The Commuter Chronicles: Back to School

Commuter ChroniclesBy Claudia DeCarlo

Last month was back-to-school time in Maryland – that time of year when excited parents fill Facebook with pictures of their kids getting on the school bus, full of fresh new enthusiasm for what this year’s journey will bring. 

#FirstDayJitters #soproud. 

Once they arrive at school, the newer students will timidly explore their unfamiliar surroundings, while returning students experience the first day of the new year with a cool confidence that inspires awe and envy. 

There was a day last month when it was back to school on the MARC train too. On this particular day, I was privy to a distinctly noteworthy exchange between an experienced rider and one just starting out—a heartwarming twist on the classic freshman-senior relationship.

An unfamiliar woman stepped onto the train. I overheard her say she had just moved to Baltimore and was going to begin her regular daily commute to DC. 

A MARC Train Freshman.

An older gentleman, a veteran of the commuter way of life – an upperclassman – was sitting next to her. She asked how many stops it would take to get to Washington. He responded with the knowledge and authority of a seasoned commuter.

But the education didn’t stop there. He patiently reviewed the lessons of MARC Train 101: schedules, weekday vs. weekend, websites, notifications of delays, relationships among MARC and WMATA and AMTRAK. He then progressed to MARC Train 201:   pros and cons of Penn vs. Camden lines, and alternatives to parking at Penn Station.  They even discussed potential places to live that could shorten her commute.

How nice to know that all freshman-senior exchanges are not like John Hughes coming-of-age movies! I was reminded of my own first day on the train, and wished I had had a kind upperclassman put down his headphones to answer my endless list of questions.

As the woman passed me and stepped off the train, I watched her hesitate ever so slightly to scan the scene before her with a hopeful smile before she walked into the station. And, like so many others in Maryland that day, I was tempted to snap a picture and post it to Facebook with a caption that read: #FirstDayJitters #commuterchronicles.

The Commuter Chronicles: Digital Bibliophile

Commuter ChroniclesBy Claudia DeCarlo

Recently on the train, I saw someone reading a large, heavy, hardcover book. It looked to be a collection of stories, although I couldn’t make out the author’s name or title. 
But this wasn’t just any hardcover book. This one had a familiar-looking sticker at the base of the spine, with a series of letters and numbers denoting what will surely one day be as defunct as cursive writing: the Dewey decimal system. 
My fellow commuter was holding a real relic—an actual library book.   
I consider myself an avid reader, and seeing that book made me smile. I reminisced about my younger days, the prehistoric, pre-iPad days, when books were friends you spent the afternoon with at the public library or shared a latté with at a local Barnes and Noble café. 
I looked down at my iPhone6. I was reading, too. Actually, I was listening to an audio book on Audible. Does that count as reading? When was the last time I read an actual book, let alone from a library?   
I looked at my own digital library. Since I started commuting, I’ve amassed 24 titles in my Audible library. Some on my mobile device, some in the cloud. None in my actual hands.   
I observed the commuters seated around me. About half were reading real books, the other half e-books. (As for audio books, I could not accurately observe how many). No differences in gender, race, or age marked the groups of readers. The commuter with the large library book looked to be in her twenties, defying the stereotype that younger people prefer tech over paper. 
Does the fact that I read—er . . . um . . . listen to—my books digitally make me any less of a bibliophile? I must admit, seeing that book in that young woman’s hands made me long for the days when I folded down the corner of a page to mark my place and collected bookmarks, when I picked a book to read because I was enchanted by the imagery on its cover. 
Then I take inventory of what is currently in my oversized and overstuffed commuting bag. In order of importance: laptop, iPhone, coffee mug, hand sanitizer, headphones (Bluetooth and regular), water bottle, laptop charger, extra battery charger, makeup, hairbrush, umbrella, keys, extra jacket, and a half-eaten bagel from this morning. 
I really don’t want to add the complete works of Stephen King to that list. 
So, fellow commuting bibliophiles, let’s take a poll. Which do you prefer on your daily trek between home and work? 

a) regular book 
b) e-books 
c) audio books 

And if you’re a book-lover of the digital sort, is there a part of you, ever so slight, that feels a bit guilty for trading in your old paper-book friends for newer, digital models, all in the name of an easier commute? 

The Commuter Chronicles: Name That Network

MARC mapBy Claudia De Carlo

One of the great advantages to commuting on the train is the ability to relax and surf the web while travelling—something that those driving on the highway can’t (or shouldn’t) do.

Recently on the train, was connecting my laptop to the bluetooth wireless internet network on my iPhone when the long list of available wireless networks caught my eye. It occurred to me that they must belong to other tech-savvy train commuters. A funny, clever bunch, as it turns out. Here are some of my favorite network names:

  • Snakes on a Train
  • Clinton Email Server
  • geturown
  • Earlandtheotherone
  • The Evil League of Evil (Yikes!)
  • Godblessyou (Awww…)
  • Lemur princess’ Karma (I don’t get this one, but OK!)
  • Kawaii (How cute!)

