Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here – A Commute Through The Nine Circles Of Hell


Timbuk2 CommuteI am an old hand at commuting by Public Transportation – starting in Junior High School, I took city buses to school each day, and graduated on to subways, trolleys and other means as circumstances dictated.  I grew up in New York City, after all – a place where many adults never bother to obtain a driver’s license, let alone acquire a car and deal with trying to park it.  (In that glorious city, even if you do magically find a parking space you can’t just leave your car there – thanks to alternate side of the street parking, you still have to move your car a couple of times a week to allow the street cleaners access to the entire block.)

I was in my thirties before I actually began to drive on a daily basis, commuting in to work in my own private space, blaring with tunes and hazy with cigarette smoke.  But as the old adage goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”.  Thanks to a medical condition, I have been thrust back to my former days, riding trains and buses to complete my daily trek into work since July.

I do have hopes of getting my license back – with a sign-off from my doctor, I can appeal to PennDOT and (knock on wood) have a chance of getting my driving privileges reinstated.  It will likely be at least a couple of months before that can happen, however, and even that seems to be up to the whims of whatever employee in PennDOT’s Medical division happens to be reviewing my case.

While working in Harrisburg, this actually didn’t make all THAT much of a difference.  It took me a little more than an hour and a half to drive to Central Pennsylvania each morning, and two hours to drive back home, thanks to rush hour timing and such.  Taking Amtrak, instead, put a solid two and a half hours to each direction on my commute, including the necessity of having my wife drive some distance to pick me up at the train station.  (When I took trains all the way home, it became a three-hour commute at best.)  But the train ride did let me rest – I couldn’t relax, not with all of the people around me, and I certainly had no more privacy in my days, but I did get to sleep, to read, to talk on the phone … luxuries I didn’t have while driving, luxuries which helped me reclaim some of the time being taken away from me.

Now I am working much closer to home – in another suburb of Philly which takes only half an hour to drive to, when I am able to get a ride.  Thankfully there is a bus – a direct route which comes within a mile of my house, and within a five minute walk from my office.  The bus ride itself takes an hour and a quarter, without traffic, and is not to be sneezed at – it brings its own brand of hell to my daily commute.

So let’s watch the SEPTA bus as it passes through the landscape described so eloquently by Dante:

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The First Circle, Limbo

During the first few commutes, the trip doesn’t seem all that terrible.  You’re learning the route, watching the landmarks.  You fill your bag with items to amuse yourself – puzzles, songs, books – and as it is still all so new, you find yourself able to cope.  You are in Limbo, my friend.

You soon realize one of the key aspects of Limbo – the total waste of time.  Yes, this bus ride takes 75 minutes without traffic (and when is there not any traffic???), but that’s not the whole of your commute.  You need to get to and from the bus stop – a task which can add another twenty minutes to the lengthy time you already are budgeting.  When you are driving, you just get in the car and go when you’re ready.  Not so on the bus – you need to work around the bus schedule, no matter how inconvenient that might actually be for you.  You also need to leave a bit of extra time so that you don’t actually miss the bus, on those rare occasions when it arrives a minute or so early.

I set my work hours to be from 8:30-4:30, mainly because of this issue.  My bus runs only once an hour, with the first one nearing my house at 6:30.  The bus is then due to arrive near my office at 7:50 – a full 40 minutes earlier than my official work start time.  But I need to leave that cushion, for days when the weather is bad, days when there is traffic, or whatever else might arise.  (The next bus, leaving my neighborhood at 7:40 is not scheduled to arrive near work until 8:59 – too close for comfort, when thinking about the potential for arriving at work late.)

In the afternoon my bus doesn’t get to my office until 4:47, but I leave at 4:30 anyway because, frankly, I’d already spent an extra forty minutes at the office and I am more than ready to go by then.  So it’s 15 minutes of standing out in the cold at the bus stop.

No, Limbo is not fun at all, but it’s only the beginning of our ride, my friend.

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The Second Circle, Lust

It’s sad, really, being the first person into your office during your first week of work.  But what else can you do – you don’t want to be late during your first week.  When you are driving, there are certain luxuries that you just don’t think of.

For example, taking things with you to work.  Carrying your lunch, bringing a book to read, even buying a present for a colleague – these are no longer the simple matter of remembering to put the item in your car.  No, you have to carry these things with you throughout your ride.

As I watch colleagues exit their cars without coats (they’re not spending time outside waiting for their own car), the women with attractive shoes (as opposed to shoes comfortable for walking), carrying bunches of flowers or boxes of documents, I certainly am feeling the car lust.  As I pack up my own bag so carefully, trying to make everything fit into one easy-to-hold package, I watch co-workers with undisguised desire for the ease and convenience that I, too, once was privileged to enjoy.

As I stand at that bus stop, waiting after work in the cold, I see people drive by eating a snack, smoking, talking on the phone – activities I suppose I could do, though not with any privacy or comfort.  I find myself totally in heat, drooling over the luxury they are enjoying while I suffer my own fate.

