Choo-Choo

…My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

                             –from “Travel” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

When I was a kid, my mother would take my sibling and me from our edge of the ocean down to the heart of the city in the south metro by the local train on Saturday. We’d meet my father, who would be done with work by 2, and we’d go off to a movie (after his usual prank of pretending that he’d forgotten the tickets at home and the show was sold out! Oh no!)

My mother would fall asleep in the theater and we’d enjoy the latest Superman blockbuster with dad. On occasion, we’d get wafers or popcorn during intermission. There would also be a meal at some restaurant after the movie and then we’d ride the empty trains–swaying rhythmically over the creek and causeways–back home. That moment only exists in memory now, as does my beloved father, so it is no surprise  that trains exercise a powerful hold on my imagination.

When possible and practical, I ride trains to recapture old memories and make new ones. I sleep well on overnight trains, rocked by the rattling embrace of their flimsy bunks. I am caught by the vistas they thunder past, be they littered lots of forgotten warehouses, laundry-draped balconies of tenement apartment buildings, marinas holding pleasure crafts, or surreal parks filled with dinosaur statues.

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I love viewing cars because they allow sights in and private carriages that shut everything but noise out.

But the light rails and metros that move commuters from neighborhood to neighborhood within a city, the workhorses of daily life, the grimy, sardine cans of modernity have a special place in my heart because of those childhood Saturdays. In my mind, most of the big cities I have visited exist as two-dimensional subway maps as much as three-dimensional realities. London’s exquisite Tube map is as charming  to me as Boston’s subway, Paris’s Metro just as worthy of perusal as Mumbai‘s.

These are the arteries (and veins) of the beating heart of a metropolis. When they stop working, the city comes to a standstill as New York recently noticed when Hurricane Sandy rushed in where commuters fear to tread. Not just the five boroughs but the city’s train links to the nation ground to a halt. When the trains were slowly being brought online, the city writhed impatiently, workers and students straining to be let back onto the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey transit, Amtrak, and of course, the subway.

Since moving here, I’ve shared the railway platform and waiting room with pigeons

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Seen buskers dance

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Heard bands play

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and read the MTA’s Poetry in Motion (hence the blurriness).

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I’ve been confronted by Hindi movie posters and Indian cable channel billboards when I’ve gotten off trains

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and by bodily fluids and other effluvia when I’ve gotten on them. (I’ll spare you the photos.)

But as I ride the trains within New York and to places like Boston and Baltimore, I am a child again–grateful for the opportunity, excited about an upcoming event, intrigued by the next odd traveler, and assured of a passage home. They way I see it, country roads ain’t got nothing on train tracks…

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