Achieving nirvana on a crowded train

The commuting life is full of wild and crazy surprises. Sometimes when I get on the train, I don’t know where I’ll get off — or if I’ll ever get off. So as part of my commuter contingency plan, I’ve started carrying a toothbrush and a spare pair of underwear in my lunch bag. Just in case. Pajamas are next.

These are the times that try commuters’ souls. The disruptions in train service have taught me valuable lessons in life, and I’m on my way to achieving commuter nirvana. Buddha, as you know, taught that life is suffering, and riding Metro-North is just another test, especially since someone pulled the plug on the power for the New Haven Line, and electrical disruptions cut service so badly that only a third of the passengers could get a seat.

This was survival of the fittest, commuter style. One seat for every three commuters meant delays and long rides into the city. (So what if I missed The Bossman’s big meeting with a very big new client?)

But a guy has to make a buck, and if I’m not there to make that buck, approximately 731 other job applicants will be standing in line to replace me, which is why I’ve been dragging myself out of bed at 4 a.m., drag-racing to the train station, jumping on the train and knocking down a few little old ladies to grab a seat.

I feel their pain. I’m on my way to becoming a little old man, and sooner or later some upstart will be shoving me aside, planting his foot on my back and taking my seat. Yes, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

During this latest crisis, Metro-North suggested we work from home or “seek alternate transportation.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. What are the alternatives? Kayak? Rickshaw? Helicopter?

Last week, I was standing on the crowded platform in Stamford at 6:15 a.m., waiting for a diesel train to arrive so I could wedge myself into the overhead luggage rack. The first train that passed was so mobbed, I couldn’t get on.

The second time I made it, and when I got on board, the conductor gave us the Gipper speech and tried to be encouraging.

“We have to make the best of a bad situation,” he said and then kindly advised us to sit next to someone, make new friends and start up a conversation. He should have said sit on someone’s lap — and no pick-pocketing allowed.

The commuter crisis has taught me not to be afraid to sit in the middle seat between two other people, regardless of how they act or smell. You see, perfume is my downfall, and with my allergies, I start to sneeze and wheeze and blow my nose, which aren’t socially acceptable activities when you’re crammed shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh-to-thigh between strangers.

Last Thursday was a bad morning. A woman was wearing musk and someone else was wearing talcum and someone else had skin cream with lanolin. I picked up those scents immediately and my nose started twitching. Then, there was the garlic.

“Who the heck smells of garlic?” I grumbled ... until I realized it was me. We Italians can’t get enough garlic. No more pepperoni pizza from Giovanni’s.

However, in the memorable words of the conductor, I was determined to “make the best of a bad situation.” Even my daughter — who is a chronic whiner about her daily commute and text-messages me every time someone passes gas or eats a stinky egg-and-cheese sandwich — had an enlightened outlook for a change.

All day long I got messages from her, grumbling about the trains and then, miracle of miracles, she sent this one: “I’ll say this again. It amazes me sometime how there r so many nice people in this world. People who give up seats and help other people with their bags.”

Was that the same daughter? Was that the same train? Nirvana.

Joe Pisani may be reached at