But this Lust just leads us right to the next circle:

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The Third Circle, Gluttony

Thankfully I have thus far been able to avoid this particular deadly sin while riding public transportation, but it is quite tough to avoid, I must say.

There are not many advantages to taking public transportation – avoiding the need to park your vehicle is a main one, especially for folks working in cities, subjected to street parking, as I was for many years at Thomson.

Another major advantage is time – while taking Amtrak I had the time to read, to sleep each day, thereby recovering some of the time I had to invest on that long daily trek.  But it’s a very dangerous road.

Because you are freed up from the responsibility of safely piloting the vehicle, it is very tempting to use that time “productively”.  From eating meals to self-grooming to talking on the phone – it can be a slippery slope from “being productive” to “thoroughly annoying everyone remotely connected to your commute”.

It’s okay when you see someone brushing their hair on the bus.  It’s a little less okay when that person proceeds to floss.  It is totally not okay when they break out a nail clipper and take off their shoes.

You may think I am kidding about that last, but it happens – more often than anyone would care to think about.  Because people slide down that slope, falling into gluttonous patterns demarcated by a lack of self-control, an elimination of personal space, and a total disrespect for one’s fellow man.

Riding the bus might seem like a great time to catch up on phone calls, for instance.  You have the time, your hands are free, why not?  Well, first, the bus is loud.  Very loud.  You can barely hear the other person, and with the background noise, you need to yell for them to be able to hear you.  This affects not only the people around you on that bus, but the person you are talking to on the phone.

One phone call is understandable – an important work discussion, or an emergency (“we need milk!”) call to the spouse.  But before long it spirals downward to calling friends out of boredom, just to pass the time.  Think about it – would you like to get a daily call from a friend, barely audible, simply to help them pass their own time?  You have your own things to do, thank you very much.  But your friend, lost in their own gluttonous attempt to recover some of their own lost time, can’t see beyond the tip of their own cell phone.

This may not sound so horrible to some of you out there, but we are only just beginning, where gluttony crosses over into the next circle …

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The Fourth Circle, Greed

It’s not hard to imagine how the Public Transportation commuter can quickly turn to feeling greedy at this point.  You start to have to rely on other people – your spouse has to do all of the after-work shopping, you need to beg rides to work functions – and before too long you may find yourself expecting these niceties.  “Sorry I can’t stay late boss – I have a bus to catch,” sounds reasonable enough, but if you find yourself laughing at the sorry saps stuck in the office then you might have crossed over to this next circle of hellishness.

Greed can take many forms.  It can be the greed of sloth – “sorry, I can’t bring donuts for everyone because I take the bus, but thanks for covering me – by the way, is that one glazed?”  It can be the greed of pleasure – “yes, I will have that extra beer – it’s not like I have to drive home!”  It can be the greed of others’ resources – “but you have to take me to the client’s office – it’s not like I can get there myself!”  It can even be the greed of assumption – “you don’t live too far from me, why don’t I ride in with you every day?!?”

Okay, maybe it’s a stretch – most people might not even think twice about this sort of thing, but for me personally, it’s a very ugly situation to find oneself in.  Even if the request itself is not greedy, I feel like it is – I am truly stuck without a car and I need to rely on everyone else, whether they like it or not.  I feel like I am imposing on them, and while my own motivation might not be one of greed, I constantly worry that my colleagues are thinking less of me because I need to ask for their help with these simple enough matters.

The fact is, most of us like to be independent, in control of our own situation.  And when that is taken away from us, it leads us straight to:

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The Fifth Circle, Anger

The whole situation just adds right up and makes me thoroughly angry.  How can it not?  With the time I am spending on the bus, let alone the time waiting for the bus, the anger has plenty of opportunity to brew.  And with each concession that I have to make, with every favor I have to ask of someone else, the anger gets closer to the boiling point.  And really, it stems from a lack of control.

When you are driving to work and are stuck in traffic, it is natural to get angry.  When you are on the bus and are stuck in traffic, the anger goes beyond control.  It takes you over – every little thing around you just exacerbates the situation.

Is there someone talking just a little too loud near you?  Does someone keep bumping into your shoulder?  Is there a weird smell emanating from the person just in front of you?  The seats are uncomfortable, the noise is deafening, and the air of anger all around you is palpable.

And it doesn’t even have to be your own anger that affects you – just the knowledge that anyone else on the bus might feel that anger is enough to ruin your trip.  SEPTA buses have signs clearly stating “it is unlawful to assault a SEPTA driver”, clearly a nod to the anger we all feel being stuck in that awful situation.

As I sit on the bus I try not to make eye contact with anyone, just mind my own business and find ways to alleviate my own anger while not aggravating someone else’s.  But the necessity of this action itself brings even more anger.  It’s enough to lure one into the next circle …

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The Sixth Circle, Heresy

Okay, I never really saw the issue with Heresy, which is really just the espousal of an unorthodox viewpoint.  Of course espousing that unorthodox viewpoint vehemently can bring some obvious consequences, especially in the case where the dogma is firmly entrenched.  But even in minor cases, being a bus rider alienates you from the rest of your world, and often (or at least in my case) for a viewpoint that was thrust upon you, as opposed to being a true belief.

