Some of us—those trapped in the suburbs by choice or weird circumstance who work in New York City—commute using Metro-North, the train system from Grand Central Station in New York to Westchester County, the Hudson Valley, and Connecticut. In the morning, these trains are dull and akin to anyone’s subway or bus commute, if fueled by a bit more aggressive energy due to the commute’s length. At night, as commuters, having worked all day, wait out the train ride to get home and entertain themselves with socializing, drink, and who knows what else, things get weird. This is very likely the same in other cities’ commuter rail systems.
Here to Make Friends. Many people, occasional riders who are unfamiliar with the grind of daily commuting into New York City or just congenitally super-social sorts, get on the Metro-North looking to make a new pal. If you’re sitting next to these people, they’ll ask you what stop you get off at, and if you noticed these passes are expiring earlier and earlier lately (seemingly infrequent passengers, these sorts always seem very recently informed of Metro-North happenings) and maybe what you’re reading—however, since they’re sitting next to you for less time than they would on a typical domestic flight, there’s less of an onus to have, or to force, actual conversation (which is good, because a journey on the Metro North bears almost none of the excitement of a plane journey). Train talk ends at the brief, vaguely chummy, distant place you always wish airplane conversations would. Friendly people on the train don’t have books or headphones, generally—they look around and people-watch, nodding slightly at fellow-travelers similarly lacking entertainment beyond the human comedy.
Drunkards. Conversation goes beyond that cordial, chilly-ish stopping point once alcohol is introduced, on late-night Metro-North journeys. Generally, a train will unite against the drinkers—not businessmen sipping a clandestine but completely, weirdly legal public Coors Light (we’ll get to them) but those people who, while the friendly folks merely exchange a few lines of conversation with the conductor, engage the conductor in a lengthy, facetious exchange. “Sir, how are you? Having a good night?,” they’ll say, their tone both a mockery of the conductor’s aura of authority and an attempt to sweet-talk him into ignoring the three girls from their group, vomiting in the bathroom. The Metro-North drunks run between trains, and they run in packs; though one gets the sense that they travel into and out of the city frequently—this cannot have been their first binge, their first Irish pub in Murray Hill!—everything about train travel seems novel and subversive to them. Being drunk on a train! How crazy! Let’s chant! Perhaps it’s a sign of trains’ vanishingly rare place in our nation, relative to others, that a train is one of very few places that young people seem unused to being drunk, anarchically willing to establish new rules while unsure quite how much deference to pay to authority. Or maybe they’re just annoying.
Businessmen. Businessmen almost always keep to themselves (in which case they’ll sip beer at night or coffee in the morning, and read the Journal at night and the Post in the morning), or exchange quiet conversation with a seatmate (in which case both will have iPads out. A solo businessman will never have an iPad out. Perhaps iPads exist only as the object of intrapersonal arms races). Very late at night, paired-off businessmen’s talk to one another will grow louder and more boisterously braggy—they were once drunk kids on the Metro-North, very likely!—and solo businessmen show no interest in the Journal. One memorable businessman tried to pick up a young woman, fortunately a social type, by telling her he’d stolen glassware from the Campbell Apartment, Grand Central Station’s in-house bar. Businessmen will usually restrict themselves, though, to canned beer, and not premium beer, either. They didn’t get rich by buying Coronas at a Grand Central markup!
Sleepers. People who fall asleep on the train, to whom the conductors will pay absolutely no mind as long as the tickets have been punched before the passenger was inceptioned. This group has included your humble author, who has had to pay for more $80 cab rides back from surprisingly-far upstate New York than is worth recounting.
The Constant Readers. Most Metro-North riders keep themselves awake and sober and relatively disengaged by flipping through a magazine (businessmen, whose newspapers are a prop to maintain the weird 1950s illusion or stereotype they’re living out, fall into their own aforementioned category). They don’t notice anything, besides the page of The New Yorker (it is always, always The New Yorker, except when it’s—and this title is used very specifically and not at all generically to refer to all glossy tabloids—Us Weekly). Every person’s mini-drama on the train plays out beyond their field of vision. They’re probably missing little; people and interactions are what the part of the day spent in the city is for.