The Spy King of the Commuter Rails

The Latin motto on the Great Seal of the State of Connecticut, where I live, is Qui Transtulit Sustinet. In English, that’s “He Who Transplanted Sustains.”

It’s apt, since my corner of the Nutmeg State is chock-a-block with transplants. When I moved the family to the suburbs a few years back, I wondered if I’d end up a Cheeveresque shell. Although I grew up in small town New Jersey, I had become over the years quite attached to an image of myself as an urbane metropolitan.

I’ve seen the movies. I know what living in the suburb does to a man’s soul. It’s riding the train that gets you. The incessant clickety-clack. The enforced quiet. The snoozing and snoring. The brown-bag drinking. Watching with quiet desperation through the windows as the ticky-tacky houses fly by.

What a crock! If, like me, you are fascinated by human behavior, then commuting is the life for you and the train is the place to be.

I ride the rails with a lot of idiosyncratic people. Serge is a Brazilian oil trader who calls his wife immediately after boarding to inform her that he has found a seat and is watching her as she pulls out the station parking lot. He then commences to hit on every woman in the car.

Ladyfingers is a well-put-together professional woman of a certain age. Her Monday mornings are devoted to a detailed breakdown of the prior day’s NFL action. With RGIII out, she doesn’t think anyone or anything can stop Brady.

Big Bill is a men’s fashion designer. I once overheard him explain to a seatmate that Costco sells wool slacks as fine as any you’d find at Brooks Brothers and at half the price. I immediately went out and bought two pair. Shhh.

My daily commute takes a little more than an hour—just the right amount of time to listen to a Ricochet podcast. But while my ears are engaged my eyes will tend to wander. I hate to admit that I peek at the reading material of those around me.

The thing of it is—people don’t just bring the New York Times crossword puzzle with them on the train anymore. The lady sitting in front of you is just as likely to be watching Homeland on her iPad or shopping for a dress on eBay as she is to be reading the funnies.

I was once on a train that got disabled by an electrical surge during a bad storm. We sat in darkness on the tracks for two hours until an old-fashioned locomotive could be summoned to push us to the next station. As we waited, those with portable digital technology had the time of their lives, playing “Angry Birds” and poking each other on Facebook. The rest of us were living in the Stone Age, staring off into the rainy night and wishing we hadn’t had those two brown-bagged beers.

Sometimes you can’t get a seat and have to stand in the aisle. This is an especially useful perch for playing spy games. I watched over a young lady’s shoulder once as she texted instructions to her boyfriend about precisely how she wanted her Subway sandwich ordered. (6 in tuna w/jala & xtra pkls NO lettuce pls get Mntn Dw Tx XOXO.)

It takes more energy not to look.

Then there was the fellow I sat behind who was reading a book with a curious title: 101 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting Engaged. Wow. I only asked myself two questions before I proposed: (1) Do I love her and (2) Can I afford a ring?

The craziest commuter train story I’ve ever heard was my friend Paul Beston’s account of fighting his way home one St. Patrick’s Day a few years back. A taste:

Squeezing as tightly as I could, I was able to shake his head up and down vigorously, back and forth, preventing him from throwing punches, as his head bobbed to and fro and the mash of people jostled us around.

It’s a real barn-burner. I should point out that Paul lives in New York State. We don’t usually get quite this level of excitement on the New Haven line, but tempers do sometimes flare in the quiet car.

So I hope you see the verity in “He Who Transplanted Sustains.” The suburbs aren’t as bad or as boring as they’re often made out to be. I wouldn’t live in the city now if they paid me to.

If you’re ever on the 5:08 out of Grand Central, don’t be shy about saying “Hi.” I’m not hard to find.

Just look over your shoulder.



  1. This is such fun. Some of my most interesting memories are my days riding the subway in NYC and before that, the commuter trains in Philly, where I grew up. Commuter trains are more story-like because you run into the same people every day and you end up collecting a posse of fellow commuters to pass the time with. Nothing fun or interesting about driving around my suburban sprawl in a car.

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