I had a remarkable morning when I was interning in New York this past summer. Following the string of commuters into the subway station on a cloudy, drab Thursday, I picked up a copy of AM New York, a free local newspaper. I usually make the more sustainable choice of not circulating paper waste around the planet, but the train on the cover intrigued me.
“SIGNAL PROBLEMS!” the headline blared, specifying below, “Ancient signal problems still persisting on the 7 train.” I lowered the paper to watch where I was going as I got off the escalator, and strangely, my commute was already in the news.
Three tracks, two platforms, countless people, no train. New Yorkers, usually stoic and determined to get to places in minimal time, lined both platforms helplessly in the station. Ventilation was nonexistent. Distress was everywhere.
Ten minutes later, a train finally and slowly pulled into the middle track, which was sided by two equally crowded platforms. I was on the left, peer pressured into track start position. The driver only opened the doors on the other side however, and people flooded in the cars so quickly that the train bounced at the onset of the sudden weight like a playground rickety bridge. Once the doors opened on my side, the train was nearly full, but I managed to slip in, my nose pressed against the door window. For the next five stations, only three people braved to squeeze into the car. At one stop, a stout man in a purple dress shirt and khakis could not help but look into the train despondently, knowing that he could not fit and nor would the passengers let him try to. I then heard a slam from outside and everyone jolted — a construction worker had punched the train’s steel body, probably frustrated that he will be late to work. It was as dismal as a commute could get.
Inside, nearly everyone wielded some sort of device — their arms were constrained by the cramped car but their fingers deftly tapped away. Many wore headphones as well. An old lady smiled as she flipped through pictures of someone’s wedding on her phone, escaping to a happier day. I was tempted to do so as well –my left hand instinctively reached for the soft rubbery material of my phone case in my back pocket. Experiencing such an unpleasant commute, a mere snippet of what local media dubbed as the city’s transit “Summer of Hell,” everyone understandably wanted to be somewhere else. For New Yorkers, the 5×7 inch glowing screen was not only a minicomputer, but also a window of escape, escape from the reality that whether they can start their day is dependent on a century-old train signal system in bad repair. The headphones they put on only further block out the robotic announcements droning on about how there is a train ahead of us and to maintain vigilance against terrorist threats. There is, for once, the illusion of control in their commute and therefore, their lives.
Escapism is necessary sometimes, especially after a tough day. But maybe such an accessible form of it has some underlying costs. The internet has evolved into a 24-hour buffet of information and entertainment. Its propensity to keep updating with new, attractive dishes of content makes it even harder to leave it behind.
By being so engorged in being somewhere else, we are missing out on where we presently are, and the opportunity to think, evaluate and learn about ourselves. In a recent interview, Ed Sheeran revealed that he gave up his phone as a New Year’s resolution and if he had not, he would have taken it out immediately after the recording. Without his phone, Sheeran pointed out that, “I think a lot more…Now when I’m waiting for someone, the only thing I can do is think, ‘cause there’s nothing to stare at.”
When we look up from our screens, we perhaps risk becoming bored. But this reprieve from information also allows our brains to rest and become more able to observe, appreciate and ask ourselves, “Is this really where I want to be? Am I satisfied with what I’ve done so far? What are some new things I can learn?” For instance, by spending my commute observing, I learned that New York City was not the place for me after the summer — I needed my trees and open skies.
In a society with increasing responsibilities, meetings and stimuli for its members, we should cherish instances of being bored or trapped in unpleasant situations. Instead of adding more to our minds, we can reflect on what we already have, even if it’s while queuing in that mundane doctor’s office or suffocating in an overcrowded subway car.
Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.