(Photo Credit: Helen Jane Hearn)
Before I moved to Bridgeport — Connecticut’s only really big, bad city — I commuted into Manhattan out of a station in Westport. A bit of trivia: Westport is the town that played the role of EverySuburb in the 1955 bestseller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, reissued with a forward by Jonathan Franzen, and in the hit movie, starring Gregory Peck. You likely haven’t read the book or seen the movie (I did, only just in advance of writing this), but I bet the title triggers the image of its protagonist: the button-downed, soul-squashed, bread-winning husband/middle-manager who takes his place on the platform every weekday morning at 6:34 a.m. at the exact spot where the door will open, briefcase and folded-up New York Times in hand.
What you probably don’t know: On the Westport platform and at that time in the morning, not much has changed. Many mornings it was a sea of grey-suited men, most of whom resemble Dick Cheney at some point in his life, and me. The youngest among them have complexions as pink as Easter hams — in rosy good health, thanks to weekend sails on the Long Island Sound — and are only just beginning to lose their hair and fill out their suits. At the other end of the spectrum are the more avuncular Cheneys, the ones who have taken on the padding and pallor awarded to men who have spent decades riding the New Haven Line. They’re corpulent and self-important but also weary and wary — how many days do they have left on this earth?
During the summer months, a different, more playful uniform is adopted: golf shirts, patchwork trousers, no socks. And there are females at the Westport train station (I saw a Rockette on the platform once!), although most of them are dropping hubby off with a dry and distracted kiss on the cheek by way of farewell. I see these women through the glass box of their car windows, rather like looking at a television with the sound turned down. Something about their movements looks scripted. They maneuver their over-large vehicles back home, courteously (this is Connecticut, after all) waving other wives to pull out in front them. You go, says the first wife; no, you go, says the second.
In the evenings, this silent teleplay reverses itself and after the leaning together for the “how was your day” kiss, the cars disappear back home again. But if you close your eyes “you can hear the tinkle of the evening’s first pitcher of martinis, and hear the ugly fights then, after midnight; and smell the desperate or despairing sex.”
This per the forward by Franzen, who lauds the novel for capturing the spirit of the ‘50s: “…the uneasy conformity, the flight from conflict, the political quietism, the cult of the nuclear family, the embrace of class privileges.”
Again, not much has changed in these parts. Westport and its sister suburb Wilton, inspired the ‘70s-era setting for The Stepford Wives, with its more sinister spin on what happens to women when they quit their jobs and leave the city. Ira Levin’s novel is lampoonish, for sure, but there’s a vein of truth in it, even to this day.
As for my actual commute, here is where the drama falls away. The trains are packed but silent, its passengers willfully ignoring each other for the 68-minute ride into Grand Central. A colleague tells tales of riding the Westchester trains — the convivial and commiserating chats; the arguments, even fisticuffs, that break out when someone dares to use a cellphone (it’s okay to talk to each other, not okay to talk on the phone). New Yorkers are on board, in other words. Not so the New Haven Line. During my first week of commuting, I made the mistake of speaking to the man next to me. He had jostled me, then offered an apology. I waved it off. “No worries!” I said. “I’m Diane, by the way.” We would be seated with hips touching for an hour; an exchange of names made sense to me (I grew up in the Midwest). He was silent for a moment, seemingly alarmed. “Mr. Sullivan,” he said finally.
The conductors, too, are unknowable. They respond to my “good morning,” with a brusque “ticket, please.” On the day I couldn’t find my $350-a-month commuter pass, I shrugged an apology, assuming he’d let me ride without paying, based on the fact I’d been on the same damn train every morning for eight years. “That’s $23 one way,” he said. “$16.50 peak fare, plus $6.50 surcharge for buying it on board.”
“But you must recognize me! You see me every day!” I protested, wanting to add: I’m the only person without a penis in this whole car!
“Cash only,” was his response.
Since I moved to Bridgeport, my experience has been highly colored — by every hue except for gray. My new train transports day-laborers who get off at Stamford to stand along the roadways, hoping to be picked by crews trawling for undocumented workers. It transports a rowdy bunch of Catholic school boys in the morning, dressed in matching uniforms, and a rowdier bunch of millennial bros, slugging back beers in the evening. And it transports women — at least half the people in the train car are women — in all shapes, sizes and colors.
The root cause of the difference is money: Just 15 minutes farther down the line, Bridgeport’s household income is less than a third of Westport’s ($42,687 versus $152,586). This means workwise, the Bridgeport woman’s life is not so different from her male counterpart’s. Women work. Everyone works or needs to or wants to. There’s ennui associated with work (oh yeah) but it’s not the kind experienced by the Grey Flannel Suit’s wife Betsy back in 1955.
Muses stay-at-home Betsy Rath about seeing a psychiatrist about her and her husband’s undiscussed malaise:
“Maybe Tom and I both ought to visit one, she thought. What’s the matter? the psychiatrist would say, and I would reply, I don’t know—nothing seems to be much fun any more.”
Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, penned in advance of the 50th anniversary of “The Man,” set up the protagonist as his generation’s Don Draper, with this stay-at-home wife playing the cosseted Mrs. Draper — beautiful but cheated-on, unappreciated, unfulfilled.
I never got to be a Westport/Stepford wife, and there were times I resented boarding that train at 6:34 every morning. But I never believed the parallel life — that of the stay-at-home, non-working mother — would have been a better one.
One day this week, a harried, 50-something lady complimented me on my handbag. I asked if I could borrow her phone charger for a bit, and she handed it over, readily, ranting wittily about Apple’s penchant for changing up charger units when they release a new model.
“I’m Maggie, by the way,” she added.
I think I may have found my first train buddy.