I was on a slow train today. The 7 train crawled along from Flushing to Jackson Heights and I was late to my final destination. Inbound to the City (although no one I know uses that terminology here in NYC) the train was full. I ended up losing my seat when I switched to let a couple sit together, and then saw an old man going for the seat I was planning to occupy. I got a little grumpy for a moment, but it didn’t last long, and then at a major transfer point I got a seat anyway. On the trip home, there were very few travelers; the two that caught my attention were both so thin as to be gaunt, and each had a serious under-bite. One was black, one was white; both male. They were so similar and strange looking I could not help wondering about them, and how they both came to be on the same train.
At different times in my life I have been a regular rider on the NYC subway system, on Metro North to Connecticut, and on Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) as well. Every line and system has differences in culture as well as procedure. Commuting to CT for a few months in 1999, I was struck by how quiet the train riders were. They would silently read their folded NY Times in the morning and quietly drink their cocktails in the evening. It made me think of John Cheever and a much older time. From there I went to Long Island, and had a long commute, about 75 minutes on the train, plus a subway ride once in the City. LIRR riders drank too, but it was a different kind of drinking. There was a group of guys that played cards together every evening, taking down the big advertisement poster to spread over their laps in the rows of seats that face each other. In general, these trains were noisier. Especially when the Islanders had played. I was still commuting this way when 9/11 happened, and a lot of first responders and other people working down near Ground Zero would be on the train with me. I remember one woman who kept a small American flag in her purse. There were people with dusty boots, and I remember thinking about what that dust was comprised of, and feeling extremely humble and lucky.
People seem to like to complain about commuting by train. “Oh, the F Train sucks!!!” they would say, when I lived in Brooklyn. But over in Queens, they say the exact same thing about the N Train to Astoria. They complain about the slowness of the trains, the lack of seats, the unreliability, or about being a slave to a schedule. Me, I love the train. I love the smoothness of the seats, the rhythmic motion, the fact that you can see people from 30 different ethnic groups all wearing blue jeans. In New York, I love that the train will take you nearly anywhere, and well into the small hours of the night too. It may be hot, and smelly, and there may be rats and garbage on the tracks. There are those awful, phantom garbage trucks that show up at 1:30 am when you are desperate not to take a cab. On the suburban rails, there is that special rush to get a row of seats to yourself, the unspoken agreement that no one sits in the middle until they have to. There is the way that you can prop your knees up on the back of the seat in front of you. There is the evening cocktail too.
When I go out west, I get excited to still see long chains of freight trains chugging across the big stretches of land. I want there to be more. I long to hear that lonesome whistle cry.
I’m not immune to the nostalgia of the rails.
This was written in response to the Daily Post.