The Commuter Shuffle

by on December 12, 2013


There’s the minute or two to the end of my street. The minute down Damen to Chicago Avenue. The minutes spent waiting for the bus, followed by the seven or eight standing on it and the five on the subway it leads me to. Finally the five-minute stroll down Lake Street, with the El tracks grinding and rattling beside me, and up State to the boxy white skyscraper I work in.

To commute is to lose yourself in rhythm. In the dull-edged blocks of time and familiar movements your body comes to anticipate—little automaton firings from the reptilian brain. The familiar surroundings reduced to so much background for meditations on a New Yorker article, plans for the night ahead, and the meaning of life—or at least the meaning of that neighbor with glasses appearing sans boyfriend again (they had seemed so happy).

A few years into my life as an office worker, my mornings are spent in a state of flow. It’s a current that carries me along, right from sleep to the rest of my day. I’m so used now to picking the perfectly-sized chunk of reading as I move from house to bus to subway, sensing when I need to snap to the present, taking mindless steps from stairs to sidewalk, sidewalk to stairs, stairs to sidewalk, it hardly seems notable, let alone necessary.

But every once in a while, there’s a reminder. A day when the 66 bus rolls to a stop, and instead of joining myself to a shuffling mass, I step on board to see row after row of empty seats, the few heads intermittent, alone, austere. On the Blue Line I feel odd and anxious, sure the emptiness is something more—a change of the clock I didn’t notice, a holiday for all companies but mine, a sign of disaster I haven’t yet discovered. (If I ever woke up in an old Twilight Zone episode, I’d recognize the feeling.) By the time I walk down the open subway platform and up to the spacious sidewalks, I feel blankly sad.

I feel like I’m becoming the old man I sometimes see in my office building. He walks to lunch on the 20th floor with a slow, slouched shuffle, big squishy black orthopedic shoes supporting the frail figure above them. I’ve never seen him with anyone else. He must be at least 80. And as I look, I can’t help but admire the dogged sense of purpose that carries him to work and through his final years. But I also see my fears: of shuffling to work and through life, alone and aging, with no purpose or identity outside of it. Of becoming a zombie in a tie—the American Nightmare.

Or at least it was my nightmare. You stop noticing it at a certain point, and on certain 8:30 a.m. trips. When you’re walking in that pulsing mass of commuters, you draw on its energy. You feel like you’re part of the city, part of the human motion that sets it apart for all the kids who are just there visiting—kids who take in the Loop’s swooping majesty with awe, the way I once did (and sometimes still do). Whether it’s the mundane salvation of community or a lotus-like narcotic, that feeling is there, and it buoys you. Helps you float on through the day.

And when you lose it—when the expected rhythm breaks, and the emptiness around you approaches post-apocalyptic—you awake to your zombie stroll. Realize that the city only works by absorbing you into its machinery. And hope that tomorrow, those familiar shared movements will come back again to fill the emptiness you feel today.

It’s better than shuffling alone.