On Commuting

By Barrett SwansonApril 16, 2018

On Commuting
LAST AUGUST, upon getting a new job at a small university in Wisconsin, I started a daily hour-long commute. Every morning, I jet out of Madison’s east side, meandering down I-90, and halfway to Chicago, I exit onto a network of county roads that wend through cornfields and prairie, a landscape whose only saliences are the oxidized rectitude of grain silos or the pylons for the town’s electricity. Most of the other vehicles out here are semi-trucks or SUVs towing fishing boats with names like SEADUCTION and GROUPER THERAPY.

In some sense, a commute is an ontological problem. Confined to one’s car or the seat of a train, there is only so much you can do. It is a prickly non-hour during which you are unaccountable to your family or friends and are thus unburdened from the onuses of home or the tug of productivity. Of course, some of us push back against this inertia. So conditioned are we to “maximize our time,” we view the bus or train as a makeshift office and convert our business calls into public soliloquies. From my college days in Chicago I can still recall voyages during which neatly barbered executives held onto the train car railing and shouted into their cell phones things like, “Jesus Christ, Marty: not today, Monday!” or, “Just send me the goddamned spreadsheets!” One wonders why anyone buys theater tickets when, on public transport, you can see Death of a Salesman for free as a daily matinee.

Even those of us who drive still attempt to escape our limitations. We outfit our bodies with a couture of electronic gadgets with the hope of transcending time and space. With our bluetooths (blueteeth?) and smartwatches, we return phone calls and eschew idleness, striving to stay one step ahead of the competition. My cousin, a financial advisor, tells me that during his commute he often video-chats with customers through a small dashboard camera. Occasionally they’ll remark upon the whine of a proximate car horn or the image of cattle ranch framed in his rearview window.

From this vantage, the commute seems to reify a basic American covenant: the promise of social mobility. With nothing more than your pluck and intuition, you’re free to hoist up those bootstraps and bloodhound around for your share of the pie. I have the sensation almost every morning that to join the puttering multitude is to bolster the ranks of Americans who still believe in the Horatio Alger myth, who think we can transcend our disappointments through hustle and toil, who believe the trajectory of our fate is commensurate to our willingness to stay on the move. Very often on the highway I hear in my inner ear two pop songs from the 1980s, “Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy and “Workin’ for a Livin’” by Huey Lewis & The News: songs whose carbonated optimism makes it easy for me to imagine myself as Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Success, a fair-haired golden boy who can climb the professional ladder with nothing more than winks and roguish charm.

Which is to say that a commute is an occasion for self-delusion. It is an hour of preening and exhortation during which we psych ourselves up for the day’s demands. When I was in my early 20s, during the first decade of the century, I lived in a dingy apartment on the north side of Chicago and interned for a certain big-eared senator who harbored presidential ambitions. Three days a week, I spent an hour on the El, jouncing toward the Loop, wearing a suit that didn’t fit me and an ill-advised goatee. I had grown up in small-town Wisconsin and pegged myself as a wide-eyed Huckleberry unfit for national politics. During my commute, I tried to compensate by watching, on my laptop, episodes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, modeling my persona on the role of Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff who blustered and quipped his way across the Capitol, deactivating political foes with unction and blandishment. Within the span of an hour, Lyman’s serrated wit gave me a stencil for my workday sensibility, even though my own tasks in the senator’s office never went beyond typing correspondence or fielding constituents’ complaints.

Of course, a commute is a circular journey, a coming and going, so whatever varnish we apply to our psyches in the morning invariably wears off by the hour of return. At no time is this more apparent than on evening buses and trains, when the despair of fellow passengers can so thoroughly darken your mood that you find yourself getting off several stops before your exit. The apparition of these faces in a crowd, Ezra Pound wrote of a subway station in 1913, petals on a wet, black bough.

Back in Chicago, my boss was forecasting a season of hope and change, but it was not uncommon for my commute to wear the symptoms of the prevailing anomie: barefoot transients muttering preachments to no one or teens in billowing parkas toking joints with impunity. I remember once, on the Red Line toward Evanston, a cohort of drunken students from Northwestern bellowing Disney songs from their youth: “A Whole New World” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” That these tunes were so roaringly incongruous to the train’s interior — that they operated as a callow taunt to our less fortunate fellow travelers — seemed never to have occurred to them. Instead, the students held fast to the talismanic powers of a commute, a vessel hurtling toward their own enchanted destinies.

Such optimism seems more prevalent among the young. For those of us who are now on the cusp of middle age, a commute isn’t so much a journey of progress as a footpath around regrets and deferred ambitions. By the time they were my age, Emily Brontë had penned Wuthering Heights and the Buddha had renounced all worldly possessions, but all I have to my name are a handful of publications and one year toward tenure at a small Midwestern university. Whereas a commute was once a screen upon which I could project a montage of future achievements — a widely feted novel, the label of wunderkind, a house in the country — it now functions as a yawning chasm of time in which, if I’m not careful, I can lose myself to ruefulness and dispassion.

