The loneliness of the long-distance commuter - The Buffalo News
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The loneliness of the long-distance commuter

Joe Flanagan lives in Hamburg and works in Olean. And when people ask him how long his drive takes him, he has a ready answer:

“Three deer and one bear.”

That is how many animals he has inadvertently hit during the more than 20 years he has had his job, director of alumni affairs for St. Bonaventure University. The close encounter with the bear took place a year ago outside Ellicottville.

“I’m driving, I see this thing out of the corner of my eye, and I thought, is that a dog or a bear?” he recalled. “I went slow, nudged him in the butt.” The bear rolled over and loped away. “I thought, ‘Is he going to come after me?’

“I didn’t think I hurt it. But I went to the Department of Public Works in Ellicottville. There’s no police department there. I wanted to tell someone I hit him. The last thing I wanted to hear was, ‘Injured Bear Hurts Children at Recess.’ ”

There is a word for someone like Flanagan. It is “mega-commuter.” And listening to him tell his funny bear story, you can’t help thinking that mega-commuters are not like the rest of us.

The word was popularized thanks to a U.S. Census Bureau report released just about a year ago. The report defined a mega-commuter as someone who makes a regular one-way commute of 90 minutes and 50 miles.

The report showed that more than 600,000 people in America could be classed as mega-commuters; 75.4 were female. Rising gas prices be

darned, the number of commuters has held steady over the last decade. Mega-commuters were more likely to be male, older, married and make a higher salary.

They also tend to get up really early.

On one chilly morning, Flanagan is up long before the sun. An inch of snow has fallen, a dusting the radio is dramatizing by calling it, repeatedly, “a burst of snow.” The moon is a dramatic sliver, and the North Star twinkles nearby.

There are already cars on the Skyway, but Flanagan’s street in the Village of Hamburg is still asleep. At around 6:30 a.m., Flanagan starts up his Impala. He has a habit of going to 7 a.m. Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Church, around the block. Plus, he likes to get there early and absorb the silence as, presumably, he prays for his safe commute.

He arrives at the church at around 6:45 a.m. Twenty or 30 other people trickle in. Slowly, the stained glass windows over the altar brighten to reveal Christ on the cross. The windows are a vivid blue by the time the Mass ends and Flanagan, with the priest’s blessing, continues on his journey.

The roads are slick, but there isn’t much traffic. With the sun sparkling, the forests of pine trees look as if they were lifted from a glittery Christmas card. Flanagan passes horse fences, a bright red barn. In the mirror he can see downtown Buffalo in the distance, shining like a biblical city.

Watchful at the wheel, Flanagan has seen phenomena the rest of us miss. Once, the road was full of cows. Another morning, he saw an optical illusion known as “triple suns” that suggests three suns in the sky.

“I’ve seen that three times,” Flanagan said. “In the morning – it’s super cold here – what happens is, there are two other shadow suns up in the sky. It’s really beautiful. You feel kind of like saying, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ You’re not worried about traffic, not worried about the guy in front of you.”

‘I evolved’

Flanagan’s experience is a far cry from the hell suggested in a bleak Gallup survey on commuters nationwide.

“Wellbeing Lower Among Workers With Long Commutes,” reads the headline of the survey, issued in 2010. Underneath, in smaller letters, it proclaims: “Back pain, fatigue, worry all increase with time spent commuting.”

But the bulk of mega-commuters, the U.S. Census Bureau survey noted, are in big metropolitan areas. San Francisco, belying its “green” reputation, is in the lead, with New York City and Washington, D.C., in close and smoggy pursuit.

Bill Purcell, who lives in Buffalo and works for Paychex in Rochester, knows firsthand how good we have it here. “When I talk to friends who live in New York City or D.C., their commutes are stressful,” Purcell said. “What we consider traffic in Buffalo and Rochester isn’t traffic anyway. And there are only about five days a year the weather is really bad.”

Eric Saldanha, another Paychex employee, offers similar wisdom. “I lived in San Francisco. I knew people who would drive an hour and a half to go eight miles.”

One night, Purcell was stuck on the Thruway in a snowstorm. “There was a Hershey ice cream truck, and the driver broke out the ice cream and handed it around,” he said. He laughed. “You’re up to your knees in snow, and here someone’s handing you ice cream. Every time I hear the Hershey brand of ice cream, I always remember that night.”

In general, though, Purcell’s commuter experience has been good. Saldanha says the same thing.

He admitted things seem much easier than they did in August 2011, when he was offered his job. He was born and raised in Buffalo, and Rochester seemed far away.

“Then my second reaction was, this might be doable,” he recalled. “My third reaction was, I was excited. I said, ‘It’s only an hour.’ I evolved.”

Now, the drive is routine. At 6:15 a.m., Saldanha is breakfasting on yogurt. Dawn is breaking as he eases his Nissan Ultima silently out of his garage, mindful of his slumbering fiancée. The car gets 40 miles to a gallon. “I had a mini-SUV before. I’d fill up every other day.”

He reaches the tollbooths at 6:45, ahead of schedule. “If I can get onto the 90 by 7, that’s great.”

There are more drivers than you think on the Thruway at this hour. Again, though, Buffalo’s relaxed commute comes through. A writer and photographer for The News, trailing Saldanha, pull up beside him and keep pace with him, shooting pictures. The two vehicles are soon leading a chain of cars, all unable to pass. Yet nobody acts impatient. Nobody toots the horn.

