JOHNNY’S THE MAN, with the flowing yellow tie and the timeless mustache. From the second deck of the eastbound Long Island Railroad train he regales his fellow passengers with tales of the early days of his commute in the sepia-toned waning hours of the Nixon Administration. At least until the train reaches Kings Park and he gets off this amusement park ride gone terribly wrong to head to his suburban castle. Johnny doesn’t drink but the vultures who crowd around the WC do, they nurse their Bud Lights from paper bags, as if we can’t see the shiny blue metal beneath. These three kings of commuter land have slicked back thinning hair and show purple where the cheek meets the eye. Along with their comical attempt at business attire, they display the paunch of the modern professional, a calling that requires many decades of sitting on one’s ass. “Oh, well,” they sigh. “Gotta earn a living …”
And this is what they sacrifice it for — telephone wires and half extinguished neon signs, 99 cent discount stores and greasy hamburger joints. I did that, too, I think, but I only lasted a month and a half before we rushed into Hoboken with its sometimes quick PATH connection. I’d wake up and scrape the ice from the windows of the station wagon and then I’d run out of gas on the way to Ronkonkoma station. Then I’d walk to the Hess station and buy a plastic container and fill it with Regular Unleaded and then walk all the way back to the car and fill it up with my numb fingers on the plastic and metal. The reenergized fuel tank would show a quarter of a tank and I’d think, “Ah, just enough,” that look of contentedness, just enough to get me on the next train, to buy my coffee and doughnut, to let Bebel Gilberto massage my aching soul through my headphones …
Forty-five days. That’s all it took for me to give up on that life. And yellow-tie man’s been here since The Godfather, Part II.
What the hell, right? Don’t bash on the commuter, that beleaguered martyr of wing-tipped Manhattanite dreams. You think he wants to sit on this train? No. He has to. Or at least he has convinced himself that he has to, and those around him are passionate in their agreement. Yes, we have to. And at the same time, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t get in lock step with the rest of the human race. You thought there had to be another way. Career opportunities await in San Francisco or Juneau or Bozeman, places with a better view. “Oh, but my family …” But your family consists of Americans who left other continents to come here. They’ll just have to understand. “Oh, but my career.” Remember those vast graveyards in Queens? That’s what God thinks of your career.
Into this walks a woman with an Eastern face that reminds me of old drawings of Genghis Khan, with maroon pants and Inuit boots and a rough flannel jacket and a mariners wool hat. She stands among the living dead and speaks to someone through some device and then stands there and watches the windows, avoiding the glances of the skeleton crew on the LIRR. I glance at her too, and I see that her eyes are alert, as if she has also stepped out of an alternate reality into this soul-muddying one, and she looks back at me, trying to discern my intent, as if I was checking her out, which I am not sure if I am. All I can think, is that I am grateful that there are other living people here on this train of the dead like her. Alive on the train of the dead. In such a place, they are easy to spot. They shine like angels.