I suppose this is why, wherever I grumble about my commute, my friends are quick to offer a menu of dubious advice. Adamantly they suggest the downloading of audiobooks or podcasts, anything to lure the mind away from the jaws of self-critique. In order to lessen the burdens of the journey, they seem to suggest, you must forget where you are and why you’re there. You must take up the avenues of self-erasure.

Such recommendations seem of a piece with the most popular injunctions of our time. Constantly we are told to stay busy, to dodge overthinking, lest we court long jags of depression and the arrival of bad moods. Under the banner of self-care, we are exhorted to go ahead and binge-watch that TV show, to scarf that chocolate cake, to delight in the unbridled consumption of the widely practiced “cheat day.” Steeped in the nonthought of yoga, we fold our bodies into the postures of infants and corpses, aiming for a kind of self-obliteration, paying drop-in rates for mental fatality. This points out another etymological declension of commuting: before the word came to connote soul-crippling drives to the workplace, to “commute” was to lessen the severity of a punishment, as when a judge offers a guilty party the balm of a lesser sentence.

And yet part of the sadness I feel during my commute stems from the realization that I have spent too much time absenting myself from my life, that I haven’t appreciated each moment as it came. Throughout my 20s, I believed my days were following the logic of a sitcom, with new characters wandering across the set and interacting with the central players, but the plot was strung loosely together, never building toward some overarching narrative, never orchestrating some final theme. When I was in grad school, I would spend barren hours drinking on the union patio, smoking cigarettes with friends in the seventh year of writing their dissertations, and it never dawned on me that this tipsy chatter would be on the record, that this was time I’d never get back.

That I suffered from this delusion becomes most obvious to me when I finally arrive at school and teach my classes. These college students are nearly 15 years my junior, and yet lately they’ve entered the lecture hall in the apparel of my childhood. In particular, the Massimo hats and Tommy Hilfiger hoodies, which were so popular in the 1990s, now have the power to summon Proustian levels of nostalgia in me. It is a strange mirror. Last week, during office hours, one boy told me how desperately he wanted to tell his story, how badly he wants to be a writer, how badly he wanted this, he said, throwing an arm into the air, as though the cramped precinct of my office were some sort of holy relic, the site of all creation. I would have found his earnestness charming if it weren’t such faithful reflection of my own college-aged hungers. Which is why I found myself fighting back tears. To grow old is to encounter on a daily basis an interminable parade of previous selves, miniature incarnations of your delusions, your wild hopes, your mistakes.

In these habits of mind, I seem to share a bloodline with Leopold Bloom and Clarissa Dalloway, those sullen nostalgists for whom a routine errand — a trip to the florist, a jaunt to the post — became a juncture to reflect upon the errancies of one’s life: a squandered dalliance, a neglected son, the aftereffects of a ravaging addiction. No wonder we bristle at the idle hours of our commute. For it is then that we see how choosing Chicago over Berkeley kept us from a life of sunshine, how a graduate degree in fiction ruled out a job in the West Wing, how our moneyless lifestyle as aspiring novelists prevented us from having children.

These days, during the hour of my commute, I am trying to sit more easily with my disappointments, trying to remember more fondly the places I have been. For that is what we risk losing amid all those dissected evenings in thrall to self-abstention, all those slack-jawed hours with TV shows and podcasts. We are distancing ourselves from the fact of our inevitable transformation: that we are always getting older, that things are no longer as they once had been. In this sense, we are always in commute, always traveling inexorably between those “two eternities of darkness,” as Nabokov called them, the one toward which we are heading and the one from which we came.

“I thought it would last, my time,” writes Philip Larkin, that bard of resignation. “The sense that, beyond the town, there would always be fields and farms.” On my journey home, the road is long, and out across the gathering dusk, a hem of leafless trees stands frayed against the mauvish horizon. For half an hour, I drive through swaths of undulant prairie, unaccompanied by fellow travelers, and every so often the fecal reek of soil pervades the window, a vestige of the forgotten summer. Atop a faraway hill, two cows graze in lazy contention, and even in the twilight, I can see that they’re breathing steam. For a while, I lose myself to the hum of the interstate, but when I come out of the fog, it seems, impossibly, that I’m already near my exit. Always, it comes quicker than we expect.


Barrett Swanson was the 2016–2017 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.


Banner image by Alan Light.

LARB Contributor

Barrett Swanson is the 2016–2017 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and his short fiction and essays have been distinguished as notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Best American Essays.


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