John Cheever on commuting

For a truly cynical view of the commuting life, check out John Cheever’s short story, The Five-Forty-Eight. Published in The New Yorker in April 1954, the story tells the tale of a callous businessman who sleeps with a mentally ill secretary, gets her fired, and then refuses to speak to her again—until she forces him to at gunpoint during his train ride home. I don’t know whether Cheever ever commuted, but some of his descriptions do a good job of nailing aspects of the experience.

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Photo: New York Observer

The story begins with our antihero, Blake, stepping off the elevator at the end of his work day and seeing his assailant. He knows she’s there to see him (we later learn she’d been trying to see him at his office for weeks, but that he’d been having the receptionist turn her away), and then spends his walk to Grand Central trying to avoid her. He first walks past her and then wonders if she’s following him, but won’t check because:

Walking in the city, we seldom turn and look back.

When he stops out of curiosity to look in a shop window, he is startled to find the woman standing a foot or two behind him. He has to get away. Madison Avenue (where my office is) beckons him to safety:

He could see ahead of him the corner of Madison Avenue, where the lights were brighter. He felt that if he could get to Madison Avenue he would be all right. At the corner, there was a bakery shop with two entrances, and he went in by the door on the crosstown street, bought a coffee ring, like any other commuter, and went out the Madison Avenue door.

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View of Madison Avenue from my office window.

What commuter doesn’t love a good cinnamon bun?

A delicious-looking coffee roll.

He eventually makes his way toward the underground tunnels that commuters into Grand Central use to stay dry and warm in unpleasant weather. On a wet or cold day, I can make my way all the way up to 47th and Madison (my office is near 52nd) without facing the elements.

He was approaching a part of the city that he knew well and where the maze of street-level and underground passages, elevator banks, and crowded lobbies made it easy for a man to lose a pursuer. The thought of this, and a whiff of sugary warmth from the coffee ring, cheered him.

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Entrance to Grand Central’s underground tunnels, Madison Ave. and 47th Street.

There’s that cinnamon bun again. I’m getting hungry. Still nervous, though, Blake ducks into a “men’s bar.” I guess men-only bars were a thing in the 50s, because he believes she can’t follow him in there. The portrait of commuters waiting for their trains is spot on:

The place was crowded with commuters putting down a drink before the ride home. They had brought in on their clothes—on their shoes and umbrellas—the rancid smell of the wet dusk outside, but Blake began to relax as soon as he tasted his Gibson and looked around at the common, mostly not-young faces that surrounded him and that were worried, if they were worried at all, about tax rates and who would be put in charge of merchandising.

After a second drink, Blake realizes he has missed his regular train, the express. He’ll have to get the local at 5:48. He makes his way to GCT without incident, gets on the train, and goes through the familiar ritual of finding a seat he likes and taking off his raincoat. Cheever says he looks just like any other commuter:

He dressed—like the rest of us—as if he admitted the existence of sumptuary laws. His raincoat was the pale buff color of a mushroom. His hat was dark brown; so was his suit. Except for the few bright threads in his necktie, there was a scrupulous lack of color in his clothing that seemed protective.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to look up the word “sumptuary.” It refers to personal expenditures, especially with respect to avoiding extravagance and luxury. My Merriam-Webster app actually cites John Cheever for an example of this word.

Once seated, Blake looks around for people he knows. (Another common custom of the commuter—some people seek out friends to talk to, but most are content to smile and say hi, and then go about their business in solitude; whether it’s work or play that must be done, this is their alone time.) He exchanges brief smiles with a neighbor who is friends with his wife. The neighbor’s polite smile fades quickly because:

She had probably been given an account of their most recent quarrel. Blake had come home one night, overworked and tired, and had found that Louise had done nothing about getting supper. He had gone into the kitchen, followed by Louise, and had pointed out to her that the date was the fifth. He had drawn a circle around the date on the kitchen calendar. “One week is the twelfth,” he had said. “Two weeks will be the nineteenth.” He drew a circle around the nineteenth. “I’m not going to speak to you for two weeks,” he had said. “That will be the nineteenth.”

