Last August, the simple gesture of a stranger boosted my mood on my way to work. I've been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts for three years now, and the time for me to move onto new things has come—I'm going to miss this place.
Most modes of public transportation in Boston and its adjacent cities are operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority—the MBTA, colloquially known as "the T"—an entity that runs regional rail trains, heavy rail trains (the Blue, Orange, and Red Lines), ferries, motor buses, and even electric trolleybuses (the infamous Silver Line).1
Daily on my way to work, I walk or bike from Clary St toward Cambridge's Central Square Station, and take the Red Line T to Boston's South Station, catching a train that either goes to Ashmont or Braintree. I then contest other early birds to hop into the Silver Line 2, a hybrid electric trolleybus that takes me to Drydock Ave (in Boston's Seaport), where The Innovation and Design Building—and Autodesk—are located. (If you know the area, you can probably trace a mental line connecting All Star Sandwich, Central Square, South Station, and Drydock Avenue.)
The time I leave my house highly determines how pleasing my commute from Cambridge to Seaport is. Walking, Central Square is fifteen minutes away from my house (or six riding my bike) and, if I manage to be at the station before 7:20 am, I'll find an (almost) empty station, but arriving closer to 8 am guarantees a stressful ride. It's rush hour, and you'll be lucky if you can secure yourself a standing spot in a wagon with air conditioning.
In quiet hours, the train is empty. You might choose to stand or sit; to read; to listen to music or a podcast or an audiobook; or to immerse yourself in your phone's screen.
The Red Line train often resembles a library more than a mode of transportation—commuters read while standing, deeply focus on the audio coming out of their headphones, or close their eyes for what seems to me like a mini-meditation session (or a power-nap) in preparation for the day. Others simply glance around.
I consider a personal failure spending the whole ride with my phone. I'm happier when I use my time on the train to read on my Kindle, to listen to podcasts, to connect with family and friends, or to disconnect and browse through my thoughts and enjoy this ride.
Commuting is a repetitive, recurring series of events from home to work that becomes part of our daily routines. For some, the commute is a meditative moment for introspection, the time to disconnect. For others, it's the time to connect and catch up with the world. The inherent monotony and repetition enable the mind to ignore what happens around us—to switch auto-pilot mode on—and to focus on our inner selves.
I deliberately pay attention to one segment of the route from Central Square to South Station—the Longfellow Bridge—along which the train slows down, as if the scenery were an attraction for tourists to look at. Weather permitting, you will enjoy the boats and kayaks sailing on the Charles River, a colorful mass of orange and green trees on the riverside, and the beautiful skyline of Boston in the background, with John Hancock Tower and Prudential Tower rising behind them.
It's always the same journey, but the view is slightly different every single day. I've seen the white, frozen river in February; the colorful and hot days of summer; and those days in which skyscrapers hide behind the fog.2
Wednesday—August 15, 2018—was no different from any other day. I woke up at 9 am, took a shower, and left home walking toward Central Square Station. (Even if I'm late, I prefer walking over biking to avoid feeling I'm rushing around the rest of the day.) Fifteen minutes later, I swiped my CharlieCard and caught a train to Braintree.
That day, I was lucky enough to arrive after rush hour. The train was quiet and I sat, closing my eyes for a few minutes, on my way to South Station and Autodesk. Five minutes later, in the midst of falling asleep, I woke up to a message from the driver. After announcing our incoming arrival to Charles/MGH, her words followed, "Have a great day, and enjoy your week." I then slowly opened my eyes, to see the skyline of a colorful Boston, with boats sailing on the Charles River, and a grandiose blue sky on the background. The driver continues her announcement, "The doors will open on the right side of the train, this is a train service to Braintree." I was surprised of how such a simple gesture—a great alternative to the pre-recorded train announcement—affected my mood. "Thanks driver, you have a great day as well," I thought to myself.
Subtle gestures, like the driver's announcement, add slight variations to our routines. I've squeezed through the crowds into the Red Line train and the Silver Line 2, and rode the wrong Silver Line bus for two stops to just get away from South Station and then wait for my bus at World Trade Center—but I surely will miss this part of my day.
Over the last three years, I've shared many rides with Jose Luis3, with co-workers at Autodesk, with visiting friends, with family, and with my girlfriend4, and with all of those random faces that weirdly start becoming familiar over time. We are all there, waiting together.
I've always known there would be a time when I wouldn't be living in Cambridge anymore, a moment when I would miss this inevitable, repetitive routine. For the last couple months, such a repetitive part of my life was made relevant again by the simple thought that, soon, I wouldn't be able to experience it "on-demand"—a sense of scarcity that would push me to enjoy even the seemingly boring moments of my commute.
We often forget that nothing lasts forever, assuming we'll enjoy what we have today for the rest of our lives. If you've been living in the same city for a long time, you might take certain things for granted that people somewhere else around the globe can't enjoy. This is the feeling I get when I pass through the Longfellow Bridge and stare at the view. My intention is to pay attention to these moments—observing how today is different from yesterday—thinking about what I will remember from this period of my life. I then look back at the train to find everyone immersed in their virtual worlds, looking at their phones (and I'm just one more of them, usually). In fact, I capture great part of these thoughts on my phone while riding the T.
It's easy to overlook what you have, and hard to think of enjoying the repetitive parts of your day. Try to identify those moments in your daily routine and pay attention to what's nice—or different—about them everyday. What would you miss if you have to move somewhere else tomorrow?
I'm going to miss my friends.
I'm going to miss the commute.
I'm going to miss this place.
See you soon, Cambridge.