The Vagaries of Suburban Life and Corporate Work

Haverford Township, PA – That I made it back to Philly isn’t perfectly true. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot in the city since I’ve been back. The closest I came was last Friday evening when I ended up accidentally at 69th Street Station, in Upper Darby, just shy of the city line.

But let’s back up so I can explain my route. The shuttle bus servicing Great Valley Commons – a sprawling complex of bland commercial space, big parking lots, greened up with saplings and sod – carries me to the Paoli Train Station from Malvern. There I hop the R5 regional rail to Radnor, where, at the top of a quarter-mile long hill, sits the stop for the 100 train to Haverford, an upper-middle class suburb just outside of Philly.

Boarding the 100 train, which I’d never ridden, I ask the engineer, “How many stops until Haverford?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Five or six.”

The vessel made several stops and before I knew it we were at 69th Street Station, well passed Haverford and a pretty ghetto area to boot. I approached the engineer. “Why didn’t you call Haverford?”

“This is the express train,” he replied. “It don’t stop in Haverford.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that when I asked, How many stops before Haverford?

I saw in his eyes it clicked.

“Shit, man, I’m sorry,” he said, tearing off a transfer. “That train there will take you to Haverford.”

I board, and again I ask the engineer, “How many stops to Haverford?”

“I don’t know,” he says, “I’ll tell you when we get there.”

We get there. Haverford Station. But it’s still the wrong stop. I’m supposed to see Eagle Road, but it’s Haverford Road. The mechanics across the street tell me Eagle Road is a mile up. Not a problem, so I start walking, though night is falling and I don’t know where I am.

After walking for nearly 30 minutes, and much farther than a mile, a woman speed-walking along the busy residential boulevard approaches. “Excuse me,” I ask her. “How far up is Eagle Road?”

She kind of cringes. “Oh, that’s a good three or four miles up,” she replies, speed-walking in place. “A good three at least.”

Great, I’d been misinformed, again by a clueless mechanic. Perhaps I should’ve turned back toward the train station, but I wasn’t sure how frequently or even if the 100 was still running. I pressed on toward Eagle Road knowing I’d be pounding pavement for another hour at least. And who knew how far up Eagle Road I had to walk. Turned out to be quite some distance, most of it uphill.

There’s a huge learning curve to everything out here, but I at least now know where to get off the train.

I enjoy the train. In urban areas too they travel where cars don’t, cutting through towns or scraping their forested outskirts. I love hearing the trolley bells ding! ding! and watching electric sparks spit from the pantographs. Like big sardine cans on wheels, they rumble and screech along the rails. At the 40th and Baltimore interchange, the central bound trolleys hurl beneath the city’s surface like a kiddie coaster. This was the route I took last year. I’d jump from the trolley at 30th and Market. This interchange, being underground, serves during the cold days as a sort of homeless overflow shelter, the stench of old urine frozen in the air.

At the top of the tunnel, just around the corner from the open entrance, laid an elderly homeless man. Each morning as I climbed that final set of stares, I’d see him rise up from the top most step, shivering between his cardboard bed and dirty covers, and giving hard stares to all who passed by. I learned to pretend he wasn’t there, forcing myself to cast not even a fleeting glance his way. Unlike other homeless, who might ask for money, I never heard this man speak. But I didn’t need to. His eyes seared you with their mourning.

Across from the interchange is 30th Street Station, where I’d catch the R5 for the 30 minute ride to Paoli. For me, the best part was watching the city skyline shrink in the distance as the day’s first splashes of sunshine washed over Philly’s industrial outskirts. However, this enjoyment hinged on not being in the same car with an older woman my boss and I dubbed, the Talker. Each morning before boarding, we’d keep a watchful eye on her to ensure she got on a different car. But sometimes her car was full and so we were despite our efforts burdened with her presence anyhow.

