Early last year, I’d flip through the pages of my monthly pocket calendar to grin at the pink Post-it on April’s page: Cancel June LIRR. I’d be retiring in May, moving to Delaware and no longer needing a monthly ticket. I anticipated missing family, friends and a lot of things about Long Island — but the Long Island Rail Road was not one of them.
Then COVID-19 hit, life changed, and I worked remotely until May 29. I realize how lucky I am to be healthy and retired amid a pandemic. But a part of me feels cheated, not knowing that my March 12, 2020 eastbound ride was my last commute.
Since 1990, I’d been listening to unintelligible updates from my morning spot on the Bellmore platform and squeezing through throngs in Penn Station during the evening rush. I anticipated my final commute with great enthusiasm.
Often the commute was pleasant, watching Nassau County scenes slide by, reading my book, dozing. Over the years, I observed morning train buddies animatedly dishing about TV and movies, kids and spouses (like a traveling hair salon) and listened to the slap and crack of cards shuffled and dealt by the same four men in the same five-seater, playing pinochle atop a flattened FedEx box on the 6:05 to Wantagh.
Commuting didn’t always invite camaraderie. I spotted fingernail clipping and nose-picking, was subjected to snoring and flatulating, and shot my best astonished face at a woman blabbering nonstop from Manhattan to Merrick. I was horrified when the man next to me blew his nose, then reached over me — seated at the window — to stuff his dirty tissue between my seat and the car wall, before leaving the train. On another trip, in a three-seater, a man in the aisle seat stood up to get his coat from the overhead rack, bent down to grab his briefcase on the seat between us, then nonchalantly grabbed my right breast — all in one fluid motion that shocked me into stunned disbelief as he casually exited.
Nevertheless, it was usually the LIRR that enraged me. My husband would say, "Paula only curses when she’s frustrated by technology, or pissed at the Long Island Rail Road." The 1990s were dark days for commuters — crowded cars with daily cancellations, scant announcements and no air conditioning. Communication has improved with Metropolitan Transportation Authority alerts on cellphones, but the last 20 years, it had its share of signal trouble, broken rails and the inevitable canceled and combined trains. It wasn’t just inconveniences, but scary situations, like being stuck in an East River tunnel — and smelling smoke.
There have been improvements — new trains, online conveniences and the two greatest innovations to Penn Station: air conditioning and Shake Shack. And I never found fault with LIRR personnel. The conductors were helpful and kind, an amazing feat when dealing with belligerent riders. In particular, Richard, a morning conductor, was a beloved presence on the Babylon branch. When I was going through a difficult time, he’d ask how I was doing — and listen. Even though I always answered, "Fine," with a smile, I’d sense he saw between my lies and stopped to chat, always parting with an uplifting remark such as "life is a gift."
Even when commuting is bad, life is good.
Reader Paula Ganzi McGloin now lives in Millsboro, Delaware.