This article was published in 2017. Some parts of the piece have been updated to reflect new information about ticket prices and travel costs.
If I had to describe my relationships with Philly and New York, I’d put it this way: Philadelphia is my wife, New York is my mistress.
My love affair with New York has always been intense and passionate. When I was studying art history in graduate school near Philly, I'd often make the trek to New York to visit its museums and galleries—partially as an excuse to take the train. I rode the Amtrak for the glimpse of the Philadelphia Museum of Art across the Schuylkill River and the TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES bridge; for the time spent writing papers in the cafe car, where ideas just seemed to flow easily.
When I started the post-grad school job hunt, it made sense that I would look move to New York. But by this point I had settled in Fishtown with my then-fiancée, now-wife. As much as we liked Philly, it was a place we had come to out of circumstance rather than choice. It took me an excruciatingly long time to fall in love with Philly, but gradually we formed a circle of friends, established our lives, bought a home.
Still, I couldn’t quite quit New York, and my best job prospects seemed to be a 1.5-hour train ride north. I sent off my resume not planning to relocate, but with fantasies of the commuter’s life. There were books I would finally read, podcasts I’d immerse myself within. But most of all, I’d be able to spend time in my favorite place on earth, which is really no place at all. There’s even a term for it: Anthropologist Marc Auge called these them the “non-place,” like airports, train stations, and bus stops.
Faster than I anticipated, my fantasy of a two-city commute manifested. I interviewed for my dream job at an arts magazine in Brooklyn and was offered a job days later.
My first week on the job, I super-commuted between New York and Philly before I even knew “super-commuting” was a thing. Every morning I took the Amtrak to New York and the BoltBus home to Philly to save money. The bus got me home past midnight, and I would have to wake up at 6 a.m. the next day to catch the train. That week, the entirety of my time at home was spent getting an inadequate night’s sleep. I know there are people who do this every day of the week, but even for me, this wasn’t going to work.
But I was faced with the reality that commuting between Philly and New York on Amtrak is not a cheap habit—in 2017 a monthly, unlimited pass on Amtrak cost $1,339 monthly. (Since then the price has increased to $1,580). After getting over the initial sticker shock, I realized it would, somehow, be cheaper to rent a room in Brooklyn for the week and commute home on the weekends.
I went on Craigslist and found a room in a Williamsburg loft. It was a closet-sized space with no window to the outside world, but the rent was right: $650 a month.
My room, coupled with buying a 10-ticket pass for $594 ($760 in 2019) saved me about $200 a month. (Amtrak pro tip: I occasionally just buy single-ride tickets, which are even cheaper than the 10-ticket rate when purchased far enough in advance.)
I expected to fall into a commuter’s rhythm, and I have, to a certain extent: I’ve memorized Amtrak’s timetables and take the same trains like clockwork. My weekly commuting schedule now looks something like this:
- 6 a.m. Tuesday: I wake up and try to head out the door by 6:30. I carpool with my wife on her way to work, and she drops me off at 30th Street Station. During Penn Station’s #summerofhell in 2017, the altered train schedule meant waking up at 5 a.m. to get to work on time.
- 7:27 a.m.: I take the 180 Northeast Regional to Penn Station, which now feels like a luxury after spending the summer catching the train at 6:39 a.m. The train takes about an hour and 20 minutes, during which I usually read.
- 9:30 a.m.: As long as the train is on time and the subway is running (neither ever a sure thing), I get to my desk in Williamsburg about 30 minutes before work begins at 10. During the #summerofhell, I’d have more an hour to kill before work, so I’d usually relax at a cafe. As bad as waking up at 5 a.m. was, I did start looking forward to these quiet mornings.
- 8:00 a.m. Wednesday-Friday: Once I’m in New York, my commute is just a short bus ride, which helps balance out the long commute from Philly on Tuesdays. I try to wake up with enough time to run errands or work out before work. Sometimes I hit snooze.
- 7:40 p.m. Friday: I take the 175 Northeast Regional back to Philly. I’m usually too tired to read on my way home, so I catch up on podcasts.
- 9:30 p.m.: Finally home for the weekend. As long as the weather holds out, my wife and I drink a beer on our front stoop and catch up on the week. After working from home on Mondays, it’s back to the grind come Tuesday morning.
I still find myself enthralled by the interior of 30th Street Station, and I can’t help but glance upward at the Empire State Building every time I exit Penn Station. I’ve developed my own ways of telling time, and the crossing of distance, like the conductor’s emphatic “Newark, New Jersey Next!” to alert me that I’ve nearly arrived in New York, and the billboards in the distance that signal passing through North Philadelphia.
The reality of this two-city life is harder to explain than I expected. Inevitably, the small-talk answer to a simple question about my life (“Where do you live?”) ends up becoming an extended personal narrative. Recently, I met a woman who asked where I was visiting from. “I live between New York and Philly,” I said. “Oh! You live in Jersey!” she responded. “I’m from Jersey!” I didn’t have the heart to correct her, but momentarily it felt nice to have a simple answer to her question.
I now have two of everything—sets of toiletries, piles of unread books on my nightstand, favorite local cafes. I thought, somehow, when I first began planning my life, that I would be able to live fully in two places. The reality, of course, is that you can't. My life is fractured, rather than doubled. For the most part, while I'm in New York, I feel like I'm just passing through. The city itself is now the non-place I craved.