TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) I always tried to have a radio job lined up when I was home from college each summer. I’d worked at WJBX in Bridgeport since high school. It was a small, struggling AM station. My first two summers back from Syracuse they had lots of hours for me. I’d fill in for their full-time staff during the vacation season after their ratings period ended.
But things changed at WJBX in the summer of my junior year. The radio station was sold to a group of Spanish-speaking businessmen. WJBX was to become the city’s first Spanish-language radio station. I spoke the wrong language. Suddenly I didn’t have a job that summer.
My father had a connection that would help me earn some money – but it wasn’t in radio. Dad’s friend was an accountant. He worked for Descente. It was a Japanese sporting goods company that made high-tech ski and cycling clothing. The company was based in New York City, and they were in the process of relocating to Colorado. One by one during that summer their departments were boxed up and moved. I was shuttled from one department to another, “holding down the fort” in New York until that department was up and running in Colorado. One week I was the receptionist in the sales office while they moved out west. The next week I was in the marketing department. For a few weeks I ran the mail room. Other times I helped unload boxes and sort catalogues as their new season’s product line arrived.
It was an unusual summer. At Descente, I was out of my element. The company put a high value on fashion. I have no fashion sense. Their spandex ski uniforms and bike jackets were very stylish. They arranged photo shoots in the Madison Avenue office – complete with anemic-looking fashion models. They were also aggressive with product placement, offering free Descente parkas to NBC television for football coverage, and outfitting several Olympic teams.
I learned many ‘real world’ things at Descente. Models are skinny and beautiful, but unhealthy. They all smoke to maintain their weight. Many use drugs. I met my first “cougar” who invited some young men to her apartment to help her pack. I learned that customs officers at the New York Port Authority were thieves, as almost every Descente shipment from overseas was opened for inspection and would be missing items that were on the packing list. I also learned about being a daily commuter from Fairfield to Manhattan. This was the one part of the job that I really enjoyed. I’d get to ride the train every day.
The morning routine was like this: get to the train station at 6:30 each morning. The train arrived at 6:35. It was an express. We’d speed past Southport and Greens Farms. We’d stop in Westport, then South Norwalk, then Stamford, then non-stop to 125th Street and Grand Central. We’d arrive in New York around 8, leaving me an hour to get from 42nd Street to Descente’s offices uptown. At first I took the subway. The IRT local stopped on the lower level of Grand Central, and had a stop at 57th Street, two blocks from my office. The ride took just a few minutes, and gave me time to enjoy the newspaper and a cup of coffee in the atrium of the AT&T building before I had to be at work. On nice days I'd walk up Park Avenue, and the over two blocks. It took about 20 minutes. I'd drink my coffee faster, and would read the newspaper at lunch.
I also found out that commuting on the train wasn’t all it was cracked up to me. The morning trains were crowded and expensive. The first of each month $264 from each paycheck disappeared for a commutation pass. You couldn’t stay late at the office, or else you’d miss your train home. And, although I liked riding, the train added about 3-hours to each workday. That’s 15 hours a week that weren’t spent hanging out with friends and relaxing that summer.
Many people passed the time reading or listening to music. On my train home there was a long-running poker game where four friends always gathered in the front car in the middle set of seats that faces each other. They used a bus card ad as their “table”. One of them would be outside the train the moment the door opened to reserve their seats. It was clear many people rode the same train for years, sat in the same seats, and developed friendships through their shared time together.
For the ride home I’d walk to the front car of the 5:24, put on my Sony Walkman headsets, and listen to music while looking out the front window next to the motorman’s cab. I was only a temporary commuter, not really interested in making train friends. But in a few weeks I knew the faces. My train car had the poker buddies. There were two stockbrokers who always had two beers each on the way home. There was an older business executive, pot belly pushing the limits of his collar shirt who looked like he was expecting a heart attack. One man looked like a security guard; other women in business-formal attire appeared to be receptionists or secretaries.
There was a young lady, petite with sandy-blonde shoulder-length hair, who would sit in the very front of the train one seat away from the front window. One afternoon the batteries on my Walkman died. I took my headphones off and put them in my attaché case. A shy smile from the seat next to me. “Hi, don’t I see you in the AT&T building each morning?” she asked. “I work there.” She was a college intern at AT&T marketing department. I worked across the street. She took a later train each morning. She didn’t take the 5:24 home on Thursdays because she was taking a college class in the city. But four days a week, quite by accident, I had a train buddy.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau