Due to an untimely cockroach infestation, our August housing fell through on the very day we’d planned to move. After frantic messages and emails and fruitless Craigslist searching, we ended up in seminary guest housing in Hamilton, one and a half hours away from Boston College.
To get to my summer assistantship, I drove south into Boston and then west to Chestnut Hill. I re-learned the city by manual transmission vehicle, stopping, starting, and stalling in rush hour traffic along Storrow Drive or over the Tobin Bridge. I tore through my 4G allowance listening to Spotify. I learned local politics on WBUR. I heard “Cheap Thrills” 7,648 times on KISS-FM. My coworkers were sympathetic—even for Boston, it’s a crazy commute. “Ugh, that sucks,” Alex told me. “I could never do that.”
It’s the same thing people say when I tell them I’m a vegetarian, or lived in the Middle East, or moved to New England after college, or read Ulysses last fall: “I could never do that.” I shrug, usually, and laugh. “You do what you have to,” I say. “Can’t do anything else.”
I’m not trying to say that I’m somehow stronger or hardier than anyone else. I’m observing that we use this phrase—“I could never”—without imagination. It’s an expression of admiration, lauding the other person’s perseverance, or discipline, or whatever. But is it? What we mean is, “I don’t want to do what you are doing.” It turns the conversation to oneself—“I am unable to imagine a situation in which I would do such a thing.”
I have said something similar about commuters in the past. Full of self-righteous undergraduate fervor about citizenship and local living and investing in communities, I proudly said that “I could never,” “I would never.” And what I meant was, “I think I’m better than suburbanites who buy houses with big lawns and drive SUVs to work downtown.” I even thought I was better than people who drove to work instead of taking public transportation. What I meant was, “I am unwilling to empathize with people whose lifestyle is different from my own.”
“We moved on Monday to Lynn, Massachusetts, a city just north of Revere Beach, colloquially known as “City of Sin,” forty-five minutes from BC on a good day.” We live above a Dunkin’ Donuts and Mexican grocery, just to the west of the commuter rail. Lynn is an economically fragile sanctuary city, heavily Latino, and home to a large Cambodian community. It’s not much like Brookline, or Grand Rapids, or Hamilton. It is a city about which I would have said “I could never,” about which I might prefer the “luxury” of saying so.
Here I am, commuting by car into the big city. Here I am, one half of a white couple in an immigrant town. Here I am, trying to live honestly in an unfamiliar place, with imagination and empathy—for other commuters, even those who cut me off on 1A or lay on their horns through Sumner Tunnel, and for a city of unfamiliar customs, languages, foods, and faces. It is hard to get up in the morning and get to work. It is hard, sometimes, to get home. The traffic is bad and the radio is playing the same song and there’s no food in the fridge and I’m not sure I’m doing a good job at any of this; I’m not sure I like myself anymore, some days, but I cannot say that “I could never,” because here I am. Here we are. And we are all doing what we have to, because we can’t do anything else.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.