In John Cheever’s classic story “The Five-Forty-Eight,” set on a commuter train heading back from New York City to quiet Connecticut suburbs, a secretary stalks an ex-boss who slept with, then fired, her. On the platform she pulls a gun and threatens his life. He gets away, internally shaken, but the surface remains undisturbed in his Mad Men world. Fifty years later the commute home has that same eerie calm. “The whole car breathes out,” says Cheever’s daughter, Susan, who is at work on a biography of e.e. cummings and a social history of drinking in America. “Another day is over.” But as with Cheever père’s ennui-ridden protagonists, the dozing commuters’ inscrutable façades can reveal deep truths and anxieties to the canny observer.
We asked Cheever, as well as body-language experts Joe Navarro (What Every BODY Is Saying) and Lillian Glass (Toxic People), plus Dave Ordas, a program manager for the New York area’s Metro-North commuter rail from 1983 to 2004, to interpret our observations of commuters on several rides Bloomberg Businessweek took to the bourgeois bedroom communities of Scarsdale, N.Y.; Greenwich, Conn.; and Short Hills, N.J. Suffice it to say that in John Cheever’s time, there was no Angry Birds to help riders decompress on the way home. Instead, there was the boozy “bar car.” A dingier version still exists today, but a brown-bag beer is a poor substitute for a dry martini.