As a matter of principle, it shouldn’t be soul-crushing to get somewhere you don’t even want to go. That’s why commuting to work can awaken such elemental feelings of dread, powerlessness and rage.
You strategize. You wake early. You wedge your body into an obscenely packed subway or inch your car along a planet-killing freeway. Finally, you are victorious: Congratulations, you’ve made it to the office! By the way, there’s now a pre-meeting before the meeting. Todd brought mini bagels.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spend about 27 minutes a day getting to work. That number will sound wondrously low to many riders of the M.T.A. and New Jersey Transit. In the New York metropolitan area — go, team! — it takes 37 minutes on average to get from door to door. While other cities (Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Seattle all come to mind) have tormented their work forces over the years, there has always been something uniquely awful about the New York commute. Back in 2001, Alan E. Pisarski, a transportation consultant, told The New York Times, “You guys are safely ensconced in the lead.” Asked about Los Angeles and its fabled freeway jams, he said, “That’s an American myth, I think perpetuated by New Yorkers.” Not anymore, it seems. Some studies now actually bestow the longest-commute crown on Palmdale, Calif., a suburb of … Los Angeles.
The photographs here all ran in The Times and capture commuters from the 1940s onward. One of the more striking images, taken by Dith Pran in 1981, shows a New Yorker in a turtleneck sweater and winter coat holding open the subway doors so another woman can join what looks like a hellscape inside. It’s a peculiarly urban sort of kindness.
In the early 20th century, New York subways actually had attendants, colloquially called “sardine-packers,” to physically cram people in. (The Japanese famously employed uniformed, white-gloved “shiri oshi” — meaning “tushy pushers” — to do the same during rush hour.) A pusher in Tokyo told The Times in 1995, “If their back is toward us, it’s easier, but if they’re facing us, it’s harder because there’s no proper spot to push them, though we try to push their bags or something else they are holding. In any case, we always first say, ‘We will push you.’” Once the trains left the station, the attendants used long, hooked poles to recover shoes and other items that had fallen on the track. Said another pusher, back in 1964, “I really wonder how so many of those girls manage to go to work with one shoe.”
As with any bleak subject, it may be wisest to focus not on the depressing stuff but on the triumph of the human spirit that it inspires. These photos also record the ways in which people have reinvented the commute over the years — by walking, bicycling, scooting and so on. For the thousands leaving distant suburbs at unholy hours, there is always some guy who crosses the Hudson in a collapsible kayak before unfolding his bike.
It is possible to be a conscientious objector to the whole laborious, stress-inducing, health-endangering process, of course. More than 5 percent of American workers now work at least part of the week from homewhere no one steals their passion fruit LaCroix from the fridge. Everyone else can only hope to avoid the kind of existential crisis that a commuter named Ted Ogren experienced in January 1996, when a heavy snowfall turned his trip from New Jersey to Long Island City into a six-hour test of Shackletonian endurance.
“This is absurd,” Ogren told a Times reporter. “I’ll probably get to work just in time to come back.”