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01.17.2005

Trenton

One day I will wake up in Trenton.

I don't look forward to it, I don't want it to be this way, but I also know when to bow to the inevitable. We all die one day, we all pay taxes, and some of us are foredoomed to wake up in the capital of New Jersey.

There may be nothing wrong with Trenton - I've never been there, and I'm in no hurry to speed my inevitable, inadvertent first visit - but there is something inside me that sees waking up anywhere in New Jersey as a warning sign, a clear signal that something in your life has gone wrong and needs immediate attention. The Garden State is not a place where you want to emerge from the sweet oblivion of sleep. I certainly spent my share of mornings waking up here as a kid, when I lived in a strange little town outside Newark called Montclair, and I like to think that I have more than filled my lifetime quota of Jersey mornings.

But circumstances have conspired against me. Three mornings out of the week, I wake up at six thirty to a beeping cell phone, stagger into an ironed shirt, and board a subway train that takes me to Pennsylvania station, where I catch the 7:34 train to Princeton Junction.

This trip takes an hour, and has its consolations. There are very, very good sausage-and-egg bagels to be had at Pennsylvania station, and at this time of year one emerges from the Manhattan-Jersey tunnel pretty much as the same time as the sun clears the horizon over New York City, which is one of the prettiest sights in the world even if Secaucus and the chemical fields around Newark airport are filling the foreground. But the hot, greasy sandwich and bright sun have an undeniable soporific effect. Especially towards Wednesday, when the too-short nights of drinking have started to add up, and one has entered the deep pothole in the middle of the week.

On good days, I get off at Princeton Junction, take a one-car train called the 'dinky' a mile to the Princeton campus, and walk to my office, a room in an unassuming converted house on Alexander street.

On a bad day, which has not happened yet, but will, I miss my stop and wake up in Trenton.

Already I have grown used to waking up at Penn Station. The train ride home has none of the uncertainty and suspense of my morning commute; it is dark and I am taking a train to the terminus, mind and body tired from a hard day of intellectual labors, and I can peacefully nod off right after tucking my ticket in to its little notch on the seat back in front of me. The train finds its way home to New York like a draft horse coming home from market, and I can peacefully doze until the train sighs its last, and everyone gets up to leave.

The other day, though, I fell asleep so hard that I didn't notice the commotion of everyone leaving the train. Instead, I slept on for many minutes, and when I finally woke up I had no idea who I was, where I was, what time it was, or why on Earth I was the only person left on the planet. I wandered for many minutes around the completely abandoned train, despondently pushing buttons in hopes that I could get a door to open, pressing my face to the glass to try to attract the attention of someone on the platform, but to no avail. There were no passengers, no conductors, and not a hint of life outside on the train platform. It was just me, a series of locked doors, and to my eventual relief, a very surprised train driver who let me out without saying a word when I spotted him stepping out of his cab, ready to lock the train down for the night.

I don't know if I will be so lucky in Trenton.

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