By Michael Silverman
The morning train was relatively empty. In my car, the only passengers were a dozen black women and me. The train was heading north, and we were going to work. It was our common denominator. In the mid-1970s, I was a reverse commuter. I lived in New York City and traveled daily to Westchester County, on the northern border of the city. Oscar Wilde once said, “Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.” This is my diaryof a 45-minute train ride that told a story of wealth, privilege, and race in America.
Westchester County was considered the classic suburban environment with leafy towns, expensive and exclusive communities, and pockets of urban development. The county served as the bedroom and escape for workers who commuted daily to the city to make a living at mostly white-collar professions. It was the prize and reward for one’s toils. The symbol of success and recognition that came from owning property and living there.
My journey started in the magisterial splendor of Grand Central Station with its sweeping staircases, frescoed ceiling, myriad shops, and intricate transit connections. My boss was tolerant of my late arrival. At the station, I was a salmon fighting the stream of commuters who inundated Grand Central in their morning rush to work. Westchester County had not yet become a hub of corporate development and commerce. For a reverse commuter, it was a lonely ride. Often, as the train left Grand Central Station, I would be the sole passenger in the car or perhaps would be joined by a handful of other people.
The 8:40 a.m. train stops at 125th Street in Manhattan and then makes its way north through the Bronx and into the upper-middle-class towns of Westchester County—Bronxville, Scarsdale, Tuckahoe, Harrison—before reaching its final destination, White Plains (the county seat and where my office was located). These towns were a world unknown to me.
Having been raised in a working-class city in New Jersey, I found the towns as alien as the plastic book covers, with names like Princeton, Yale, or Columbia, that I put on my high school textbooks. Names that evoked another realm of society, not mine. Names that meant they were important, had students and teachers who were important and mattered. They had coats of arms that conveyed power and influence, unlike the public high school I attended, whose only coat of honor was a corroded plaque by the front door that read “Demarest High School.” We could imitate, buy their cheap plastic book covers. Beyond that, entry was problematic. There was an American dream and there was reality.
The only stop the train made in Manhattan was at the 125th Street Station in Harlem. The epitome of black life in America. As the train pulled into the station, one could see a number of black women waiting on the platform. Mostly middle-aged, some dressed in some type of white and black uniform, they boarded the train and settled in their seats. Some sat by themselves; others engaged in conversation. No one other than the black women boarded the train. Never any laughter. Just a quiet ride to their jobs. The station served the black women, domestic workers going north to Westchester County.
The train made its way through the Bronx with an occasional passenger getting off at one of the two stations in the borough, but never any of the women picked up at 125th Street. As the train passed the Westchester County border, the situation changed. As the trains pulled into the suburban stations, you could see white women waiting for their “cleaning lady,” “help,” “girl,” or “maid,” depending on the town where the black women alighted. The event repeated itself at station after station—the black women being picked up by their white employers for a day’s labor. We were two different worlds traveling in the same train car. By the time the train reached White Plains, I would often be the only person left in the car.
I have frequently thought of these suburban women importing their household workers from Harlem. Was it simply a supply of cheap and readily available labor for their homes? What did they pay them? Did the women pay their own train fare? Were these black women better skilled or more reliable than their counterparts in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, or New Rochelle (cities in the county that had sizeable minority populations)? Or were these the workers whose employers had moved to the suburbs and wanted to maintain a relationship with them? Answers eluded me.
Conversely, what was in the mind of these workers as they boarded the train and sat quietly during the ride north? Beyond the drudgery of the work, was it any different than taking a subway and heading south to work in some apartment or town house in Manhattan? The New York City subway system in the 1970s had deteriorated. Its graffiti and filthy cars were abysmal. In comparison, the commuter rail was a cleaner and far more pleasurable ride. Was it a status symbol to work in Westchester? Did it pay more, or was the work more amenable? Or frankly, was it the only work available, and they took it to make a living? Although I recognized a couple of the women from our commute, we never spoke to each other. We were in our own worlds.