In starting a new job, I have the fun of explaining again and again that I take the bus into work – that’s why I have such strange hours, that’s why my commute takes so long.  By no means do I espouse the viewpoint that taking the bus is an advantageous way to travel.  But quickly I become the outsider – that guy who rides the bus.  I am different, a heretic.

Will it be so bad that I can’t function?  Will I be shunned, excommunicated.  Doubtful.  But in a country, a world, where driving is everything – a sign of adulthood treasured and taken for granted – anyone who doesn’t drive, for whatever reason, is seen at best as “different”, and at worst as a burden on all those around them.  It’s almost enough to drive one to

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The Seventh Circle, Violence

We’ve already explored how easy it is to get angry, and sometimes the smallest things might cause us to lose all control over our anger.  That’s when this particular emotion spills over into violence.

Google Maps froze up on my phone yesterday while riding home.  I use the map to track where I am along the route – a task necessitated by the darkness outside the bus window combined with the florescent illumination within the bus – and the application just froze up.  I don’t mean it wouldn’t show me where I was – it was stuck in some loop and the whole application decided to stay in that loop and not react whenever I pushed any buttons.

I was ready to scream.  I almost threw the damned phone out the window – or would have seriously considered it, if I had any way of actually opening a window.

I remember many occasions when on snowy days in South Philly the jam-packed bus would simply pass me by, too full to take on any more passengers.  Waiting in the cold and wind and snow on such a day would see me kicking street signs, swearing up a storm – if I had the SEPTA driver in front of me on any of those days who knows what I might have done to him?

It’s a rough situation, I know, and being part of a “civilized society” we are supposed to suppress the feelings of rage that can lead to violence.  But with so much of one’s life being out of their control, the anger grows on its own, and becomes that much harder to control.  It’s enough to tempt one into

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The Eighth Circle, Fraud

This was not an issue on my daily odyssey to Harrisburg, thanks to the distance, but it is very tempting simply to drive to work at this new job, only so many days old.  Driving would cut an hour off of my commute each way.  And it’s not like I don’t have a car, just sitting in my driveway – a car for which I am paying insurance every month, a car which I turn on over the weekends just so the engine gets a little exercise.  How easy would it be to just hop in the car and drive to work?

I mean, it’s only against the law if you get caught.  If I could stay accident-free and ticket-free, I could eliminate all of these travails and stressors and just coast on in to work each day.  It’s just, hopefully, for a couple of months – what are the odds I would actually have an issue?

Of all the slippery slopes down to the pits of hell, this might be the most dangerous.  With a quick fix sitting right before you, a quick fix that would incidentally let you sleep an hour later in the morning AND provide you with an extra hour with the kids in the evening, how can you not be sorely tempted?

I surely don’t need any other issues potentially preventing the return of my license in the near future, but how easy would it be just to fall into a “normal” way of life and drive myself to where I need to go?  It’s not like I don’t know how to drive – I have the capability.  Nor is it a question of not having the means.

This is perhaps the hardest one for me.  One that could even potentially lead to:

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The Ninth Circle, Treachery

My wife, of course, is very supportive of me.  She wants what is best for me, even if I do not.  So she forces me to eat salad, for example, when all I want is a burger and a piece of chocolate cake.  And with the driving, it is even more so.

I would be happy to take the risk and drive into work.  I would.  My wife, though, is even more worried than I am about the consequences.  Not only would I be taking the chance of getting caught, and having to pay the price for my possible “fraud”, but even if I got past the legal issue and got my license back, my wife is worried about my safety due to my medical condition.  She doesn’t want me to drive at all.

Okay, I have gotten concessions from here since starting this new job – she will “allow” me to drive, if/when I get my license back, if I promise not to “eat, drink, smoke or listen to music” while I do drive.  I might as well not breathe.

As tempting as it is to just hop in the car, it’s not TOO many steps beyond that to imagine getting in the car and not telling her.   Or some other equal form of betrayal, of treachery, that could conceivably help me escape these nine circles of a hellish commute.

Treachery is bad because it is taking the trust of someone else and stomping on it.  Treachery takes people supporting you and turns them against you.  Treachery practically ensures that you will never get the same support ever again.

When faced with the nine circles, you become tempted to do anything (ANYTHING!!!) that will help you escape, no matter the price.  Even if it means betraying someone you love.

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So, despite the advice of Signor Alighieri, I have not abandoned hope – I do plan to get my license back and escape from the clutches of the SEPTA-Satan.  In the meantime, though, all I can really do is pull my cloak over my head, trying to shield myself from the brimstone falling all around as I schlep my way across this hellish landscape day after day.

But maybe, just maybe, some of you drivers out there will read this and feel just a pang of sympathy for those of us huddled around a bus shelter in the freezing mornings.  I only hope that I, too, can remember how it feels if/when I become one of those lucky souls touring around in their own private cloud, raised from the pit of despair.

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