“There and Back Again” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Seven)

There and Back Again,” by Nick Paumgarten for The New Yorker in April 2007, explores the issue of commuting from a wide range of angles: the impact on workers, trade-offs commuters make, and overall trends of sprawl, commuting, and social isolation. It’s an incredible story.

Paumgarten looks at the issue from the perspectives of four long-range commuters, a handful of experts and academics, and a body of historical, sociological, and psychological research on the topic. As with many of his stories, Paumgarten’s work is long, but the length has purpose: he tells a story from a multitude of perspectives and points of view. The story is both wonky and moving at the same time. Few writers can pull that off.

Illustration of a man in a car that is struck in heavy traffic

Illustration by The New Yorker

Nick Paumgarten is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. His stories are always deep, impressively researched, and beautifully written. His story about elevators — Up and Then Down — remains one of the best longform stories I’ve read. He wrote 8000 words on elevators and it was riveting, fascinating stuff.

Given that Paumgarten isn’t a one-hit wonder with “There and Back Again,” I thought I’d dissect the structure of this story a bit here to try and highlight why this story works so well. Here are a few take-aways:

First, Paumgarten constantly moves his writer’s lens in and out throughout the story. He will pull back and look at an issue from a sweeping macro level, then zoom back in very close on one particular subject for several pages, fleshing out his story with a real person, real moments, and personal experiences.

He opens “There and Back Again” with a some broad observations about workers and their commutes to and from work, as if his story was going to be an essay on the subject:

People like to compare commutes, to complain or boast about their own and, depending on whether their pride derives from misery or efficiency, to exaggerate the length or the brevity of their trip. People who feel they have smooth, manageable commutes tend to evangelize. Those who hate the commute think of it as a core affliction, like a chronic illness. Once you raise the subject, the testimonies pour out, and, if your ears are tuned to it, you begin overhearing commute talk everywhere: mode of transport, time spent on train/interstate/treadmill/homework help, crossword-puzzle aptitude—limitless variations on a stock tale. People who are normally circumspect may, when describing their commutes, be unexpectedly candid in divulging the intimate details of their lives. They have it all worked out, down to the number of minutes it takes them to shave or get stuck at a particular light. But commuting is like sex or sleep: everyone lies. It is said that doctors, when they ask you how much you drink, will take the answer and double it. When a commuter says, “It’s an hour, door-to-door,” tack on twenty minutes.

Shortly after this broad take on commuters, though, he zooms in close and introduces Judy Rossi, a legal secretary who has a three hour and fifteen minute commute each way to and from her Manhattan job. Paumgarten tags along with Rossi and travels with her on the daily commute, getting a sense of both the experience and of the person. He talks with her and gets quotes that help us understand her (and countless others like her). He reports little details, what she reads, what she listens to, and what her car smells like:

The train arrived, and we sat down, finally. From the backpack Rossi produced some photographs of her house, her swimming pool, and her granddaughter: her recompense, her consolation. “I keep these pictures above my desk at work,” she said. “Whenever I get fed up, I look at these and say, ‘That’s why I commute.’ ” Her son lives with his wife and two children in a separate house on the lot; unable to endure the same commute, he found a job working for Orange County, half an hour away. The property is surrounded by woods. Deer come and go. In her calculations, such blandishments outweigh the inconveniences and squandered hours.

At Harriman, most of the passengers disembarked, and Rossi removed her coat and put her bag on the floor. She took out her book, a James Patterson hardcover. For an hour, the train rattled through the night. Middletown, Otisville, Port Jervis, the end of the line. With keys in hand, she stepped out onto an open-air platform. The parking lot was part of a larger one abutting a mall. The night was dead-battery cold. “It’s a half hour from here,” she said.

Her car, a Toyota hatchback, smelled of cigarettes and dogs. (Rossi’s dogs—a standard poodle, a pit-lab, and a bichon frise—pass the days indoors.) She put on an oldies station—the Jackson 5 serendipitously singing “I’ll Be There”—and drove along a state road past shopping centers whose varying vintages indicated the advance of rural ruin. We passed a Price Chopper market, where Rossi does her food shopping twice a month. She gave up cooking some years ago.

A second Paumgarten technique: he starts and finishes his stories with people, but packs a lot of more brainy research and boarder thinking in the middle of the story. He often starts an article with a personal story (in this case, the experience of Rossi on her way home), then dives into some research and academic takes on a subject, before shifting back into some additional personal experiences. In the middle section of this story he tackles a lot: the etymology of the word “commuter”; the history of commuting and how Americans got to and from workplaces; comparisons between American commuters and those in other countries; the psychological effects of commuting on workers; the differences between commuters on trains vs. drivers; and the economics of income, real estate prices, and lengths of commutes. His story shifts gears from a personal profile of a New York commuter to a think piece:

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

After all this analysis, he looks at the sprawling, traffic-inflicted city of Atlanta and zooms back in on three commuters there. He captures little moments and details that feel tragic and sobering. And that strikes me as a third technique that Paumgarten uses skillfully: he writes scenes.

His eye for scene is as good as his knack for incisive research. Here are a few illustrative moments:

Scruggs tapped the steering wheel as traffic slowed again. “When you’ve had a long day and then sit in traffic for two hours, you say, I gotta find something else,” he said. “But then when you’re home there’s a reality check. My commute’s no different really from the commutes of people who are coming from the north side, where the cost of living is substantially higher. When you take all the factors into consideration, as frustrated as you get, I’m still not sure whether it’s worth making a move.”

I had talked to one Atlanta commuter who smokes a cigar to stay awake on his drive home each day, and to another who plays harmonica. One commuter began trying a meditation technique—breathe in one nostril and out the other—and got pulled over for speeding. Scruggs favored a more traditional approach. “The key is to eat a light lunch,” he said.

He exited the interstate at 6:06 p.m. “It’s ten or twelve minutes from here,” he said. “Piece of cake.” The road passed by a golf course, a high school, and a series of ranch houses with boats and cars out front, most of them apparently still operational. After a while, he made a right on Kripple Kreek Drive, which led him into a development called Barrington Farms. Home: 6:30 p.m.—one hour and twenty-two minutes. Deep twilight. His house was an off-white clapboard four-bedroom, on a one-acre lot. The kids were out playing on a swing set in the back yard. There was no arrival fanfare: Ulysses, ignored. He tends to see his kids for five minutes in the morning, and an hour in the evenings.

Paumgarten reminds me of an NBA player with an all-around game, the guard who can drive to the basket and score, hit a mid-range jumper, or step outside and unleash a three-point shot. Like a versatile scorer who can bank the ball in with either his left or right hand, he uses statistics and metaphors equally well. When Paumgauten writes from long-range, he does his homework, talks to experts, reads reports, and informs his analysis with a wealth of knowledge. When he gets in close, he writes with an eye for telling details and scenes, using the skills of a good fiction writer. His versatility and hard work are why he’s one of the best nonfiction writers out there.

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