Thursday, October 3, 2013

National Poetry Month: The L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales (with thanks to Chaucer)

I was born in Brooklyn, but grew up on Long Island, so I have Commuting in my DNA. My dad and brother worked in Manhattan, and there was no doubt I would too.

I started commuting on the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan at 16 for an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and continued on and off until I moved into the city at 24.

I was horrified by the depressing suburban commuting experience, and ranted about its Dickensian dark side in a small piece that the NY Times ran in a Sunday Long Island opinion column.

Wordsworth tells us that "poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility."

After I had moved into the city, I thought about my fellow suburbanites who were still grappling with a twice daily struggle with the commuting monster. Hmm.

Chaucer gave us The Knight’s Tale, Second Nun, Monk’s Tale, the Wife of Bath, etc., enroute from London to the pilgrimage site of St. Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral.

My L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales offers a look at some of the types I met on the rails: the Dashing Dan, the Bridge Players Four, and the Angry Young Man.

The L.I.R.R. Commuter Talesby M.A.Peel


Drawn by the power of the almighty dollar
Thousands don the starched-white collar.
Through the bowels of the earth they make their way,
Five times a week, twice a day.

The Commuter is a complicated class
With its varying breeds traveling en masse.
View them not as a homogenous whole
Their characters differ as their stories unfold.

The Dashing Dan

The Dashing Dan flies off the bus
To make the 5:36 it’s an absolute must
To sprint a 440 around the block;
He is confidently playing “Beat the Clock.”
The stairs of the station are now in sight,
In one mighty leap he has bounded two flights.
The digital clock that decides his fate
Whether he will arrive home on time or late,
Viciously displays 5:34
As the trainmen threaten to close the train doors.

But Dan does not fear
That the appointed time draws near!
His strong sturdy legs enable him to pass
The slow, sluggish movements of the bovine mass.
It is 5:35 and one staircase more
Then a second-wind sprint to reach the train door.

He smiles as he crosses the threshold,
Another day a master, a pro.
With a move of the hand, his tie knot to fix
The train pulls away, it is 5:36.

The Bridge Players Four

The Bridge Players Four, as the may be named,
Have come into a small bit of fame.
The regulars on the train expect these four
To occupy the facing seats to the left of the door.
Before the train has pulled away
The Players prepare for the long journey’s play.
Coats, ties, and briefcases are stored on the rack,
While bad remembrances of the day are sacked.
For the game is an escape for their overworked minds
And they do not allow intrusions of any kind.
The ad for Cosmopolitan is taken from its space
And sits across their laps as the playing base.

North, the dealer, is boisterous and loud.
He enjoys his games, and of his group he is proud,
For they can talk and laugh and enjoy a good cigar
While depression and fatigue fill the rest of the car.
His feigned hearty laughter bellows out to chime
How in the midst of other’s misery, he is having a good time.

South, his partner, seated across the board
Flinches ever so slightly each time that North roars.
Refined and reserved, he also enjoys the game
But never spots wishing that North were more tame.

Though East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,
The two join forces twice a day, the North and South to beat.
East and West became fast friends as part of their master plan,
Each wanting to associate with the followers of Pierre Cardin.
As North and South already enjoyed the benefits of that fame,
So East and West sought them out and joined their little game.

Thus East pals with North by laughing just as loud,
While West appeases South, complaining of vulgar crowds.
And so they bid the long way home.
Though it’s not often plain,
The game they play continuously to further person gain.

The Angry Young Man

There appears on the scene the Angry Young Man
In a three-pieced grey suit with diploma in hand.
He has mastered Economics and Management 304,
International Banking, Finance, and more.
They have taught him well the classical business form,
Now he descends upon Wall Street to take it by storm.

For how clearly he sees the evils of the past
Which his elders, his teachers, have permitted to last.
And that Troubled Grey area which perplexes the wise
Separates into White and Black in his eyes.
As it was obvious to that noble man of Spain
So it is to our Man blatantly plain
That he must go forth with his luminous pearl
And enlighten the floundering businessman’s world.

Armed with his youth he boards the train
Defiantly standing, for there is no strain
In commuting four hours a day when one is twenty-two
And sturdy legs and a pure heart easily support you.

On the way home he judges his peers:
The middle-aged man content with his beer;
The suburbanized man with his middle-aged spread
Who sprawls out in his seat like it were his bed,
And unconsciously snores with his mouth open wide
Upsetting the tired young assistant who sits at his side.

The Angry Young Man feels contempt and scorn
For his elders who should have corrected all ere he was born.
Not yet knowing the injustices of life,
The Angry Young Man continues his fight
Against that which silently oppresses his peers,
Whose faces reflect the frustration of years.


The Commuter is a hardy breed,
A descendant of the pioneer, who, with his steed
Trekked three thousand miles is search of hope:
The Commuter travels that far, but in a narrower scope.
All of his efforts focus on getting there and back again,
His traveling takes him nowhere but where he’s already been.


dorki said...

From my limited exposure to the big city commute life, you nailed it. In my "copious spare time" I need to dig out the Chaucer again - its been a long time.

If you are not aware of it, look up the John Hartford song "In Tall Buildings".

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, thanks for the tip to John Hartford. I did know now about him. Interesting that he was born in New York City, but left to find his destiny. For many people it's the other way around.

Vivian said...

Really enjoyed this LIRR Commuter poem! I'm writing a magazine feature (hard copy and online editions) about commuter life on the LIRR - and looking for true-first-person stories by LIRR commuters that are funny, heartwarming, mysterious, or thought-provoking, etc. Write to Tell the "when, where" facts of the story, your hometown and destination that day and whether you'd like to be named or anonymous (e.g. "Bobbi from Babylon"). Thanks. VRite