The feel-good commuter story first started to appear in the news during 2015, though I’m sure it’d been around long before that. Someone working a low-wage job, most often in the service industry, has to walk an inordinate distance to get to work in a suburban or rural area. Their neighbors notice and pool resources to get them some kind of vehicle, which is usually a car, but has also been known to be a bike.
The most recent story I came across was from July this year, and it concerned the journey of a Texas high-school graduate named Justin Korva. The TV news segment opened with this: “While some of us can barely make our 10,000 steps, a Rockwall teenager has been walking three miles a day to get back and forth from work.” It went on to detail the events that led up to a Facebook Live stream of Korva being surprised with a white 2004 Toyota Camry one day after work. He walks out of Taco Casa, a local Tex-Mex chain, and finds a group of local business owners waiting outside to present him with the keys. He’s overcome with disbelief and, eventually, joy. The business owners are practically bursting with pride that they were able to make this happen for him. The video gained over a million views in less than a week. It’s genuinely moving. You can watch it, as I did, with full knowledge of why it’s not really a feel-good story and still smile a little bit; the video puts you in the position of appreciating the individual generosity involved, regardless of any feelings you might have on why the generosity was necessary in the first place (like seeing people successfully crowdfunding their medical bills).
Korva, like all of the story’s protagonists before him, is a commuter. He’s making the journey from home to work and back again each day, just like his white-collar counterparts. However, it is the latter, suited demographic that’s usually centered in public discussions of commuting as a factor of 21st century working life.
A useful definition of the white-collar commuter, taken from Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics, is someone whose profession entitles them to convenience. Their experiences are used to paint a picture of generalized anxiety over the speedup of 21st century working life, provoking a treatment of temporality as “the politics of time and space ushered in by global capitalism, [through] awareness of power relations as they play out in time.” Sharma points out that in separating the temporalities of the rich and the poor into “fast” and “slow” classes—in imagining the commuter as a white-collar worker overwhelmed by movement who needs to look for ways to slow down—most critiques of modern life’s rapid pace ignore the reality of how the “fast” class’s temporality bleeds through and shapes the expectations for everyone else’s.
For Sharma—and for our commuting protagonists—the danger inherent to this separation is most evident in how the dominant temporality has become the only one seen as worth discussing, creating a self-reinforcing bias in which “the subject of value in the critique of speed ends up being the subject who will confirm speedup most readily as the reality.” Such bias is evident in myriad articles on commuting stressors from major outlets like Time, Slate, and Psychology Today, among others (most major publications have touched on the subject in the last several years). From articles like these, we can glean a clear picture of the intended reader and, by extension, the archetypal commuter.
The archetypal commuter works in an office and lives in an urban area or is assumed to have relatively straightforward access to one, and the issues they are supposed to confront arise within that context. They are moving too quickly, they are too interconnected, they are trying to do too many things at once. The answer, then, lies in trying to slow down as much as possible. The commuter should try and practice mindfulness; the commuter is encouraged to make the trip to and from work into their own personal time. When thought of in these terms, the commuter becomes a character archetype unto itself, acting as an avatar for how modern society is seen to affect us.
The archetypal commuter’s time isn’t really theirs, but they’re encouraged to think of it as such: This is your time to center yourself (as you prepare for work), this is your time to practice mindfulness (as you go to work), this is your time to feel purposeful and proud (while at work), this is your time to decompress (coming home from work), this is your time to relax (so you can be fresh for the next day’s work). Within this schema of time repurposed, affluence can be measured by your ability to control how you experience commuting.
Affluence can also be measured by who is allowed to be unhappy or complain. The hazards inherent to commuting appear to be self-generated, occurring independently of any inquiry into why commuting happens in the first place. Commuting is a huge source of psychological stress, but you can decrease that stress through “active commuting”—walking or biking. Even taking public transportation is touted as an improvement over the blood-sugar-spiking stress of being forced to sit in traffic. All of this is entirely unrelated to the job. Most articles, in fact, take great pains to emphasize that commuting woes exist independently of job satisfaction.
High-speed temporality takes for granted that the worker in question has all the necessary resources to commute with relative physical ease, or that their employer will enable them to do so. However, this ease does not exist in a vacuum, and often brings to light the value systems imposed onto different kinds of labor. The case of San Francisco commuter buses is one of the better-publicized examples of this assumption in action: In 2014, the SFMTA was pushed to vote as to whether or not privately owned and operated tech commuter buses (for employees of Google, Facebook, and the like) ought to be able to continue using city-run SFMTA bus stops. This use became a point of contention when it became apparent that the commuter buses often disrupted regular bus routes, hindering those less-gainfully-employed commuters reliant on public transit.
Let’s return to the classic narrative. Its protagonists are commuters, and their commute is marked by a high-speed commuting ethos in which the concept of “work ethic” demands the worker do whatever it takes to get where needed at any given time. This means that workers outside of the high-speed model—namely, minimum-wage jobs in suburban or rural areas with minimal-to-no public transportation—are left with a much steeper definition of “whatever it takes.” This concept of a work ethic is nothing new; what’s different in the 21st century is how common it is for people to live at increasingly greater distances from their jobs. Per a 2016 study from the Brookings Institution, the number of jobs within typical commute distance fell by 7 percent between 2000 and 2012 for people across the United States as employment opportunities shifted away from urban centers and into the suburbs.