The A Train and the B Line

Commuting on a larger scale reflects the same laid-back Buffalo ambiance.

The Amtrak station on Exchange Street downtown looks like a quaint, sleepy depot out of a Hollywood Western, and the station in Depew isn’t much busier. Our airport, too, is small and user-friendly. The downside to this relaxed vibe is that flight and train options are more limited than in bigger cities.

Opera singer Valerian Ruminski, who leads Buffalo’s Nickel City Opera and performs all over the world, teaches at SUNY Westchester, near New York City. Sometimes he flies Jet Blue. Other times he takes Amtrak. Either way, he is always trying to streamline his commute.

If he is going to take the early train to New York, he does not bother to go to bed. Between 4 and 4:10 a.m., he makes his way to the Depew station. Once he gets on the train, he goes to sleep.

“I’m a window-seat person,” he said in his world-class bass voice. “I don’t like the aisle seats. People hit me in the arm. I’m a window person on all flights and trains. I put my head against the bulkhead, wake up around 11 and we’re almost in New York.”

If teaching is first on the agenda, he gets off the train in Poughkeepsie. “I switch to Metro North on the Hudson Line,” he explained. “I go to the White Plains Station, then switch to the B Line bus. That takes me to campus.”

Sometimes, though, he might have meetings in New York City itself, perhaps with his manager, or regarding New City Opera, his new venture in Harlem. In that case the itinerary shifts. “I take the Harlem line to Valhalla,” Ruminski said. “Then I can go down to the city, either to Woodlawn, where I stay – Woodlawn is in the Bronx on the Harlem line – or go to Grand Central Station. The Metro North ends at Grand Central.”

Returning to Buffalo can be a challenge.

Often Ruminski takes the Megabus. “Tickets are $60,” he said. “I can catch either the 6:30 or the 9:30 p.m. Megabus. The 9:30 Megabus will take me to the Buffalo airport at 8 a.m.”

From there he takes a cab to the Depew train station, where his car waits. He dislikes the 6:30 Megabus because it deposits him in downtown Buffalo at 4 a.m. It’s too early to catch a bus, so he has to take a cab. To save money, he taxis home and, the next day, a friend gives him a lift to get his car.

Sometimes, Ruminski finds it cheaper and easier to fly Delta or Jet Blue to New York’s JFK Airport.

“If I can get a $100 flight, I will book a flight in advance,” he said. “Because I know exactly when I need to go to New York and come home.”

Sunflowers and satellite radio

Wherever a mega-commuter lives, the secret to success seems to be patience on the way to making it home safely.

“I’m not going to speed to go home,” Flanagan said. “It’s not worth it. You’re going to get home maybe five minutes later.”

Amy Prior, who works in Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Visual Communications Department, commutes daily from Port Colborne, Ont., where she lives with her husband. The drive has its drawbacks. Customs at the Peace Bridge can be unpredictable. “I’ve had my car torn apart once. They were checking the door panels!” she wails. “They were apologetic.”

The Peace Bridge can be packed, even when holidays aren’t involved. “There’s no rhyme or reason. The weather doesn’t seem to affect the border,” Prior said. She observes, however, that summer is busier. “One summer day, it was so backed up that I went across Grand Island. I don’t think it saved me time, but at least I was moving.”

Such tie-ups are rare, she said. Still, she allows extra time. “My friends are always asking me why I don’t more shopping in Buffalo after work,” she says. “I love Buffalo. But I just want to go home.”

On a Tuesday evening around 5, she leaves her office – “a cube, really” – and heads out. Roswell Park is full of staffers wishing each other a cheery but weary good night.

Prior’s Subaru is deep in a parking garage. Getting there is a colorful hike. She rides an elevator downstairs, rounds a row of exuberantly fake sunflowers, then heads down a hall lined with vintage circus posters. She passes security. All in all, she guesses she walks a couple of city blocks.

Her car is new, and smells like it. She turns on the radio to a pop station. “I enjoy the drive,” she said.

Which brings a Buffalo benefit that rivals the chicken wing: While drivers everywhere have to be careful, our less troublesome traffic allows for the kind of quiet time that is scarce elsewhere. Purcell and Flanagan both pray the Rosary. And thanks to technology, entertainment options are multiplying.

“You kind of go in waves,” Purcell says. “I’ve gone through a lot of the library’s books on tape. Then you get tired of that. I love listening to classical music, and I listen to the Broadway channel. That’s a must for mega-commuters, satellite radio. That and an EZPass are non-negotiable. I definitely listen to news on satellite radio, local talk shows, a little music, a little sports. It’s a benefit – you can catch up on all the day-to-day stuff. At home, you deal with the stuff you really enjoy. That’s another benefit of a long commute. It gives you time to think, to pray, to strategize.”

A mega-commuter’s life isn’t perfect. “I don’t see the romantic aspect of it,” Saldanha admits, as he pulls out onto his sleepy street. “If I had my druthers, I’d be in bed. But I have a great job.” And, he admits, he doesn’t mind the drive. “I enjoy being by myself.”

He has hit on the secret of the happy mega-commuter. When you leave home in the morning, you can look forward to something a lot of other cities don’t offer: a long stretch of solitude.

Enjoy it, and you’re halfway there.


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