The Harlem of the 1970s was quite different from the Harlem of 2020. Harlem now houses a more diverse population, racially, economically, and socially, than the Harlem of forty years ago. In the 1970s, Harlem served as a pool for domestic labor for these suburban women. The wealth and entitlement of these housewives in transporting workers to their homes to undertake the drudgery of washing, cleaning, and ironing left me bewildered and angry. Maybe it was the ostentatious display of affluence and privilege that I found tawdry. Ironically, these suburban arriviste housewives and their families were probably less than a generation away from a time when they may have toiled in a similar fashion.
I wondered if poor white women were similarly being imported into the county as domestic labor. While my train made a couple of stops in the Bronx, I never noticed any white women boarding the train or getting off at similar stops as the black cleaning women. Were the white workers too expensive, or did they travel a different route to work? Did the Westchester housewives use local white workers for their cleaning chores? Still no answers.
Would the progeny of these black cleaning women have the same opportunity to import labor to their suburban homes to clean and mop and pick up the dirty clothes? An achievement of success and status in our society. Who on the social ladder would help fulfill that goal? Perhaps I would have had a different reaction if the cleaning person had driven to the housewife’s house rather than arriving by train. It reminded me of ordering a piece of furniture from a store in New York City. Delivery to your door for those who could afford it.
The vision of these women and their labors for the suburban housewives has stayed with me ever since those days. How was I any different from them, except for the color of my skin? Growing up in a working-class city, the suburban life with a house, lawn, and garage represented a vision that my family aspired to but never attained. The notion of these white suburban women waiting to pick up their peons from the city painted a picture of those who had “made it” and those on the bottom of the economic and class ladder toiling for them.
I remember my father, who was a plumber, talking about cleaning out the toilets of his clients who lived in high-rise luxury buildings. These housewives, like their counterparts in the Westchester homes, were on a section of the ladder that my family would never attain. In hindsight, I resented them for flaunting their wealth, angry at their use of these black women, and frankly disappointed (and no doubt jealous) that my family never lived in a better community like these housewives.
Like the cleaning women, I also labored for others. I was imported to do a job in the county, paid a wage, and went back to the city when the work was done. However, my salary was substantial. I choose voluntarily to live elsewhere. Yet the sight of these women embarking on the train and leaving, station after station, to meet their white employers struck a visceral chord in me. Did we, in some strange fashion, share a common bond of employment? While we may have shared the same journey to work, the sad reality is that we did not share a similar destiny.
I was just beginning my career and knew that I would eventually move on to another place, another venture. I doubted that these middle-aged women had the same opportunity. What were the hopes and dreams for their children? Would their offspring, like their mothers, be fated to shuttle up to Westchester to clean the toilets, mop the floors, and perhaps be given a train ticket back to the city? Like a hamster on a wheel. Working hard and going nowhere.
After the workday was done, I retraced my journey on the 5:13 p.m. train. As the other commuters returned home to Westchester, I was often alone in the train back to Manhattan, except for the black women who boarded the train, station after station, for their return trip home to Harlem. Our work was done. We rode in silence.
In 2017, I made the same train trip. It had been forty years since my reverse commuting days to Westchester County. Forty years since I had taken that train. I had moved on to other work, family, grandchildren, and even teaching at one of the schools named on those plastic book covers I used in high school. The trip was a stunning change from my 1970s experience. As the train pulled into the 125th Street Station, the people who boarded reflected the change in the Harlem demographics. The riders were young and white. Not one black person boarded my car.
As the train traveled through the same communities that I once rode forty years earlier, I looked out the window, and not one black woman got off the train. No one was waiting at the station platform. I will never know what happened to those domestic workers. Were some still possibly working for the same families? Maybe they or their children were now living in those communities. The 8:40 train to Westchester was, as Wilde said, a forty-year-old diary of time and place. A trip of race and class. A diary that has never faded over the years. I doubt it ever will.
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