To Cleveland, With Love

On the road and in the skies before dawn, with Manhattan's most ambitious reverse commuter.

To Cleveland, With Love

On a recent Saturday night out at The Rusty Knot, a nautical-themed bar facing the West Side Highway, Jonathan Weiss looks like a typical 26-year-old New Yorker. Chatting with friends in the packed bar, he sips a Tecate underneath a ceiling decorated with a fisherman’s net, seashells and oars.

Jonathan lives across town in an immaculate East Village studio, the ideal bachelor pad in a lively neighborhood flush with twenty-somethings.  He is slim but toned (he recently completed a Tough Mudder obstacle-course race) with a strong jaw line and close-cropped brown hair.  A few months ago Jonathan started dating Meagan Murphy, a striking blue-eyed brunette from Connecticut whom he got to know at another bar, following a Zogsports kickball league game. “We played beer pong and I crushed you,” Jonathan jokes of their first activity together.

Jonathan Weiss at The Rusty Knot (Photo by Senait Debesu)
Jonathan Weiss at The Rusty Knot (Photo by Senait Debesu)

Meagan is studying at Columbia University’s graduate School of Nursing to become a nurse practitioner. She’s also currently working as a nurse. Jonathan, meanwhile, works in real estate development, sometimes overseeing multiple projects worth tens of millions of dollars. He adores his job.

The only problem is that Jonathan’s office is in Cleveland, more than 450 miles away from his home on Fourth Avenue. The result is a weekly commute that puts Metro-North jockeys, with their cushy monthly rail passes, to shame.

E.B. White, in his 1948 essay “Here is New York,” described a traditional commuter as “the queerest bird of all”:

“The suburb he inhabits has no essential vitality of its own and is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare cases, the man who lives in Mamaroneck or Little Neck or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing much about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch…He has fished in Manhattan’s wallet and dug out coins, but has never listened to Manhattan’s breathing, never awakened to its morning, never dropped off to sleep in its night.”

According to a 2010 report by the Department of City Planning, roughly 540,000 people commute daily into Manhattan from outside the city, joining more than 880,000 from other boroughs.

But nowadays there are other commuters, like Jonathan, who do the opposite. They reside in New York and travel for work, adopting a disjointed lifestyle in exchange for the benefits of our vibrant city.

“My whole family’s in Chicago,” Jonathan says before leaving his apartment on that recent Saturday night out. “But I wanted to try something different.”

“I love it. I see something new every day. Today I saw a guy with a cat on his head!” he exclaims, possibly referring to a well-known panhandler and his tuxedo cat who sometimes frequent the Upper West Side.  “I didn’t want to look back at my twenties and say I didn’t experience enough.”

Jonathan on his way to the airport (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Jonathan on his way to the airport (Photo by Jessica Bal)

New York’s reverse commuters, particularly those like Jonathan, are probably more closely related to another of the apt descriptions from White’s essay—“The person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something”:

“Each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”

But such a life is not easy, as Jonathan’s draining weekly routine demonstrates.

It is farmer-early on an October Monday, and Jonathan is standing in the middle of Fourth Avenue trying to hail a cab.  The sun has yet to graze the horizon, and a couple blocks downtown Astor Place is uncharacteristically quiet, as if the neighborhood is sleeping off the weekend.

“It’s funny, ‘cause the doorman doesn’t even ask questions anymore,” Jonathan remarks.  “He used to say, ‘Where are you going?  Why are you up so early?’”

This Monday is no different than most. Jonathan walks out into the Manhattan darkness at four thirty a.m. and hops a cab to LaGuardia Airport.  His flight leaves at six, and at eight he’s expected at his desk in Cleveland.

Jonathan arrives at LaGuardia Airport for his weekly commute (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Jonathan arrives at LaGuardia Airport for his weekly commute (Photos by Jessica Bal)

Jonathan is such a regular on the six a.m. United flight that he requests the same seat, 3A, every time.

“It’s the same flight every week, so you see the same people,” he says.  “It’s like when you’re in class and the seats aren’t assigned, but everyone sits in the same seat every week.”

Jonathan stays at his parents’ house in Cleveland Monday through Thursday, then he leaves for New York, usually around three or four p.m., working in the airport, on the plane and, finally, in his East Village apartment.

