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A cleaner faces double the time on public transit after Orange Line shutdown

Cleaner's already long commute doubled without the Orange Line
Juan Peña, 57, is among tens of thousands of MBTA passengers getting less sleep and spending more time away from family as the Orange Line remains shuttered. (undefined, Kate Selig, Taylor Dolven)

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MALDEN — At daybreak, Juan Peña shouldered his backpack, kissed his wife goodbye, and slipped out the front door of his Malden apartment.

Peña, 57, passed rows of unlit houses as he walked down the streets. Cars raced by, their headlights illuminating the morning fog. It was a little past 5:30 a.m., and the walk to the bus stop marked the first leg of Peña’s commute to his job as a cleaner in Back Bay, a trip that has doubled in duration since the Orange Line shuttered for 30 days of repairs on Aug. 19.

Before, Peña could make it to work in as little as 45 minutes. On the first weekday of the shutdown, he spent two hours on the bus, shuttle, and Green Line, covering a distance that would have taken less than 20 minutes by car without traffic. The rest of the week, his commute took between about an hour-and-a-half and two hours.

Juan Peña walked to his bus stop, starting his morning commute from his apartment in Malden.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“It’s stressful, but I have no other choice,” he said in Spanish.

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Peña is among the thousands of workers whose daily lives have been upended by the monthlong closure of the Orange Line, which runs from Oak Grove station in Malden to Forest Hills station in Jamaica Plain and serves as the main rapid transit connection for Chinatown, Roxbury, and some inner suburbs with substantial communities of color. It is a lifeline for many Boston workers who don’t have the choice to work from home. They have to be on the job or possibly lose it. And they have to be on time even if the T is not. Peña is one of them.

The MBTA is trying to improve safety by making badly needed repairs to its tracks. But, even after the fixes, the system will be hobbled by staff shortages. The service cuts the T made in June to the Orange Line, and the Red and Blue lines as well, which lengthened wait times between trains significantly, are scheduled to last into the fall. Bus service will be further trimmed starting Aug. 28.

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For Peña, the shutdown means getting up at 4:30 a.m. instead of at 6. It means less time with his ailing wife and the mounting exhaustion of navigating multiple transfers on the way to a long day of physical labor.

He worries the daily trek will get even more arduous when school starts and the fall traffic tightens its stranglehold.

“I don’t want to imagine it,” he said.

Juan Peña took his first bus of the morning from a stop near his home to Malden Center.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Driving is not an option for Peña. He has glaucoma, and even if he could get his license, he doubts he could afford a car. Ride-sharing is out of the question. Peña said he makes just over $21 per hour.

“Rent, bills, and food,” he said. “The salary that I’m earning now is not enough for one to get ahead.”

When the 104 bus arrived at the intersection, Peña boarded, found a seat, and clutched his backpack to his chest against the name patch on his blue button-down uniform. The camouflage-print bag was a gift from one of his sons who joined the National Guard.

Peña swells with pride when talking about the children he has raised with his wife: one stepson who joined the National Guard, another who joined the Navy, and a stepdaughter who graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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Peña immigrated to the United States from El Salvador about 30 years ago. The United States, he said, seemed like a country of dreams.

But, he added, “I never imagined that I was going to spend my life working as a cleaner.”

After riding 10 stops to Malden Center, Peña boarded a waiting Orange Line shuttle bus at around 6 a.m. The lights inside were dimmed as he settled into his seat, but despite having slept only three hours the previous night, Peña said he could not doze off.

Instead, he scrolled through news articles on his phone. When his attention wandered, he thought about the problems his family faces, including his wife’s health and their finances.

His wife, Alba Arango, 58, has leg pain that is worsening. Peña frets that the extra commuting time means he’s not around when she needs him to help with dinner or to pick up her medicine from the pharmacy.

“Now is when she most needs me to spend time with her, for me to be attentive to her, for me to help her get through her pain while the doctors decide what they are going to do,” he said. “And I don’t have that time.”

Juan Peña disembarked from an Orange Line shuttle to transfer to a Green Line train at Government Center during his morning commute.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As the sun rose, the shuttle sped across the Mystic River, past the luxury apartments at Assembly Square. It trundled under an MBTA billboard emblazoned: “Next stop: Opportunity.”

Peña disembarked from the shuttle at Government Center at quarter to 7. Trains squealed, and the overhead speakers mumbled announcements as he waited for a Green Line train.

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The shutdown is “un dolor de cabeza” — a headache — Peña said.

He said he hopes the repairs during the shutdown will solve some of the problems with the MBTA. But he is doubtful.

“It’s been 15 years, and I’m seeing so many problems,” he said. “If it continues like this, in the not too distant future, this is going to be a disaster.”

Juan Peña studied a map on a Green Line train during the third and final leg of his morning commute from Malden to Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Peña rode the train to Arlington and joined the crowds exiting the station. He walked to the building he cleans at 200 Berkeley St., where he would spend the day moving chairs and tables until it was time for his long trip back home.

As he arrived at 7 a.m., office workers in business clothes were trickling into the building. Peña waved to another cleaner in a plain blue uniform sweeping outside and disappeared into the carpeted lobby.

Juan Peña arrived for work at the Berkeley Building.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Kate Selig was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @kate_selig. Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.