Tales from a Suburban Commute: Business as Usual?
Last week, I reactivated my old commute from Connecticut into Manhattan on a Metro North train. No, my work schedule hasn’t entirely shifted back, but it’s the beginning of a new normal for me. I don’t think I could have imagined this just a few short months back, but I’ve jumped back into the flow of the physical world, way beyond my limited and carefully curated social engagements during the pandemic.
I’m vaccinated, and I believe it’s finally time to take this step of reintegration. (Hopefully, the Delta variant doesn’t reverse this general trend in my area.)
My Return to New York City
This isn’t my first time back since the pandemic began. I’ve also been in Manhattan on weekends to visit my father, and I’ve recently traveled to the city on another occasion with my wife. We drove in for an event at a restaurant.
All of these trips felt both jarring and entirely normal, but my workday commute was especially surreal.
For those new and former road warriors from the suburbs who are on the cusp of the same return-to-the-office journey, here are my travel notes from my New York expeditions.
I was delighted that my station’s small parking lot was barely half filled. Not having to stress over whether I could find a spot on a workday was a joy. I think all of those empty parking spaces were due to summer vacations and remote work still in effect for many commuters.
New Haven Line Trains
My Metro North trains weren’t packed, but they weren’t entirely empty either. Everyone wore masks. Thankfully, the center seats remained unoccupied, as there was enough room for people to spread out.
I must admit I used to be a fan of taking the center seat, as opposed to having to stand for my entire train ride. No more.
And I think there’s a new, unspoken social-distancing norm not to sit shoulder-to-shoulder. We’ll see how that holds up as trains fill up in the fall.
Metro North is not currently operating a full schedule. That means all trains are off peak. So DON’T buy a peak ticket from the ticket machine on the platform like I did. That’s a rookie mistake and a waste of money.
To add insult to injury, I had purchased a 10-pass ticket, because they’re less expensive per ride. (Peak ride, that is.) Thankfully, the train conductor kindly explained to me that you can fill out a form for a refund at the ticket counter in Grand Central Terminal. (If you do it within 24 hours, you can immediately exchange a peak ticket for off-peak rides.)
New York Subways
I couldn’t imagine myself in a subway during the pandemic, but here I was again… just like old times. Almost everybody was wearing a mask, although it’s supposed to be everyone.
The subway trains I took weren’t packed, but there wasn’t really enough space for true social distancing.
New York City Restaurants
My biggest shock as a suburban creature was to see so many New Yorkers happily packed into restaurants, and nobody wearing masks (with the exception of restaurant employees).
Sure, if you’re eating, you can’t wear a mask, but it wasn’t like people were re-masking between courses. There were no masks, and that was it.
The Power of Group Psychology
I’ve got to admit how quickly I was influenced by the group norms I passed through.
Remember that New York City restaurant my wife and I went to? We walked in wearing our masks. I was surrounded by what seemed like a sea of people happily chatting away, and there wasn’t a mask in the house. I immediately felt like some kind of leper. By the second, it became increasingly uncomfortable for me to keep my mask on, and it was off within moments.
The CDC currently says that’s okay for those who are vaccinated. But was everyone in the restaurant vaccinated? It’s impossible to know.
I’m not so sure what this all means about my resolve. Am I a lemming following an irresponsible course? Perhaps, I’m simply acting normal and following the science. To be fair, the guidance on safe pandemic practices is always changing.
Still, the intense power of group psychology is undeniable.
Back to the Future
Taking my first steps in my return to New York City were the hardest. It got easier from there. Much easier.
Do I feel safe? Well, I’m vaccinated. And I’m watching the headlines. For now, I’m okay with my choice.
At some point, you’ve got to go live your life. You can’t stay home forever.
If you want to dip your toe in the water and try a trip into the city, I’d say that now is a decent time for that. It’s not crowded.
Good luck, don’t forget your mask, and be prepared to feel the massive pull from the psychology of the masses.