The daily commute

 berlin s-bahn“I love mass transportation,” M declared as he came in the front door yesterday morning, returning from his usual hour-and-a-half round trip taking C to school.

“Oh, ha ha,” I replied from the dining room table where I tend to camp out with my laptop. Early in September he had resigned himself to accompanying C all the way to Zehlendorf each morning, and he returns to meet her at the S-Bahn station to bring her back home as well. We know C could take the bus and the train and walk the three blocks on her own, as S reminds us almost daily, but the girl gets lonely. She appreciates the company. This means M typically spends three hours total on these school trips: there and back in the morning, and he does it all again every afternoon. He has made it his mission. After he drops C off at school, he listens to operas on his iPod, obscure ones he downloads weekly from the vast trove at the public library. He has worked his way through all of Verdi’s operas already, and is plowing his way through the dozens of operas written by Verdi’s predecessor, Donizetti.

M took off his coat, scarf and hat. It was a grey and rainy morning, a typical fall day in Berlin, as best we can tell.

He stepped into the living room. “You think I’m kidding, don’t you?” he said.

“Well, yeah…” I looked at him, and saw that his face was free of cynicism.

“But I do! I love everything about it. It’s so efficient.” And with that, he wandered off down the hallway and left me to chew on what he’d said.

This morning the alarm came all too early. I’d been tossing for hours; my hands kept falling asleep and the tingling would wake me up. As usual I couldn’t turn the alarm clock off on the first try; it’s a hand-me-down from M’s brother and I almost always have to sit up in bed and wrestle the knob into the “off” position to make it stop beeping. The ritual wakes me fully every time.

“How are you feeling?” came M’s voice.

“Much better, now that you mention it,” I said, realizing my stomach had finally settled after days of unrest.

“Well, I hardly slept. I can’t believe I have a dress rehearsal today.” He’ll be playing a house recital at a friend’s house this weekend, and lately it has been contributing to his newfound insomnia in Berlin.

“Oh! You rest. I can take C today. I do feel better,” I told him, and jumped out of bed. Today accompanying C would be my mission.

C and I were as quiet as we could be in our loud kitchen, where the ceramic floor and tile walls make every small noise harsh on the ears. The kitchen is across the hall from where M slept.

Soon we had our coats on and umbrellas in our hands, because sure enough there was drizzle in the air. We headed down the block to catch the bus.

A chance conversation with a neighbor a week ago had revealed a shorter path to school. For two months M and C had been taking the U-Bahn east to pick up the S-Bahn, which headed southwest. We knew it wasn’t direct but we didn’t see what choice we had. Probably because we hadn’t yet considered the bus as a viable transportation option.

“You go all the way to Yorkstrasse?” said our neighbor. “Why not take the M46? You can pick it up right at the corner,” he said, pointing to the intersection a half-block away.

“Could probably give you an extra ten minutes’ sleep every morning,” he winked at C as he climbed the stairs toward his apartment.

Huh. I mentioned it to M, who dismissed it at first, and then, a day or two later, gave it a try. Sure enough, it gives ALL of us another ten minutes of sleep every morning. It is far more direct than the long walk to the U-Bahn that takes you east instead of west.

So, to the M46 it was. A few minutes later, the yellow double-decker bus came rumbling toward us through the rain, and C and I hopped on and ducked up the stairs to the front row of windows above the driver. Six stops later, we got off under the bridge at Schöneberg and climbed the stairs to the S-Bahn platform. Five minutes till the next train. The platform was filling up with all sort of people; students around C’s age with heavy backpacks, standing alone; university students reading articles to prepare for class; workers in their black tights and hats, their noses buried in iPhones, or staring out past the tracks.

“Let’s move,” C said, nudging me away from a man smoking a few feet behind us. As we stood and waited, C put her head on my shoulder, seeking warmth against the cold outside air. The train came right on time, making its signature sound as if it floated along the humming tracks, releasing a quick screech of the brakes as it stopped. The doors hissed open and we found places to lean against the inner doors, packed in with dozens of others. It was crowded but not terribly so. After a few stops two seats opened up and we were glad to sit. It was anonymous yet comforting to see all these other people commuting to their own destinations, everyone with a purpose, riding the train together.

We disembarked at Zehlendorf, where most of the other commuters got off as well. In a mass we descended the stairs, with just a thin line of commuters fighting the tide to reach the platform above.

From the station it’s three long blocks through the town center to the American school. I held the umbrella over both of us, and C took my hand and held it the whole way.

There’s really nothing more lovely than having your daughter, nearly as tall as yourself, on the cusp of adulthood but not quite, take your hand and hold it close for three blocks as you walk side by side under a shared umbrella. She wasn’t resisting going to school; she wasn’t afraid to ride the bus or train alone. She just wanted me or her dad beside her, holding her hand. Driving her to school would not likely have fostered such contact, such closeness.

We made it through the gates of the school just as a nearby church tower tolled eight o’clock.

C looked up at me. “I don’t want to be late,” she said, and so we parted, and she dashed through the courtyard to the front doors as I turned to make the trek home, the church bells still ringing, filled with a sense of mission accomplished. I was glad to have had this time together, warmed by it, but I could feel a quickness in my step that I recognized as an eagerness to reach the station where I could pull out my book and read for the whole anonymous, crowded, quiet trip home.

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