Wow! That’s some serious douchebaggery. So cold. If you had any sympathy for the guy up til now—and you probably didn’t after the account of the affair—this passage makes clear that the dude deserves whatever he has coming to him. But then he goes on to greater douchey heights with his thoughts about another neighbor he spots, Mr. Watkins:

The Watkinses rented. Mr. Watkins broke the sumptuary laws day after day—he once went to the eight-fourteen in a pair of sandals—and he made his living as a commercial artist. Blake’s oldest son—Charlie was fourteen—had made friends with the Watkins boy. He had spent a lot of time in the sloppy rented house where the Watkinses lived. The friendship had affected his manners and his neatness. Then he had begun to take some meals with the Watkinses, and to spend Saturday nights there. When he had moved most of his possessions over to the Watkinses’ and had begun to spend more than half his nights there, Blake had been forced to act. He had spoken not to Charlie but to Mr. Watkins, and had, of necessity, said a number of things that must have sounded critical. Mr. Watkins’ long and dirty hair and his corduroy jacket reassured Blake that he had been in the right.

This is familiar, too, isn’t it? Lots of people assume that because they have more money or dress “better” than someone else, that they also enjoy some kind of moral superiority over them. This kind of thinking makes my blood boil.

Cheever’s description of the train car, while dated with its reference to smoking, is pretty accurate too, with a touch of noir:

The coach was old and smelled oddly like a bomb shelter in which whole families had spent the night. The light that spread from the ceiling down onto their heads and shoulders was dim. The filth on the window glass was streaked with rain from some other journey, and clouds of rank pipe and cigarette smoke had begun to rise from behind each newspaper, but it was a scene that meant to Blake that he was on a safe path, and after his brush with danger he even felt a little warmth toward Mrs. Compton [the neighbor who is friends with his wife] and Mr. Watkins.

Soon, Blake’s nemesis appears and sits down next to him. She demands that he listen to her and read a letter she wrote. She also does something inexcusable—a serious breach of etiquette on a commuter train:

She had begun to cry. He turned his head to see if anyone in the car was looking, but no one was. He had sat beside a thousand passengers on the evening train. He had noticed their clothes, the holes in their gloves; and if they fell asleep and mumbled he had wondered what their worries were. He had classified almost all of them briefly before he buried his nose in the paper. He had marked them as rich, poor, brilliant or dull, neighbors or strangers, but no one of the thousand had ever wept.

Great stuff. The woman’s demands were made at gunpoint, and she forces Blake to let her accompany him off the train. He wishes someone would notice what’s going on and save him, which gives us another great snapshot—one of the people who get picked up at the station:

A dozen or so cars were waiting by the station with their motors running. A few people got off from each of the other coaches; he recognized most of them, but none of them offered to give him a ride. They walked separately or in pairs—purposefully out of the rain to the shelter of the platform, where the car horns called to them. It was time to go home, time for a drink, time for love, time for supper, and he could see the lights on the hill-lights by which children were being bathed, meat cooked, dishes washed—shining in the rain. One by one, the cars picked up the heads of families, until there were only four left. Two of the stranded passengers drove off in the only taxi the village had. “I’m sorry, darling,” a woman said tenderly to her husband when she drove up a few minutes later. “All our clocks are slow.” The last man looked at his watch, looked at the rain, and then walked off into it, and Blake saw him go as if they had some reason to say goodbye—not as we say goodbye to friends after a party but as we say goodbye when we are faced with an inexorable and unwanted parting of the spirit and the heart. The man’s footsteps sounded as he crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk, and then they were lost. In the station, a telephone began to ring.

The story ends with the woman forcing Blake to lie face down in the dirt, making him feel the way he sees people like Mr. Watkins. He also cries, an act he had been disgusted by on the train:

He fell forward in the filth. The coal skinned his face. He stretched out on the ground, weeping. “Now I feel better,” she said. “Now I can wash my hands of you, I can wash my hands of all this, because you see there is some kindness, some saneness in me that I can find and use. I can wash my hands.” Then he heard her footsteps go away from him, over the rubble. He heard the clearer and more distant sound they made on the hard surface of the platform. He heard them diminish.

He gets up and goes home. It’s a pretty powerful story. I’ve concentrated here mostly on the imagery of commuting, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. I’m sure Mad Men lifted an idea or two from this one.

And, of course, Seinfeld‘s take on John Cheever was quite memorable:

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7 responses to “John Cheever on commuting

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