The Talker was an obnoxious wretch so in love with the sound of her voice that she couldn’t bring herself to use an inside voice. She didn’t talk to someone but rather, talked at all of us. You can imagine 40 people on a train all wanting to tell this woman to shut the fuck up. For 30 minutes she polluted your head with her mindless drivel and there was nothing you could do about it. But a young woman one morning tried to make it stop. She approached the Talker and politely asked her to keep it down. After a very brief but heavy silence came the cursing. Then the name-calling. Horrified, the young woman returned hurriedly to her seat. While the yelling stopped, the complaining kept on all the way to Paoli. “I don’t who the fuck she think she is,” lamented the Talker, again addressing us all, “telling me to quiet down, sheeyit. Bitch, I’m a grown ass woman.”

Haverford isn’t a place visited often by unusual events, but something out-of-the-ordinary did occur here earlier this week. On Monday night, as I stepped from the house, the entire block flickered before going completely black. In the darkness, Haverford seemed even quieter. Soon, candlelight began flickering inside some of the residences.

Not long after the blackout, a tow truck rumbled down the street and, in the distance, the beep! beep! of reverse signals beckoned. I figured someone crashed into a transformer or utility pole, but there were no sirens to be heard. I sat on the front step for a long while, waiting for something to happen next. There was a similar blackout in Philly once. That night it seemed like everyone was out on their porches or mingling in the street. During the blackout here, in Haverford, everyone stayed inside, as though frightened by the night. Here, each home is an island from which no one wants to be rescued. Me? I’m already plotting my escape.

So, I’m not allowed to blog about work. Special information is given to new hires on this issue. Basically, mention the company’s name in your blog, expect a pink slip and escort out. The corporate world is a far cry from the carnival, let me tell you. There is no cursing, drugs or sex. Exciting things don’t happen often, if ever. But I will say that upon my return I was absolutely delighted to see Pop-tarts had returned to the vending machine. For me, this was very exciting.

I’m a big fan of the frosted breakfast treats, as they are, according to the package, a good source of seven vitamins and minerals. Cherry is my favorite, followed by Strawberry, then Brown Sugar and Cinnamon. I never buy them at the store because I’ll gorge the entire box then feel bad about myself. Instead, I’ll buy them from the vending machine at work, even though the cost of three packages is almost as much as family-sized box from the grocery.

But some time last year a mischievous thing happened: Pop-tarts disappeared from the selection. Or I should say, rather, they were deliberately removed by the defensive schlep who stocks the machine.

One day, as the vending man restocked the machine, I asked if he could move the Pop-tarts down to the bottom row. “They’re too high up,” I explained, “so they break when they fall. I prefer my Pop-tarts whole.”

He nodded as though my request was reasonable. I think he even said, “Okay.” Later that afternoon I went to get a Pop-tart and to my dismay there weren’t any in the machine at all. He’d removed them completely and, in spite of subsequent requests, they never returned.

No clue what they guy’s deal was. Maybe my request was an affront to his masterly stocking skills. No one’s gonna tell me how to stock the machine. Perhaps over time others began to miss Pop-tarts, too, and they complained. They were the only snack sold out each week. Not even I can eat that many.

But it’s all in the past. Pop-tarts are back as a snack option. The new stocker even provides a variety so, by midweek, there’s a new flavor.

Thoughtful, indeed.

And as a testament to things always working out in the end, they occupy a spot on the bottom row.


  1. Tom Teuber says:

    I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and have taken the train to get around since I was in high school.  I can relate to every detail you shared…the misinformation, the urine smell, The Talker.  As you may know, there’s a huge debate raging back here in Wisconsin about whether or not to develop rail travel.   My first instinct was to share your thoughts with the locals hoping to show them how great it is.   I thought better of it.  They’ll seize on those negative details to confirm their fears that rail travel is a Socialist/Muslim plot to destroy our American Values and siphon our precious bodily fluids.Damn, I wish we had trains in Cheesetopia.

  2. Nathan says:

    Thanks for the comment Tom! I, too, wish Wisconsin had trains. It’s unfortunate opponents would focus on these negatives being that they’re emblematic of the city, not problems inherent to regional rail service. Both NYC and Boston have excellent train systems and none of the negatives I described aren’t things I haven’t also encountered on Madison buses/transfer points.I can’t count the number of times I wanted to visit Chicago or Milwaukee, but didn’t because I’d have had to drive, find and pay for parking, then drive home, which is never easy after a day of drinking. If Republicans up there are truly interested in economic development, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of economic activity a regional rail line(s) would spur.  

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