Homeward Bound

  1. What Your Commute Home Reveals About You

    What Your Commute Home Reveals About You

    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.

  2. The Bolt-Uprighters: 8%

    The Bolt-Uprighters: 8%

    Even in a confined space, they showed perfect posture. Glass: “They’re still in uptight mode. They just can’t relax.” Ordas: “The seats drive how you sit. If you’re going to be comfortable, you can’t sit with an overly heavy person because you’ll be cheated of your room.” Navarro: “They’ve either had military, secretarial, or ballet training.”

  3. The Chatterers: 8%

    The Chatterers: 8%

    The few folks traveling with companions chatted in subdued voices about barbecues or golf. Glass: “Banal conversations are another way to relax. No talking about News Corp. or Casey Anthony!” Cheever: “I’ll talk to my seatmate on a plane because I’m afraid I might need them if there’s a plane crash. But I’m not afraid on a train.”

  4. The Sleepers 26%

    The Sleepers 26%

    Maybe they tried to read a book or work, but they ended up snoozing on top of it. Cheever: “I’m jealous. I can’t imagine being that relaxed with other people around, frankly.” Navarro: “Your body just gives out. We’re supposed to sleep eight hours a day, but commuters are sleeping less than six.”

  5. The Eaters: 7%

    The Eaters: 7%

    Either a salad or junk food. Cheever: “Grand Central Station is one of the great food temptations of the world. Just walking in there makes me hungry.” Glass: “People eating carbs, something salty or bready, have had a tough day and are eating away their stress.” Ordas: “I’ve done it so I can’t criticize. A sandwich is one thing. Chinese food is another.”

  6. The Print Readers: 20%

    The Print Readers: 20%

    These folks opened Patterson thrillers, New York magazine, and newspapers. Navarro: “It’s the study of haptics, or touch. People feel comfortable feeling the paper.” Cheever: “God bless them, they’re a dying breed.” Ordas: “I bought an iReader for the wife but not for myself.”

  7. The Slumpers: 6%

    The Slumpers: 6%

    Sprawled out, knees on backs of seats, or curled fetally against the window. Glass: “The fetal position means they’ve had a really horrible day, and they’re trying to retreat back into the womb.” Navarro: “Guys sprawling out, that’s showing testosterone. Women curling up, they’re trying to comfort themselves.”

  8. The Drones: 3%

    The Drones: 3%

    Whether on laptops, iPads, or spreadsheets, they just kept on working. Navarro: “We’ve embraced a limitless work environment.” Cheever: “If they’re young, they take the office everywhere with them. If they’re older, they’re terrified of losing their job.” Glass: “They’re thinking, ‘Lemme get this done now before the kids start bothering me.’ ”

  9. The Early Queuers: 7%

    The Early Queuers: 7%

    Lined up to get off the train a full five minutes before their stop. Cheever: “They can’t wait to get home. I do it out of general anxiety. I’m always afraid I’m going to miss my stop.” Ordas: “They’re not as bad as the ones who wait, then scamper to make the door before it closes.” Navarro: “They’re the go-getters. Which can be good but it can also drive you crazy.”

  10. The Gamers: 11%

    The Gamers: 11%

    Either doing sudoku books or playing Angry Birds. Glass: “It’s healthy. They’ve been mindful all day, taking orders, and now they can be mindless.” Navarro: “Research shows anything the brain does that’s repetitive is soothing.” Cheever: “Those people might as well be drinking. You can shut down your mind with a martini or with Angry Birds.”

  11. The Mobile Pub-crawlers: 4%

    The Mobile Pub-crawlers: 4%

    Grabbed a drink at the platform stand and then yucked it up with buddies standing at the end of cars. Navarro: “They’re ranting about their s--t day and their s--t boss, dealing with the stress.” Glass: “They want to get into an alcoholic fog and hence a happier state.” Ordas: “I’ve seen people open a bottle of wine. Not so many cardplayers anymore, though.”

    Weird But Less Common Commuter Behavior:
    Exactly ONE woman knitting / Navarro: “Anything repetitive is a pacifier. Rosie Greer was known for knitting on planes.” Glass: “The hand-eye coordination gets you out of your stress zone.” One couple having loud, crass fight / Navarro: “They’re so emotionally charged, they forget social civility.” Maids and gardeners waiting on the opposite platform to go back into urban core / Glass: “Even though they weren’t in offices, they still had stress today.”