The Tracks of My Tears

Originally published in Idler 65.

Commuting. That the word for such violence is so mundane and ubiquitous is a sad reflection on what is expected of the wage slave. We don’t count it as a real activity in our lives yet we lose thousands of hours to it: thousands of hours lost in transition.

Commuting is a special source of extracurricular soul torture on top of everything else we must do for work. One not only agrees to swallow the misery of the job itself, but it is expected that we physically transplant ourselves daily, extracting ourselves from warm beds while it is still dark outside. We become short-range economic migrants and nobody sees this as a crisis.

The sadly salaried catch rush-hour buses: standing room only on a juddering Tonka Toy, clinging for dear life to an aluminium pole grubby with the fingerprints of a thousand other sleep-deprived skivs. Others go underground for the subway, where we hang — stretched like hapless Gladiators contestants — from plastic rings, trying not to catch the eye of our fellow humiliated incarcerates, tubed like polo mints and seeking micro-escape and semblance of self in an intangible iPhone playlist.

People take cars onto the road at no small expense to self and planet (see this column in Idler 54 for a heartfelt tirade against the automobile) and they rage against “the traffic,” while moronically being traffic. They sit in their privately-owned wheeliebox, inhaling fumes and becoming increasingly anxious about everything and nothing thanks to drivetime DJs and their endless prattle around some inane new meme or faraway war which, from the commuter’s VW prison, she is uniquely qualified to do nothing about.

We catch commuter trains: commuter trains with their engineering interruptions and replacement bus services and indecipherable PA announcements, and endomorphic middle managers who try to reclaim a modicum of rapidly-diminishing dignity by bullying their way into the carriage ahead of all others so that they might get a seat. Ooh, what a prize! “Man is born free,” said commuter-poet Roger Green, “but is everywhere in trains.”

There are, as it stands, two main ways to escape the commute: one is to move home closer to the workplace, the other is move the workplace closer to home. The first involves moving house, which is something most people prefer to avoid but when you’re a tenant rather than a homeowner and a minimalist rather than a consumer (see this column in Idler 55), this need not be too difficult. The prize is ten hours of luxurious idling time per week or 520 per year, which is not to be sniffed at now is it?

The necessity of commuting came with the invention of suburbia; the idea that we should live in big houses miles away from where business is conducted. If instead urban planners had prioritised high-density living and had built upwards instead of wastefully outwards and into the province of nature, one’s commute would have been as uneventful as an elevator ride (or fireman’s pole) to street level. As it stands, the ‘burbs are the home of the aspirant, enabled only by a slog into and out of town to earn a living, like the bears and Bigfoots we hear now stray into American cities due to food shortages in the countryside. The real solution to ridding ourselves of the commute, then, is to abandon the missold dream of suburbia. Live in the city, I say, in a small, single-floor home, up in the clouds and close to the action. Expensive? In London, Paris and New York, perhaps, but not in Glasgow, Montpelier or Montreal.

The category of “move the workplace closer to home,” meanwhile, may sound like a mountain-coming-to-Moses-level impossibility but in fact we have multiple solutions in this category, the first being to work from home either with the blessing of one’s current employer or by employing oneself. This reduces the commute to a simple rolling motion from bed to kitchen table. You can eat your breakfast while you wait for Skype and your work email to load, and enjoy the additional advantage of being able to complete minor domestic tasks (or take sofa-based naps) on the clock.

Depending on your qualifications and career ambitions, a bold but agreeable way of bringing work closer to home is to change your job so that you can work within a ten-minute walking radius of home. Keep an eye out for Help Wanted signs in your locale and go in for a chat with the proprietors to see if you like their vibe. Not far from where I live today are a number of small businesses — a butcher, newsagent, artisanal deli, cornershop, bookshop, bakery, a dry-cleaners and a small restaurant — and I wonder which of them will have the pleasure of giving me six months of employment when I next need or fancy it. Naturally I hope for the bookshop, but even to don the bloodied apron of Mr Bones the Butcher would be preferable to another tedious, wasteful commute. When we abandon the dullard’s folly that is careerism (this col’, Idler 48) and start seeing work as a form of subsistence income, proximity might become a job’s major virtue.

The commute! Its days are numbered. But not numbered enough. Take action and get out while you can. Then, at 8am, when you peep out at the clock from your snug idler’s bed, take conscious pleasure in the fact that you’re not straphanging or lost in the drivetime.

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