From North Fork to NYC, commuters tell their stories

08/16/2013 6:00 AM |

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Tom Spurge on the platform at the Ronkonkoma train station, where he makes the first of two transfers when he commutes from Greenport to Penn Station for his job in Manhattan.

It’s quarter past five on a Monday morning in Greenport and the village is still dark. At the Long Island Rail Road station, a handful of commuters step onto a double-decker train headed for Penn Station. Businessmen in suits sip coffee from paper cups and take iPads out of their briefcases to help pass the time during the two-hour, 50-minute ride to Manhattan.

At the head of the first car, commuter Tom Spurge gets comfortable. Mr. Spurge, 52, lives in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood but purchased a second home in Greenport with his wife, Nancy, 13 years ago.

The owner of an architectural woodworking company on Eighth Avenue, he’s familiar with the long journey.

“My office is two blocks from Penn Station, so it makes the train really viable for me,” he says. “It’s one day a week, which makes it pretty easy.”

For others who commute from the North Fork to NYC every day of the workweek, it’s not as simple. Most travel by a combination of car and train. Rather than board a train at eastern points, they’ll drive to Ronkonkoma to cut down their trips. And even though the LIRR announced last week that it will be expanding service to Greenport this year, that only applies to weekends. Four years ago, MTA officials were considering discontinuing all service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma except on summer weekends, but backed off that plan.

Early Monday, only about a dozen people boarded the train at the Greenport and Southold stations. Most of them said they were heading back to the city after a weekend visit.

But Doug Corrigan, who lives in Mattituck and works as a salesman for a financial services information company in the city, makes the grueling commute five days a week. Rather than boarding at the Mattituck station, however, he drives to Ronkonkoma to catch an earlier express train.

“I’m up at 5 a.m. every day,” the 39-year-old says. “I drive to Ronkonkoma, catch the 6:24 train to Penn and get in around 7:30, which puts me in my office chair, bagel in hand, at 7:45.”

His commute wasn’t always so long. Before moving back to his hometown last year, Mr. Corrigan lived in Manhattan with his wife, Abby, also a Mattituck native, and their two daughters. The Corrigans appreciated everything city life had to offer but longed for a home in the quiet hamlet where they both grew up.

“I definitely wanted a home as opposed to an apartment to raise my kids in,” Mr. Corrigan says. “Now I get to see my kids play on the same beaches I played on as a kid.”

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Robert Lechner represents a different type of train commuter. He often takes the train from Greenport to Riverhead, where he picks up his work truck in the morning.

Making the decision to travel almost three hours to and from work Monday through Friday wasn’t easy.

“People thought I was crazy, both local friends and city friends,” Mr. Corrigan says. “When I first decided to start the commute, I said, ‘Let me just try this for a few months. Is it doable? Is it not doable?’ There’s definitely that quality-of-life issue.”

For some, though, the punishing commute ultimately becomes unbearable, prompting drastic career changes.

Take, for instance, Phil Mastrangelo of Orient, who worked as a financial broker in Manhattan for 26 years until this May, when he quit his job in favor of growing and selling oysters on the North Fork.

“I wanted to spend more time with my family,” the 47-year-old says. “The commute wasn’t all that bad when the Long Island Rail Road was cooperating, but in the past five years all the service has become third-world. Nothing is scheduled anymore.”

Like Mr. Corrigan, Mr. Mastrangelo lived in Manhattan for years before moving to the North Fork with his wife and four sons. The decision came after a friend took him clamming on Peconic Bay.

“The water was so clear,” Mr. Mastrangelo says. “We found a scallop while clamming. After that, there was no turning back.” He and his wife built a house in Orient 11 years ago and have lived there full time ever since.

ELEANOR LABROZZI PHOTO | It’s still dark at the Greenport LIRR station when commuters arrive to catch the 5:30 a.m. train to Penn Station this time of year.

While life away from work was great, the morning commute was a slog for Mr. Mastrangelo, who used to wake up every day at 3:30 a.m. and drive to Ronkonkoma to catch the 4:58 train to Penn Station.

“If you leave at 4 and your train is at 4:58 and you have 55 miles to go, you have to go 60 miles per hour the whole trip, which makes it a little trickier,” he says. “My day was always measured in minutes, which made it very frustrating when the Long Island Rail Road wasn’t performing up to par.”

Driving over an hour to the Ronkonkoma train station in the pitch black presented its own series of obstacles, Mr. Mastrangelo says.

“It’s like driving through the wild kingdom,” he says. “There were owls, deer, raccoons, possum — everything possible.”

In the 11 years he made the commute, Mr. Mastrangelo says, he hit seven deer. One time, a deer ran into the side of his car, smashing both rear doors.

There were other challenges, too: when his sons were younger, he often couldn’t get home in time to attend their sporting events. Even if he worked just a half-day, unforeseen train delays often thwarted his plans.

Despite all this, Mr. Mastrangelo says he has never regretted moving to the North Fork.

“Orient just became exactly where I wanted to be,” he says. “I was doing what I had to do to maintain our home here.”

Having a home in what he calls a “nice, safe community” to raise his children is what sustains Mr. Corrigan on his morning commute from Mattituck, which he makes more enjoyable by grabbing a 12-ounce cup of coffee from 7-Eleven before driving to the Ronkonkoma station. Once on board, he listens to music on his iPod and tries to doze off.

“The commute into the city is very peaceful and I don’t mind it as much,” he says. “The commute home is more painful. I’ve already worked my 10-hour day, I get on the 6:21 p.m. train, and that puts me home at 8:30 p.m.”

Even so, Mr. Corrigan says, the sacrifice is worth it.

“The reward is I get to enjoy my hometown,” he says. “It’s something you do for the kids.”

ryoung@timesreview.com