The routine goes like this. By 10:30 p.m., I arrive in the Midtown area — the 34th Street-Herald Square station is closest and most convenient if I’m coming from downtown, like I usually am. I turn onto 6th Avenue, walk down two blocks, then make a left onto 32nd Street. On Friday nights, this block of 32nd Street — the backbone of Manhattan’s K-Town district — is a frothing, swirling mess of gorgeous young adults dressed in their best night-out clothes. Platinum-blonde hair, the thump-thump-thump of the latest K-pop track, and heavy eye glitter pass by; as always, I can’t help but marvel at this display of glamor, beauty, and nouveau riche excess.
By 10:37 p.m., I’m in line outside the double glass doors of Food Gallery 32; another five minutes, and I’ve reached the stall counter just to the left of the entrance. I place two orders of “taiyaki,” the Japanese cream-filled, fish-shaped cake for my roommates, and the cashier hands me a plastic pager that will beep and flash when my order is ready. I expect a buzz in four minutes — just enough time to head up to the third floor, make use of the food gallery’s clean restroom, and buy an e-ticket on the NJ Transit app.
At 10:49 p.m., it’s time to head out. It takes exactly eight minutes to walk from 32nd Street to the 7th Avenue NJ Transit entrance descending into Penn Station. If I’ve got my timing right — and I’ve had plenty of practice! — I arrive in the NJ Transit foyer by 10:57 p.m., carefully skirting around the waiting passengers camped out on the steps. NJ Transit announces the track number for the 11:06 p.m. Northeast Corridor local train approximately eight minutes before departure, so as soon as the loudspeakers crackle overhead, I push past the correct set of ornate bronze doors, stroll briskly along the underground platform until I reach the front of the train, and prepare for the long, slow train ride back to Princeton.
This is a special time for me. On these train rides, I forbid myself from scrolling through my phone and gazing into the soulless abyss of my Twitter feed. Instead, I crack open the book I’ve been trying to read for weeks, I journal, I jot down field notes, I organize my playlists on Spotify, and I stare out the train’s half-opaque window, watching Edison, Rahway, and New Brunswick pass me by in the night. By the time the Dinky pulls into Princeton station at 12:36 a.m., my legs sore and my phone battery at three percent, I feel ready to take on the weekend and the week ahead.
Last semester, to the best of my memory, I repeated this routine some nine or ten times as I went to New York on Fridays to explore the city, run shopping errands, and report on immigrant communities for my journalism class. Although the rest of my class usually tended to head back to Princeton by 5 p.m., I used to choose to stay behind in New York, happy to seize the opportunity to treat myself to dinner, discover new streets to wander through, and watch the city shift into the rhythms of the evening.
Because of this, I ended up returning to Princeton very late — usually well past midnight. At first, I loathed the fact that the final ninety minutes of my long day were spent on a rickety old train, but I soon grew accustomed to the journey. In fact, I began to look forward to it in the same way I would look forward to dinner in the West Village or a stroll along the Brooklyn Bridge past sunset.
As it turns out, Friday night — and technically Saturday morning — was often the only moment of peace, the only interval of reprieve I could snatch for myself between back-to-back moments of frenzy at Princeton. It was on NJ Transit that I read “Portrait of a Thief,” “Normal People,” and “The White Album”; it was on NJ Transit that I re-discovered Cigarettes After Sex and managed to scribble four pages of incoherent thoughts into my Muji notebook. It was on NJ Transit that I found my meditations in an emergency.
This series of carefully orchestrated, meticulously timed actions quickly became my favorite routine last semester: Whenever I was close to falling asleep in lecture, whenever I was burning the midnight oil on an essay or struggling to finish a problem set, I reminded myself that the period of time between 10:30 p.m. on Friday evening and 12:36 a.m. on Saturday morning would soon come.
To be fair, NJ Transit has plenty of critics, and I readily acknowledge that I’ve added my voice to the critical chorus at times. As a Californian used to $8 Caltrain tickets for a round-trip journey to San Francisco, I balk at the $35+ NJ Transit round-trip tickets to New York. As a Princeton student used to our campus’ soaring gothic architecture (New Colleges notwithstanding), I shudder at the garish, faux-wood furnishing on the train carriages. At the same time, as a sensible public transportation supporter radicalized by riding French high-speed rail, I question why it takes trains nearly 90 minutes to traverse the 50 miles between Princeton and Manhattan.
Yet NJ Transit has captured my heart all the same. I will forever be grateful to this charming, underfunded public transportation system for creating a liminal space in which I could simply exist, explore, imagine, and dream. In those rocking, ugly train carriages, I existed in the in-between. I was free from worrying about how to keep my (5’7”) self safe in New York. I was free of the pressures that come with being a student in this institution known as Princeton University. In the in-between, while NJ Transit’s pitifully meager legroom pushed against my shins and the pungent smell of old leather wafted through the air, I could just be myself. For that, I will always cherish the return trip.
Joshua Yang is an associate editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joshuaqyang.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect[at]dailyprincetonian.com.