Amazingly, Jonathan is not the only Weiss to endure a grueling commute to Cleveland.  His 28-year-old brother Michael also travels in the wee hours on Monday mornings, but he starts from his home in Chicago.

Both brothers work for Richland Communities, a real estate development company that was co-founded by their father, Irving.

“There’s a very intense familial bond, and that’s part of the reason we didn’t go and find jobs elsewhere,” Jonathan explains.  “We always dreamed of coming back to work at the company he created, so that’s what makes it worth the sacrifice.”

But the Weiss brothers’ devotion to their family goes well beyond their career choices.  In fact, their father is one of the most critical factors in their restless lifestyles.

Jonathan affectionately describes Irving as “Israeli-born, and he’s very macho but a huge softy for his kids.”

The Weiss siblings at one of their father’s construction sites (Photo courtesy Jonathan Weiss)
The Weiss siblings at one of their father’s construction sites (Photo courtesy Jonathan Weiss)

“He was a workaholic, so every Saturday we’d go to construction sites,” Jonathan remembers. “We would drive tractors and backhoes, that’s every little boy’s dream.  We’d play in mud, and my mom would say we’d had fun if it was filthy.”

Sixteen years ago, when Jonathan was ten and Michael was twelve, Irving, an avid cyclist who pedaled more than a thousand miles a month, suffered a catastrophic brain injury after he was hit by a car.

“He was in a coma for six months, and in a hospital for about a year or a year and a half,” Jonathan says.

The Weiss brothers, Michael, left, and Jonathan, with father Irving (Photo courtesy Jonathan Weiss)
The Weiss brothers, Michael, left, and Jonathan, with father Irving (Photo courtesy Jonathan Weiss)

Irving was left a quadriplegic and unable to work, and “he needs twenty-four hour care,” Jonathan explains. “So when we’re commuting in Cleveland we can help take care of him.”

The brothers routinely help their mother, Hedy, feed, dress and bathe Irving.  Their aid is invaluable since most of the extended Weiss clan lives in Chicago.

Family is not the only thing that makes the Weiss’ Sisyphean commute worthwhile.  Another major motivator is one that most young workers in today’s economy would kill for: Michael and Jonathan simply love their jobs. They believe their work is appreciated more at Richland than it would be in New York.

“My boss values my opinion, he listens when I talk,” Jonathan says.  “I think at a company in New York he might say, ‘What do you know?’”

Jonathan’s enthusiasm is palpable when he drives up to a build site in Akron in a silver BMW on Tuesday, a bit late because he had to respond to a minor grease fire in a unit in a neighboring unit.  He is dressed in relaxed business attire, dress shoes clicking in the unfinished halls, and immediately begins rattling off the amenities the 401 lofts under construction will contain: fitness studio, outdoor pool and computer, printer and fax lab, among others.

Jonathan at work in Cleveland (Photo by Frances Killea)
Jonathan at work in Cleveland (Photo by Frances Killea)

The studio and one bedroom apartments will be targeted towards young professionals and older students, with leasing offices on location and staffed by people roughly the same age as their proposed clients.  Jonathan has worked on every aspect of the build, from designing the individual units to laying out the project to working hand-in-glove with the construction crews.  Jonathan says that such detailed oversight can be rare in real estate development, especially for a man in his twenties.

Michael, who shares Jonathan’s chiseled features and brown shock of hair, tends to agree.

“I don’t think I would be able to have that same experience working for another development company at my age,” he says, adding that the job has allowed him to learn “the intricate details for this industry”—something he’d miss at a larger Chicago firm. So why not just live in Cleveland? Why endure such an enervating, ceaseless commute?

That would be too easy, too dull. Cleveland, Jonathan asserts, is “kind of a dying town for people in their twenties and thirties and there just wasn’t enough of a social life there.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, both brothers saw their childhood cohorts and college friends disperse, mainly to New York and Chicago. They didn’t want to completely sacrifice their social lives.

“I was here [in Cleveland] for three years after college and it was really very difficult,” Jonathan says.

While she remained skeptical of his non-traditional routine at first, Meagan, Jonathan’s girlfriend, is so busy between school and work that Jonathan’s commute—while initially “annoying”—actually meshes well with her life.

“We hang out on weekends,” she says without a hint of frustration.