And to those commuters that own the following network names, I know you’re not as boring as your Wi-Fi names! 

  • GALAXY_S4_9326
  • Mike’s iPhone
  • Jennifer Personal

How to join the ranks of the funny, clever commuters? You don’t need a computer science degree to do change the name of your Wi-Fi hotspot. You can do it right on your phone.

How to change your Wi-Fi name on your iPhone:

  1. Tap the Settings icon on your device’s home screen.
  2. Tap General from within Settings.
  3. Tap About.
  4. Tap the Name tab.
  5. Tap the small X next to your device’s current name to remove it.
  6. Type a new name for your iPhone in the input field.
  7. Tap Done on the onscreen keyboard when you are finished.

How to change your Wi-Fi name on your Android:

  1. Open Settings on your phone.
  2. Scroll to About and tap on it.
  3. On the next screen, tap on Device Name, type the desired name for your device in the text field.
  4. Select OK.

You can also do it from your laptop. Here’s a great tutorial with step by step instructions for both PC and Mac.

So go on, fellow commuters, live a little! Change it up! Change your WiFi name and make your commute just a little more fun!

The Commuter Chronicles: What to Do When the Wi-Fi’s Not Working

Commuter Chronicles logoBy Claudia DeCarlo

If you’re like me, you can get pretty frustrated when the Wi-Fi signal on the MARC train is too weak to satisfy your web-surfing needs. But fear not! Here’s a handy list of things you can do during these challenging times, in no particular order:

  • Casually crane your head to try and read the magazine article that the person next to you is reading. Really? I can get “Get Fit in Just Forty Days”?!
  • Obsess about how the person next to you has something to do you and you don’t.
  • Meditate.
  • Scan your eyes across the seatback in front of you and wonder when the last time it was cleaned. Then, rub copious amounts of hand sanitizer feverishly over all your exposed bodily surfaces.
  • Take out your laptop, open Word, and type up a list of things to do when there is no Wi-Fi on the MARC train so you’ll know what to do the next time this happens.
  • Try to name all 50 states in alphabetical order.
  • Write out your grocery list.
  • Hit refresh in your Internet browser at precise, 15-second intervals.
  • Listen to music you may have downloaded to your phone, since Spotify isn’t available. Reminisce about that time last summer when you downloaded that song to your phone because that cute guy (or gal) you met said you had to listen to it. What was his name anyway?!
  • Reminisce about last summer.
  • Practice the speech you’ll give your boss when you get to work and have to tell him (or her) that you didn’t get your work done because there was no Wi-Fi on the train. Be prepared to explain why you left it to the last minute instead of staying late last night to finish it.
  • Write a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time but wish you had.
  • Sleep.
  • Prepare a cost-benefit analysis to send to the President of MTA, explaining why outfitting the 409 MARC train with free or low-cost Wi-Fi could yield great profit in the form of additional happy customers.
  • Count the number of people on the train car with you without anyone noticing.
  • Imagine the life story of the person sitting next to you. Who are they? Why are they on this train? Have you met them elsewhere not on this train?
  • Pray. For Wi-Fi. And world peace.

The Commuter Chronicles #3: The Ca-cough-ony

Day in and day out, more than 30,000 people make the daily trek from Maryland to Washington DC, traveling 4-6 hours per day just to be able to call Charm City home. These are their stories.

by Claudia DeCarlo

cacophony   ca • coph • o • ny   /ke kafene/  

n. a hard, discordant mixture of sounds. “a cacophony of deafening alarm bells”

syn. disharmony, noise, clamor, discord, dissonance, uproar.

I’ve got my own version of cacophony on the MARC train in winter: The Ca-COUGH-ony.

It starts with one cough. The woman in front of me. Loud. Abrupt. Intrusive. Unapologetic. It rouses me from my numb, MARC-train-number-507-5:50am-departure-sleepy state of being.

A slight pause, then the soft sniffle of the person next to me. Innocent. Needy. Sickly. Sorrowful.

Then suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, the ca-cough-ony begins. It seems that everyone is coughing, sniffling or sneezing at the same time. Long raspy coughs, short repetitive coughs, sneezes that end in whoo-hoo and ones that sound like a boar snorting in the wild. Combination coughs: Cough-sniffle-cough or cough-cough-sniffle—that come in regular 15-second beats like a broken record.

I become focused on the sounds and can’t escape them. I left my headphones at home. Again. How I wish I could crank up the iPod and drown out these sounds! But after some time, I start to hear, or imagine that I hear, patterns in these discordant sounds. Could it be that these sounds are weaving into an arrangement? Not so much a ca-cough-ony as a symphony of sickly, sniffly, sneezy sounds? Is Old Man Winter at the head of this train car waving some invisible baton trying to wrangle the sounds into some sort of music?

If he is, it’s more like a third grade band recital than the BSO.

Alas. No. It’s nothing like that. It’s just my imagination—and the steadfast, hardworking gaggle of commuters who travel the MARC train daily, even when they’re sick, to get to work.

Here’s to more music and less coughing in 2017!

