“The Commuter” was first published in Amazing in August-September 1953. Cited pages numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2 (New York: Citadel), 129–139.
A “little fellow” (his name is later determined to be Critchet) looking exhausted and defeated by a day at work goes to the train station to purchase a commute book of tickets to Macon Heights. The ticket seller, Ed Jacobson tells him that there has never been such a town on the train routes. The commuter begins to protest but in an instant disappears.
Jacobson reports the strange incident to his supervisor Bob Paine the next day. Around the same time as the previous day, the little man comes again. This time Jacobson escorts him to Bob Paine’s office. Paine collects as much information as he can from the commuter and concludes that Macon Heights must be thirty miles from the station, but the map confirms that there is no community by that name. One again he vanishes. Paine visits the apartment of his girlfriend, Laura Nichols. He asks her to go to the library and look up Macon Heights in the local records and newspapers. Paine explains that he will be attempting to visit Macon Heights directly.
The next day, Paine rides the train out to Jacksonville, slightly past the thirty mile radius. The conductor on the train has no knowledge of Macon Heights. He transfers to the B Train (which Critchet insists he takes from Macon Heights to the city). On the way back, the train stops at Macon Heights. The schedule Paine consults now shows Macon Heights as a stop midway between the towns of Jacksonville and Lewisburg. Back in the city, Paine receives Laura’s report. Macon Heights was a planned development of suburban housing. It was planned alongside two other communities that were developed, but Macon Heights was defeated by a single vote on the city council. He leaves his house by cab and sees the insurance company that Critchet worked for.
Paine visits Macon Heights and interviews some of the people living there. It seems to be a typical town. He realizes that the materialization of Critchet’s insurance company in the city suggests that the alternative reality where Macon Heights was approved was spreading into the city. He had a sudden fear for alterations in his own life. Would his and Laura’s life be safe? He hurries home and on the way notices many changes. Inside the apartment he finds Laura, who is not his wife, and their son. Paine’s awareness that things are different fades away as he becomes accustomed to the new reality.
“The Commuter” is one of the best of Dick’s early stories at describing shifting realities and how difficult they are to get a hold of. The problem is not that you live in Reality A and find out that Reality B is really real. That is rather simple and actually quite common. The satisfying marriage turns out to be a facade. The job interview processes promises a happy work environment, but in truth the workplace is dysfunctional. In “The Commuter,” Dick shows that the real insidious shifts in reality happen without our total awareness. Macon Heights existed in Paine’s mind as a real thing when he followed the debates over the planned development. It then shifts out of his reality. It never existed. When Critchet shows up, Macon Heights once again becomes a real thing. The key element at the end of the story is not so much that in this alternative reality Paine is married and has a son, but that he is no longer aware that a change took place at all. All that is left is a feeling. “Just for a minute everything seemed strange. [. . .] Strange and unfamiliar. Sort of out of focus.” (139) I submit that this is how we experience shifting realities most of the time. Changes are so subtle we are not conscious of them. Now just to be clear, I am a strict materialist. I am not talking about divine experiences here. The shifting realities are real and part of our everyday life, but they are often hard to get a handle on. “Maybe it had always been there. Maybe, and maybe not. Everything was shifting. New things were coming into existence, others going away. The past was altering, and memory was tied to the past. How could he trust his memory? How could he be sure?” (139)
Urban planning is the shifting reality that is suggested in “The Commuter.” It is also one of the best examples of this shifting reality at work in our world. A revitalized community erases the historical memory of what came before it. This is sometimes by design. The builders of some giant mall may not want anyone to recall what came before the mall. Cities are constantly undergoing these types of subtle changes. In the story, the difference between the world with Macon Heights and without Macon Heights is rather imperceptible. Sure individual lives will change. Critchet would live somewhere else, in some other development. Paine would not be married. At the macro level it is not clear how things are very different. People still go to work, commuting from the suburbs to the city. The macroeconomic conditions are not much changed. What shifts is taking place in the “infra” part of the spectrum. I will take up these questions more in my examination of “Adjustment Team.”
Dick’s point about suburban development is rather interesting here. While cities seem to have an organic development and emerge out of their geographical conditions, suburbs are a strange type of city because it seems they can be anywhere. Geography matters little. In the New Mexico desert or the near tundra of central Wisconsin, suburbs exist detached from nature. The same types of grass lawns. The same stores. The same housing designs. Regional characteristics pale in the face of this overwhelming homogeneity. The key point in analysis of “The Commuter” is that Macon Heights literally was expendable. It existence in one place, or another place, or non-existence are all equally plausible. As disconcerting as this is, it is part of our world.
The image of demoralized workers, shuffling through the train station on their way to home is one of the most powerful in this story. Their say is over and they are exhausted, but their labors are not quite over. The commute stands between the end of the day and rest. Dick opens the story with the following description of Critchet. “He pushed his way slowly through the throng of people, across the lobby of the station, to the ticket window. He waited his turn impatiently, fatigue showing in his drooping shoulders, his sagging brown coat.” (129) Critchet’s own commute puts another two hours to his day above his working hours.
Wikipedia entry for “The Commuter.”