Jonathan Weiss and Meagan Murphy, at Jonathan’s apartment in Manhattan (Photo by Senait Debesu)
Jonathan Weiss and Meagan Murphy, at Jonathan’s apartment in Manhattan (Photo by Senait Debesu)

“I have friends who have to be around their girlfriend twenty-four seven,” Jonathan adds, perched on his bed with Meagan beside him on a chair.

“I need, like, a little bit of space,” Meagan chimes in.  “I have a job, my own things, I need time.”

“And I want someone like that, especially because of my lifestyle right now,” Jonathan runs with it.  But even if he wasn’t a full-time New Yorker, “I’d want someone who was doing their own thing,” Jonathan says.

For Michael, though, who married his college sweetheart, Dana, about three years ago, the situation is more complicated.

Michael Weiss and wife Dana (Photo courtesy Jonathan Weiss)
Michael Weiss and wife Dana (Photo courtesy Jonathan Weiss)

“I had always wanted to move to Chicago after school, and Dana’s from the East Coast and I kind of dragged her along,” he admits.

Eventually, neither she nor Michael wanted to pick up and move again, once he took a job at Richland.

“I think it’s definitely been hard on her, and a little bit stressful,” Michael concedes, “but I think she understands the unique opportunity I have in this job and has been supportive throughout the whole process.”

Michael and Dana are considering adding to their family, but having kids would be extraordinarily difficult given Michael’s weekly journey.

“We’ve definitely talked about kids,” Michael says.  “It’s definitely not the easiest thing to do when we’re not living in the same city.”

The commute, of course, exacts a toll on more than the Weiss’ relationships and sleep cycles.

For one, the process is incredibly expensive. Jonathan estimates that he spends over $20,000 a year on plane tickets, taxis, parking and other travel costs. Most of his acquaintances who lead similar lifestyles are consultants, whose travel expenses are covered by their employers.

Another problem is that Jonathan’s salary is not commensurate with his residence.

He says his Ohio paycheck has to “stretch for New York”—not always an easy task.

Jonathan on the job in Cleveland; the leasing office of a new building the brothers are working on (Photos by Frances Killea)
Jonathan on the job in Cleveland; the leasing office of a new building the brothers are working on (Photos by Frances Killea)

On the plus side, the brothers spend enough time outside of their respective cities to pay Ohio taxes.

“We own two of everything,” Jonathan ruefully explains.  “And we live at our parents’ house, because it isn’t worth paying rent in Cleveland, which is interesting when we’re almost thirty years old.”

The commute can also lead to tension at work.  Jonathan describes his boss as “an old school lawyer” who “likes to look you in the eye,” which is obviously problematic if an employee is telecommuting.

Flying also leads to schedule vagaries, especially when winter weather delays flights or when there is an unexpected crowd getting through security.

Both brothers are diligent workers, but Jonathan says his boss is concerned that other employees may think that he and Michael get off with less responsibility. The Weisses, though, see the issue as a generational misunderstanding—Jonathan actually thinks he’s more productive when working remotely.

“It’s kind of disconcerting when he says, ‘What will the other people in the office think?’” Jonathan says.  “I can tell you honestly that the two hours I am most productive a week are the two hours I’m on a plane. Nobody can call me and nobody can walk into the office and disrupt me.”

Both brothers are banking on a future Richland Communities expansion to New York and Chicago—or a new telecommuting policy that would allow them to work fulltime from home. But that day has yet to come.

Out on Fourth Ave. on a recent Monday morning, it is so unseasonably balmy that Jonathan is not even wearing a coat. After a few minutes, he hails an old Crown-Vic and climbs into the back. He is showered and shaved, ready for work, but when he stares out the window a touch of weariness is evident.

Jonathan, in early-morning transit (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Jonathan, in early-morning transit (Photo by Jessica Bal)

The trip to LaGuardia is swift, and the sky is still dark when the taxi pulls up.  Jonathan directs the cabby to a specific part of the terminal, the closest to his United flight. The area outside is surprisingly crowded for this early in the morning.

Jonathan grabs his diminutive black shoulder bag and walks off toward his gate, where he will enjoy the latest of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Frosted Flakes breakfasts at the President’s Club before flying back to his childhood home. Next week, he’ll do it all over again.

*   *   *

Senait Debesu is a recent Tufts University graduate whose photography has appeared in GlobalPost, among other publications. She is a Narratively intern.

Frances Killea, a freelance journalist and photographer, contributed reporting and photos from Cleveland.