time and estimating conservatively, I'd say it takes me about an hour and 45 minutes each way. It practically took me that long to get to high school every morning on the East Side. It's certainly no worse than traveling from outlying stations on the LIRR. Have some perspective, people. Obviously, it is not the same as nipping down Fifth Street to the clinic, but I'm loving this commute. It might be different if I weren't in school, but I do all my studying on the train, and I've never been this good a student in my life.

Most importantly, people who don't commute don't have good stories to tell. I've missed the subway more than almost any aspect of New York because nothing out here used to throw me into the space of my fellow humans, generating good stories. The train ride has restored that function. I sit down with a large textbook and highlighter in my hands, and if I keep my eyes glued to it I'll be marvelously productive. If, however, I allow myself to gaze out the window for even a second, the inevitable question pops up from the person sitting opposite me: "I'm sorry, I just have to ask. Biostatistics?"

This week alone I've met some interesting characters. Last Tuesday I struck up a conversation with a woman who was formerly an Occupational Nurse at Berkeley. She told me there is someone in her old department whose job it is to advise faculty, staff and students on their aging parents. When she heard I was interested in Aging issues she confided that her father-in-law had been having blackouts but was refusing to give up his driver's license, and that they were going to have to call the DMV, which was miserable.

Then on Friday I met a man named Joe who told me a little about his days in the Army. He served in World War II, but his stories were pretty different from my dad's tales of the 108th General Hospital. Joe's experience was something closer to Catch-22. He came to the war late, and when he arrived at basic training he had to be trained to shoot without any bullets. He was stationed at Midway, which by then was perfectly tranquil. "Good thing, too," said Joe, "Cause my first night there they told me to go patrol the perimeter. I said I'd never fired a gun and they said it was just as well cause they didn't have any bullets, either." Joe also told me that the day he got out of the army, a friend offered him phone numbers of three girls to go look up. The first girl wasn't home, and the second girl became his wife of 59 years, with whom he had ten children.

Yesterday I met a fellow named Dave who works for the National Park Service. We got to chatting while the train was stopped to pick a truck up off the track. He's been commuting on this route for five years, and he tells me that later in the year people really get into it, bringing crockpots and karaoke machines and crowding into the cafe car to watch Monday night football. I asked him about the conductor who instituted Hawaiian Shirt Day a few weeks ago, and Dave said he was the most professional person he'd seen in the business. He described how once a man in the cafe car became aggressive toward a female passenger, and the conductor put the man off the train in the middle of nowhere. "It's comforting to me to know that frontier justice still exists out here," said Dave.

3 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at September 21, 2005 5:04 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Your post is crazy. I realized, you are on the train in Ryan country, where any person will strike up a friendly conversation with you. Much better than my commute, where people who make physical contact with you will not even say "excuse me." Must make getting to school/work much better.

  •   Posted by Blogger Laura at September 24, 2005 12:12 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Oh, I'm jealous of your train commute. I have to take the bus for 20-30 minutes each way every day, which is fine--I like public transportation, as you do--but I get carsick if I read. I never get trainsick, though. So I end up with headphones on, and I don't get the sense of being in the midst of humanity.

    Also the train is a hell of a lot more comfortable.

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at January 18, 2006 11:05 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Dear Anna:
    I was interested in your comment about your father's experience with the 108th General Hospital during World War II. The hospital was sponsored by the medical school of Loyola University Chicago. I am on the faculty of Loyola in Chicago, and the archivist and I are presently trying to complile a history of the 108th. We have located a few staff members who served with the 108th. In cases where staff members are deceased, their children or spouses have been able to share memories that have also been very helpful to us. If you or your father might be able to share some memories about the 108th General Hospital we would really appreciate your help. Please contact me at Thanks in advance for any information you might be able to provide. Karen

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