In the story of a commuter overcoming the odds, this willingness to work at any cost is a huge part of what makes the protagonists deserving of their good fortune. When Justin Korva hitched a ride to work from the man who would eventually help organize crowdfunding for his car, his benefactor admired his work ethic in a Facebook post: “To all the people who say they want to work but can’t find a job or don’t have a vehicle all I can say is you don’t want it bad enough!”
Last year a similar story was told about Jourdan Duncan in California, who walked seven miles each way to get to his job packing boxes at a nutritional supplement company. A cop, who initially noticed him walking to work for less-than-altruistic reasons (but eventually raised funds to buy him a $500 mountain bike), was impressed enough by Duncan’s work ethic to declare to CNN: “Most people use distance and not having a car as an excuse not to find a job. This kid— it wasn’t an obstacle. He just wanted to get to work.”
These stories consistently decide who is deserving of public goodwill based on a conception of work ethic drawn from high-speed temporality. The work ethic is as much, if not more, of a reason to give aid than the actual need for transportation that’s being fulfilled, since the need alone wouldn’t have been enough. Someone who views a daily seven-mile walk as a deal breaker and remains unemployed as a result is not going to receive the same treatment.
Speed requires an expansive network of “slow” labor to prop it up. Planes and trains must be maintained, packaged to-go meals must be prepared, the devices used to facilitate interconnectivity must be assembled and shipped—the experience of workers operating in the dominant temporality is only made possible by having others’ time synchronized around their own. This is evinced by the service industry’s recent dominance of the U.S. wage-labor market, which corresponds with the previously mentioned decreases in job proximity for most Americans; however, it’s certainly a global phenomenon, as seen in Sharma’s treatment of the airport as central to the temporality of “global capitalism’s most valuable subject: the frequent business traveler.” This subject gleans its value, in part, through the ubiquity of industries created to sustain it; in airports alone, the frequent business traveler’s journey wouldn’t be possible without the labor of baggage handlers, retail clerks, janitors, and so many others, not to mention the labor networks of hospitality in place once the traveler reaches their destination.
If the “slow,” localized labor is to be effective, it must be done as unobtrusively as possible so as to not hinder those rhythms sustaining the dominant temporality. Much like the airport, commuter infrastructures in the United States are built to center an ideal subject: the white-collar worker with a nine-to-five workday. All other industries—including the service, manufacturing, and shipping industries that employ our protagonists—synchronize themselves around the convenience of that subject. If no one is available to serve food, or propel the assembly line, or pack rush items into boxes, the whole thing grinds to a halt. The “slow” worker must constantly be available, but in a much different way than their temporal counterparts: Their time is not their own, and they’re never encouraged to think of it as such.
The history of compensation for one’s labor, particularly in the United States, is inextricable from racialized notions of personhood. In this country built by the uncompensated labor of enslaved Africans, the devaluation of labor not historically performed by the dominant racial group has an enduring legacy, as seen through present-day treatment of migrant workers and domestic employees. The 21st century service industry has begun to fall under that umbrella as well. A 2016 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which breaks down the distribution of workers in the United States when grouped by race, shows that Black and Latinx workers are employed by the service industry at a rate almost 10 percent greater than white workers (relative to the total employed population for each demographic). The previously linked Brookings report found that, while the overall number of nearby jobs fell by 7 percent, that decrease leapt to 17 percent for Latinx residents of metropolitan areas and 14 percent for Black residents, compared to a decrease of only 6 percent for white residents of those same areas. Here is another reason why temporality-sustaining labor must be unobtrusive—not only to keep up the desired pace but also to deflect critique of who occupies and who is excluded from the “fast” class of valued commuters.
This is reflected by how the intrepid commuter story positions some as martyrs and others as benefactors. The martyr, almost without exception, is Black; the benefactor tends to be white. If low-wage workers must perform work ethic and projected martyrdom in order to deserve aid, it’s doubly so for low-wage workers without the presumed virtue that whiteness affords in the national eye. The language used in a 2015 Detroit Free Press story to describe one such worker, James Robertson, is particularly demonstrative of this:
Every trip is an ordeal of physical and mental toughness for this soft-spoken man with a perfect attendance record at work. . . . Robertson mystifies [the banker who occasionally gives him a ride], yet leaves him stunned with admiration for the man’s uncanny work ethic and determination.
The almost awestruck reverence for work ethic that sets the prevailing tone for these stories, then, is also part of a rhetorical tradition that treats the economic disadvantages faced by racial minorities as largely a product of their own doing. This is particularly prevalent for Black Americans, who have long been stereotyped as lazy and unmotivated in an effort to conceal active economic suppression. As such, the story can be heartwarming because its protagonists are counteracting a negative stereotype that was never true in the first place; the story can then be used to justify the “slow” worker’s synchronization around the “fast” by positing virtue through adherence to the latter’s value system.
The story converts martyrdom into a social currency that allows the martyr to enter the realm of deserved convenience, without disrupting the foundations of global capitalism’s dominant temporality by raising inconvenient questions. It’s just one of many stories people tell to explain away the circumstances they’re in, or that they have to watch others undergo, with the unspoken agreement that it’s not only necessary but righteous to do whatever it takes in order to work.