The Commuter Chronicles #2: The Superhero of Commuters


Day in and day out, more than 30,000 people make the daily trek from Maryland to Washington DC, traveling 4-6 hours per day just to be able to call Charm City home. These are their stories.

by Claudia DeCarlo

Some days, getting out of the house and to the train on time is such an incredible feat, I feel like someone should give me an award. On these days, I am the master of morning multitasking; I am a dog whisperer, an effortless organizational expert, and a fashionista who can throw together a killer outfit in no time.

On this particular dark and rainy early Monday morning, I was a commuting superhero. Even though it was raining miserably, my superhero powers turned every stoplight to green just as I approached it. My superpowers made a spot right by the elevator in the covered parking garage adjacent to the station available when I drove up. I even had extra time to purchase a cup of coffee before calmly walking onto the train ten minutes early.

Sitting there sipping my latté, waiting for the scheduled departure time, I spotted a flashing light through the rain, off in the distance. The light got closer. The rain fell harder. That’s when I saw him. The real commuting superhero. The cyclist commuter.

As if this were the early days of the pony express, neither rain nor hail nor sleet will tempt this guy to call an Uber to get to the station. His bicycle (which folds up into what I am pretty sure is a wallet) is his stallion. His superhero cape is a bright yellow reflective rain poncho with hood, securely fastened around this face. His legs are lean and muscular, covered in long cycling pants, adding to the superhero effect. He glides up to the steps leading to the platform, dismounts with a flourish, folds up his bike up in seven seconds flat, runs up the stairs two at a time, and finds his way to a seat on the train.

I sat there, with my latté, my Burberry rain boots and damp umbrella, and quietly worshipped the All-Powerful Veteran Virtuoso of Public Transit: The Commuting Cyclist.

Want more Commuter Chronicles? Read the first installment, “The Whiskey Clutch,” here.

The Commuter Chronicles: The Whiskey Clutch

commchronDay in and day out, more than 30,000 people make the daily trek from Maryland to Washington DC, traveling 4-6 hours per day just to be able to call Charm City home. These are their stories.

By Claudia DeCarlo

Today, I uncovered an interesting phenomenon on the 5:08 pm train from Union Station in DC to Baltimore’s Penn Station: the Whiskey Clutch.

The train was packed. Suits, briefcases, laptops, jackets, coats, backpacks, iPhones, iPads, books (electronic ones), more books (real ones). Executives, babies, students, grandparents, tourists, sitting, standing, sleeping. The train, with its people and devices and bags, was like a city street littered with paper after a ticker-tape parade.

I barely made the 5:08; my last valiant leap onto the train earned me the gold medal in commuting. Vaulting the large platform gap onto the steel train car steps must be exactly what an Olympic runner feels clearing that final hurdle, I thought. Except I was wearing heels, to boot. (Just saying.)

Trying to catch my breath, I strode down the aisle, dodging this bag and that. No one cared that I just won my heat and made the train, but I strutted on anyway.

An empty seat was nowhere in sight, and when the train started moving, I feared the worst. I might actually have to stand all the way to the next stop.

That’s when I spotted the empty seat amidst a quad of four, facing each other two by two. Three men sat in three of the seats, with their bags and coats piled on the fourth.

Still reeling from my recent exertions, I approached them and asked if I could sit with them.


I counted one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. Then, in a sudden flurry of activity, all three jumped up to clear the fourth seat. It was as if no one had ever asked to sit with them before.

I took my hard-earned seat, and no one spoke for a few minutes. A curly-haired guy with gold cuff links spoke first. What he said was inconsequential. What followed, however, was not. Suddenly, the trio began to banter back and forth like an episode of the Gilmore Girls.

“The market closed up one point,” said Curly, phone in hand.

“Do you have any questions for the mayoral candidates?” asked Pink Tie Guy sitting next to him, phone in hand. “I am posting questions now.”

The third guy took a call from someone and spoke far more loudly than necessary to the person on other end. And then, without skipping a beat, while looking and laughing at a video that Pink Tie Guy was showing him, Curly put his phone down, pulled out a thermos and red solo cups, and poured a shot of whiskey into each.

I was shocked. The train conductor was approaching and they didn’t put it away. The smell of liquor was pretty strong. They urged me to have some and I declined sheepishly. The train master seemed intent on checking their tickets but not their cups. They did not offer. He did not ask. Was this the MARC version of don’t ask don’t tell?

I discovered that the Whiskey Clutch has been commuting this way for over three years. They have a shot every Friday night on their way home. Sometimes on Thursdays too. They don’t work together; they don’t live together. Connected only by their commute, these guys talk about everything.

At first I found them annoying, but soon they grew on me. Even Loud Cell Phone Talker grew on me when I realized he was talking to his adult son who had recently been married; mom and dad missed them a lot and couldn’t wait to see them.

I felt privileged to be visitor to their clutch. They didn’t ask me to join, and I wouldn’t have even if they had. But there is some comfort in knowing that day in and day out, these and other clutches bring people together to make a stressful commute a little less so, which is why this initial installment of the Commuter Chronicles is dedicated to them.