The eastbound train shuddered to a stop at the Maplewood station like a dog shaking off rain. In another time, dozens of the commute-hardened would have begun to board, heads down, shoulders angled, minds as focused on a particular seat as that of a rightful heir to a throne.
But on this early-spring, late-pandemic morning in New Jersey, only a scattered few climbed aboard, every one of us masked. All that grounded the moment in normality was the lateness of the train.
After more than a year since my last rush-hour train, I found myself suppressing the muscle memory of contact sports as I laid claim to a throne in a car with just two other passengers. The blue seats were the same, the clouded windows, the air-conditioning hush; yet it felt as though I’d boarded a train in another country.
Before the pandemic, the trains of New Jersey Transit could be cattle-car crowded, with strangers pressed so closely against you that you could deduce their last meal. That level of forced intimacy now seemed unimaginable.
After the outbreak, ridership on New Jersey trains, which in normal times averaged 95,000 weekday passengers, plummeted to 3,500 before stabilizing at about 17,500. A similar pattern held for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road lines: in February 2020, nearly 600,000 riders; two months later, fewer than 30,000.
For many months the commuter parking lots were empty, the train stations closed, the coffee guy gone. At night the trains cutting through Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester or Wyandanch on Long Island, or here in Maplewood, were like passing ghost ships, their interior lights illuminating absence.
But in recent weeks, as more people have become vaccinated, New Jersey Transit and the M.T.A. have seen a slight uptick, to about a quarter of their normal ridership. Perhaps this signals a gradual return to how things had been; or, perhaps, it is a harbinger of how things will be, given that many people now feel that they can work just as efficiently from home.
The train lurched forward.
In the time before, the first and last cars would be designated “quiet cars,” where passengers were advised to speak, if at all, in low, library-like tones. Of course, it has been in these rolling petri dishes of human nature that I have heard the loudest explosions of commuter rage.
Someone will violate the quiet-car code, however slightly. A self-appointed enforcer will look around, gopher-like, with a stricken, can-you-believe-this expression. The enforcer will then call out the offender with: “Excuse me! Quiet car? Quiet car! This — is the quiet car!”
It turns out that offenders do not always welcome the public shaming. I have seen the quiet car nearly transformed into a mixed-martial-arts cage, to my silent delight.
Now every car is the too-quiet car — so quiet that I noticed small details I’d missed in 20 years of commuting: The way, for example, that conductors seem to click their hole punchers exactly three times to invalidate a collected ticket.
Whoa. Am I actually getting nostalgic about commuting?
Even as I type this, my cellphone flashes with another New Jersey Transit alert: “Rail service in and out of Penn Station New York is subject to delays …”
When the system is running smoothly, which is not uncommon, there is no greater pleasure than to walk a half-mile from one’s house and, 45 minutes later, step out into the city of all cities. But when the system fails, also not uncommon, several stages of grief follow: denial, anger … but never acceptance.
Could I ever again want to be trapped on a stalled train in the Meadowlands, all but adhered to someone who had recently polished off an everything bagel with lox? Could I ever, ever, think fondly of the ring of hell that is the lower concourse of Penn Station, where dignity vanishes with the flash of a track number, and the nightly horde would trample a Little Sister of the Poor to secure a favored train seat?
I honestly don’t know. I do know that I miss the normal — however abnormal that normal had been.
As the train moved eastward, I gazed through the clouded window at the rolling panorama of nearly imperceptible damage. A recently closed movie theater. A parking lot packed with yellow school buses. The many, many houses and apartment buildings that, for more than a year, have been like miniature prisons.
Still, here and there, I saw hope. A man laying down the white lines for the boundaries of a soccer field. Moderate traffic moving along Interstate 280. White-helmeted construction workers attending to some repair.
The train slithered past a small homeless encampment along the Passaic River in Newark; past the hay-colored swamps of the Meadowlands; past two people waiting for a connection at the Secaucus Junction station. Then it whooshed into a tunnel under Weehawken to begin its routine, extraordinary journey beneath the Hudson River.
The world beyond the train went dark. The air pressure changed. Cell service ended. For a few moments we existed in that in-between space — between then and now, here and there — before the lights of subterranean Manhattan, our destination, appeared.
The train pulled up beside its assigned platform. A disembodied voice told us to collect our belongings. And the doors opened with a sound like an exhalation.