Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

October 10, 2001:
After September 11, commuting means more than just back and forth on the train

By Hugh O'Bleary

Commute: My dictionary defines the word as "to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)." That is not the first definition given, however. The first is "to change." Since the morning of September 11, that has been the definition that pertains.

I've always described my back-and-forthing between Princeton and New York as something of a schizophrenic existence. The same could be said for any home/office split, of course, but the transition, the change, from Princeton—with its postcard bucolic setting and its sense of history, and with the university, graceful and resonant, at its core—to the grit and hustle of midtown Manhattan could often seem like stepping between two worlds. On that beautiful Tuesday morning last month — that terrible Tuesday morning — the sense of separation was dizzying. I had not made the commute that day. That Tuesday was a day off. Thus my wife and I, after seeing the kids out the door to school, had walked downtown for coffee. A pleasant interlude, just the sort of moment that made the Princeton-New York dichotomy so keen. All too soon, she had gone on to her office — a very short commute down Nassau Street — but I had lingered, reading the papers over my lukewarm lattÈ, and then ambled home, enjoying what was a glorious late-summer morning and musing about baseball. I happened to have Yankee tickets for that evening's game and was planning to take a mid-afternoon train in to meet a pal and grab a subway up to the Stadium (a schizophrenic trek in its own right). I was eager to see whether Roger Clemens would get his 20th win. Of course I never went to the game (the tickets still sit on my dresser); there was no game. Like most everyone lucky enough not to be on the scene, or scenes, I learned of the terrorist attacks first from a phone call and then from the television. The images were—pick your adjective — agonizing, apocalyptic, earth-shaking, heart-rending, hellish, horrifying, unimaginable. And they kept coming. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, after making calls to friends in the city to make sure they were all right (they were), I took a walk to the bank and the grocery store. The afternoon in Princeton was just as beautiful as the morning; the sky a clear and endless blue, the trees — so many trees in this town! — still green and full and rustling in the breeze, the sun still shining, a lady walking a little white dog. Nothing had changed. But of course everything had changed. Just how much became clearer two mornings later, when I once again made the commute into the city. The train seemed about half full. How many of those who regularly filled the cars were simply staying home and how many never came home from their last commute I don't know. The car was hushed; no cell phones beeped, no one spoke. Though I was prepared for it, I still gasped when, approaching Newark, we reached the spot where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had always ˝popped into view and there was only that plume of smoke rising into the still-clear sky. Walking up Eighth Avenue from Penn Station to my office, I would always pass the firehouse at 46th Street, nodding to the firemen who leaned against their trucks, chatting or reading the paper. That Thursday morning, black and purple bunting hung above the doorway, and there were flowers and burned-out candles on the sidewalk in front. There were no firemen lounging outside. In the days that followed, the pile of flowers would grow into four huge heaps. There would be stuffed animals and framed prayers and messages, and a whole wall of children's drawings, the colors running in the rain. And always there would be a small crowd standing quietly, staring at the photographs of the 15 men the company had lost.

Newspapers and television tell us that the rest of the country has found new respect for New York, a new sense of connection and affection, since the attacks. Certainly that is a change. But even in our empathy, we are all still commuters. On Friday night, the week after the attacks, I had just stepped off the Dinky and was starting the walk home across campus when my cell phone rang. It was my daughter, calling from our house, a mile and a half away. She was watching the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon and had phoned to tell me that "Bruce" (she knows what a fan I am) was performing. She held the receiver up to the TV, and I held my cell phone to my ear, and out boomed Springsteen's voice, singing My City of Ruins.

There's a blood red circle

on the cold dark ground

and the rain is falling down

The church doors blown open

I can hear the organ's song

But the congregation's gone...

My city's in ruins

My city's in ruins

I listened as I walked. It was a beautiful evening in Princeton.

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" <paw@Princeton.edu>paw@princeton.edu