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Companions for the short haul

Fleeting friendships blossom on the morning trip into Boston, and that’s just how these riders like it

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By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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CONCORD — They’ve recounted childhood tales, exchanged job advice, and imagined new chapters in their lives. And yet most do not know each other’s last names.

They see each other most mornings, racking up more time together than with their closest friends. But they have not shared phone numbers or e-mail addresses.

Each morning, this first-name-only group boards the first car — yes, always the first one — on the 8:09 commuter train from Concord, and tries to find empty seats next to each other. They don’t always talk; retreating into a laptop or newspaper is allowed. But over the years, sometimes craning their necks across aisles, they pass the 45-minute commute into Boston together: Ilene the Eye Researcher, Jeanne from Fidelity, Sig the Lawyer, Peter the Professor, Kat at the Foundation, and Henry from Mass General.

By unspoken agreement, their friendship stays within this compartment, in every definition of the word. Call it the perfect kind of modern relationship, providing the increasingly rare satisfaction of face-to-face companionship without the expectations or time demands that often come with new bonds.

“I feel I’m so busy with my kids, with work. I already have lots of good friends already . . . I feel guilty that I don’t see my friends as much as I should,’’ said Kat Edwards, a mother of three and executive director of the Rappaport Foundation. “But this is, like, perfect. You get to see them almost everyday. We cheer each other up. . . . But there’s unspoken bound aries — I like the boundaries.’’

In fact, these rail friends say, their bonds flourish for the very reason that other friendships in their hectic lives often languish.

“We don’t have to make time to see each other,’’ said Jeanne Griffith, who analyzes funds for Fidelity Investments.

Sig Roos, a father of two and a lawyer who practices in Boston, has long been fascinated by the way random, transient relationships can have meaning. A decade ago, after moving to Concord, he began noticing, day after day, the same people boarding the train with him at the Concord Center stop along the Fitchburg/South Acton line.

Some stayed to themselves, chatting on cellphones or immersed in a work memo. Others had a steady card-playing routine. Still others huddled in semi-intimate chatter.

Roos had already developed at least one routine: To unwind at the end of a work day, he liked to sit alone with only a crossword puzzle in front of him. The railway, he thought, could become his refuge from life’s ceaseless demands, the place where he would engage with nobody.

“You can stand looking at people for years and never say anything to them,’’ he said. “Something has to break through; something has to happen to break the barrier.’’

Then one morning while boarding the train, Roos ran into a childhood friend, Jane Gumble, a former state director of housing and community development who was commuting to her job near the State House. She introduced him to two of her train buddies, Ilene Gipson, a scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, and her husband, Henry Keutmann, a researcher in endocrinology at Massachusetts General Hospital. That couple introduced Roos to their longtime train friend, Peter Burn, a biology professor at Suffolk University.

Roos started enjoying the morning chatter. Soon, these commuters heard tales of his courtroom cases, and the stories behind the joyous adoptions of his children. In turn, Gipson and Keutmann shared their bird-watching ventures. Edwards, who began taking this train route two years ago, has disclosed that she once started an all-natural brownie mix company.

The commuters, Roos realized, were drawn together largely by the geography of where they stood waiting for the train. His theory was that they all shared the hard-charging, type-A trait of liking to get on the first railway car, which enables them to be the first off — and closest to the exit — at North Station.

“I really enjoy their company — I mean, it’s intense, sort of,’’ Roos said. “We share important feelings. But as we move on, we could just as well not see each other again.’’

Indeed train pals are not forever. Gumble stopping riding when she left her job in government and later stopped working to focus on some health problems. Another popular train friend, a lawyer, disappeared from the route after taking a job in New Hampshire. Others no longer showed up on the train platform after being laid off.

And there is no fixed number of train friends at any given time; even though these six Concord commuters regularly see each other, they also chat with other travelers on some days.

These friendships also happen to be in one direction only. Gipson, who was cheered on the tracks a few years ago when she won the Friedenwald Award, a top distinction in her field, said most of them prefer solitude after a day’s work.

“We’re going-to-work friends,’’ Gipson said.

Researchers who analyze contemporary life say commuter trains are ideal environments for these niche relationships.

Richard Ocejo, a New York sociologist who studies behavior in public spaces, said most humans like the opportunity to “push against the anonymity’’ of today’s complex world and can enjoy fleeting conversations with strangers on subways, trains, and planes. Commuter rail, though, offers the advantage of more repeated encounters with the same riders following the same routines, and yet finding solitude is as easy as moving to another car.

“It’s a place where demands are in your control,’’ said Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively on modern working life.

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociologist and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,’’ said these trains put people physically together, in rows of seats that make it easier to converse and put down the cellphone.

Sometimes, deep relationships evolve: One of the Concord commuters, Griffith, said her parents began dating after meeting on a New York City commuter train.

These Concord riders acknowledge their bonds may be strengthened by their similar backgrounds: college-educated, politically liberal, and middle-aged or beyond. Yet they insist these likenesses reflect the typical person who waits at this particular suburban train stop. They said there is no elitism in whom they choose to bond with, though they have all nicknamed one rider The Republican.

Keutmann, a train buff, describes these friends as “bonus relationships,’’ something between acquaintances and true friends. His fellow commuters say their bonds are like other friendships tethered to a place, but without any petty strains.

In fact, they take pride in helping each other. Some of Burn’s biology students have found work in Gipson’s lab. Roos has advised Edwards on some foundation work. There are also occasional off-the-tracks experiences, such as when Griffith joined one of Gipson’s birding adventures. And former train friends are not forgotten: Gipson recently relayed a cheerful update on Gumble’s health.

Still, train friends grow closer only with caution. Griffith said she sometimes thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit,’’ in which three dead people learn they are trapped together in a room without exits and grow to despise each other. The play made famous the line, “Hell is other people.’’

Referring to railway friends, she said, half-jokingly, “Heaven is people with exits!’’

Burn, a commuter for three decades, said the freedom to come and go is critical.

But Burn does dispute Roos’s characterization of the group as Type-A personalities. He said ambitious riders take the earlier train, which stops in Concord at 7:44 a.m. Those who takes the 8:09 a.m. train usually walk into their office shortly after 9 a.m. “I see us as the slackers,’’ he said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.