Commuting is like pooping. Everyone has to do it, apart from the Queen. No, wait, she does too.
I had never thought much about commuting, and even when the time came, it took me a while to realise what it really entailed.
After moving to Brooklyn from the Lower East Side in November, at last escaping our much-loved but utterly decrepit Chinatown apartment, I did vaguely surmise that moving further away meant I would now have a proper hour-long commute rather than my 25 minute train hop to my work in Midtown. However, as with the realising of many a profound truth, it took me a while to acknowledge, and I swiftly wafted that unappetising prospect away in favour of rhapsodising about our beautiful new light-filled, bug-free, completely liveable new home.
At first, I didn't really notice. The commute I mean, not the apartment. I really noticed the apartment. Especially when we'd come in at night and I would gleefully turn on the light to expose a spotless bug free surface- "LOOK ISAAC, NO ROACHES. NOT ONE". In my first month or so of Brooklyn life, I was too in love with the fresh air and fresh neighbourhood; staring dreamily out of the subway car at the sunny approach to Manhattan with its golden skyscrapers skewering the chubby marshmallow clouds; flirting happily with the owner of the bodega next to the subway station in exchange for a complimentary Lindor truffle (issued "on the house" with a wink as if it was a Negroni at Harry's Bar) and reading a solid book or two a week. “It's amazing, I'm getting so much reading done”, I said to all my friends, who merely peered cynically over their glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. “Perhaps I will re-read The Illiad and completely pay attention this time. I will get Rosetta Stone and learn conversational Finnish. I don't know what everyone complains about, truly.”
Eight weeks in, the shift happened. I began to walk to the train with less of a spring in my step. More like chains, actually; big cold chains, soldered at random to my fellow train-slaves, edging their way collectively up seventh avenue in the ice, each joined and loping in grim intention like a mournful commuter chain gang.
Once on the train, I was getting distracted from my books. Instead, I began spending my time worrying about whether or not I would get a seat. And once I had one, I started thinking about the email I hadn't sent the previous day or whether or not the meeting was at ten or nine thirty oh christ was it at nine thirty. Out went the dreamy staring out the window- in came staring with righteous indignation at the inevitable seat-hoggers, man spreaders, and those charmless fuckwits who favour Nacho Cheese Doritos for breakfast. Worst of all, I learned which stations had Wi-Fi, or were open air enough to get a phone signal. The Iliad got replaced by Instagram. Finnish was discarded for Facebook.
In short, it becomes so easy to commute mindlessly. And that might be ok if we didn't do it quite so much. Studies show that the average commute for a New Yorker is 48 minutes. For the average Londoner it's 54 minutes.
So let’s do the maths (not my strong point but in this case essential). Most of us are spending about two hours a day, 10 hours a week, 40 hours a month on public transport or in cars. Terrifyingly, that means that at the end of just one year, the average city dweller has spent roughly three weeks sitting on a train. Three weeks glaring ferociously at the Dorito munchers, three weeks with your eyes wondering over the page of your book while stressing about whether you can really make that deadline, three weeks refreshing your phone, once you get that slither of reception, wishing ardently that the photo of the kitten in a dinosaur suit on Instagram from 12 minutes ago could be replaced by something equally redundant and shallow (disclaimer: I love kittens, but urge you to love your brain more).
Enough was enough. I had started to dread my commute. Feel profoundly oppressed by it, even. Something had to change.
That's why, over the past four weeks, I've been working hard to shift my perspective and view my daily commute as two hours of unadulterated me-time. I know this is something people usually say about yoga class and not about sharing a confined public space with an assortment of strangers, all with varyingly appalling levels of personal hygiene, but it is true. And, goddamit, I’ve seen the light.
Dear readers, I came, I saw, I commuted, and this is what I have learned. Below, a five-part guide to pimping your commute.
1) Completely ban email, texting, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, ANYTHING. Embrace boredom.
This is probably the most important. See your commute as an opportunity to train yourself to take an easy, well defined and scheduled break from your soul sucking telephonic device. Turn it off. Put it on airplane mode. Just take the luxury of an hour away from screens and enjoy the simple and inevitable fact that a train or bus journey demands nothing other than you being compelled to sit and wait. Breathe into the luxury of that a little, because it is rare, and fulfilling, and actually has the magical ability to coax out rather strange and fantastic thoughts. Once you've endured the initial agony of digital cold turkey for a few days, with your fingers fluttering reflexively for that iPhone, you'll be so pleased you did.
2) Ditch the music, embrace the podcast.
I've stopped listening to music on the subway completely. Firstly, it's no good at all when you are already being serenaded the entire way to Manhattan by a drunk pensioner singing the My Heart Will Go On while merrily quaffing a bottle of White Lightning (this actually happened to me last week). Also, I hate that cheap headphones mean everyone can hear what you're listening to, and I hate hearing other people's bad rap music. Or even their good rap music. This is when I turned to the podcast, discovering how remarkably soothing it is to start one's day with words. Podcasts are free, you can set them up to be downloaded automatically each morning, and it means you can get all the news without having to wield an ungainly newspaper. Commuting with a couple of good podcasts in your travel arsenal means you can spend the day feeling as if you had taken a leisurely breakfast with your favourite and cleverest friends, and I am a true convert. My favourite podcasts, in no particular order; Desert Island Discs (forever and always) the Today Programme (you could not start your day more informed) and NPR's Fresh Air (always interesting).
3) Make yourself an amazing coffee/tea
Embrace the literal daily grind and brew yourself a top-notch cup of joe to accompany your commute. Invest in a good thermos flask (FYI this is the one I use. I've had it for two years now. It's amazing and never leaks, ever) and make yourself a giant sexy coffee at home. Treat yourself to some fancy beans, sprinkle cinnamon and nutmeg into the grind, or if you’re not a coffee drinker, pop some mint leaves in your thermos and pour over hot water. It saves you wasting your hard-earned wine money on boring old Starbucks and allows you to caffeinate yourself smugly as those familiar stations roll by.
4) Breathe, dummy.
On the days when the train is jam packed, there's no air conditioning and the only space to stand is directly underneath someone's stinky armpit, practice mindful breathing. Position your head as far away as possible, close your eyes and repeat the following. Breathe in for four slow counts, hold for four and breathe out for four. This has the effect of literally slowing down your heart rate. It really works and has helped me through many a stressful moment. P.S. I'm also a big believer in this.
5) Read. With gusto. Everything.
The frequently distracting and noisy nature of public transport means that your book choices need to be as engrossing as they come, and never dull. I find a variety of heavy and lightweight tomes, both new and revisited and selected entirely according to mood, make all the difference. In the past couple of months I have read, in no particular order, The Fault in Our Stars, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Gone Girl, All Quiet On The Western Front and The Birthday Letters. I've enjoyed them all, both high and low brow. Don't be snarky about you or anyone else indulging in all of Oprah's Book Club or getting hooked on Game of Thrones or ploughing your way through the Twilight series. You're riding the subway and not allowed to be a literary snob until you're getting chauffered to the office in a Bentley.
Followed strictly, I’ve found that these rules will help you to start and end your day on the side of the angels, with calm and openness and enthusiasm, rather than having your spirit and patience crushed by the MTA only a couple of hours in. Dare I say it, you may even find yourself looking forward to your commute. Isn't the whole point of The Iliad that it's about the journey? Maybe I'll even get around to that conversational Finnish. Mind ovet.