September 26, 2009

I have ridden this train before. I have taken the Lake Shore Limited many times
from Toledo to New York City. Usually I have had to ride coach all the way, trying to
sleep sitting up with my jacket rolled up as a pillow beneath my head and my back
turned to whoever is sitting beside me. If I am lucky, I have both seats to myself and am
able to curl up with my knees against the adjoining back cushion, my feet occasionally
slipping off onto the floor as deeper slumber claims my consciousness.

Every once in a blue moon, though, I am flush enough to have my own tiny
sleeper compartment for the duration of the journey. This is one of those times.

I am enjoying the solitude of my mobile cocoon as we pull into the Erie station.
I am well familiar with the drill by now; this is where the engine will be serviced before
our travel continues. In general we remain primarily immobile in Erie for anywhere
from half an hour to about fifty minutes, depending on the locomotive’s condition. But
throughout the course of the maintenance, the train will be activated and halted again,
moving forward a few feet, a few yards, to monitor its progress. This is the part of the
stay that interests me the most, but as I am in a sleeper in one of the last cars, it will be
a while until I need to look out the window. So for the time being I return my full
attention to Jane Austen and the travails of the Dashwood sisters as Secrets of the
unfold in my ears.

In the meantime, the train has shuddered to a start and stop several times.
Finally, I look up to see that we have cleared the station and it is time for me to pay
heed to my outer surroundings again. Every time I have traveled this route, I have
been fascinated by this same scene. It is a neighborhood of small wooden frame
houses of varying colors, mostly faded from the elements, at least this is so for
those in my line of sight. I have always wondered about the inhabitants of these
homes, how they manage to live so near to the tracks and the almost constant noise
of the trains, the way the motion must surely shake the diminutive structures to
their foundations. I imagine a person grows accustomed to this with time and
necessity. I have grown used to my own figurative Amtraks for the same reasons.
It’s amazing, the length and limits of what a human being may be forced to bear,
isn’t it?

Suddenly a movement from the second closest house catches my eye.
This is the first time I have ever seen a sign of life emanating from this little cluster
of buildings; I am curious to see who calls this particular, tannish edifice “home”.
Even though the music does not affect my vision, still I remove my earphones and
press my face against the window.

A woman with blonde-streaked brown hair pulled back into a ponytail
apparently more for convenience than fashion has stepped out onto her back stoop.
I can’t see too clearly, but from my less than ideal vantage point, she looks to be
early thirtiesish, a slender figure clad in a white t-shirt and jeans. She lights up
a cigarette and sits down on the stoop. Now I really have to crane my neck to keep
her in my perspective.

After a minute or two, during which she occasionally smokes and seems
otherwise lost in thought, the screen door behind her opens and a little boy comes
bounding out. He is sandy-haired, about four I guess, and dressed identically to the
woman. He races out into the yard (your basic generic yard except for an empty
clothesline and what I assume must be a tool shed of sorts), bursting with the kind of
energy you can only have at that age, when everything in life still is so fresh and feels
like an adventure. I remember that feeling, I think. The woman (his mother?) seems
to remember too; she smiles as she inhales on her cigarette (Camel? Marlboro?). I can’t
see very well, but I imagine that her eyes indicate she has entered a different mental
scenario altogether. What is she thinking? Is she recalling a happy childhood memory
or a more recent encounter with a loved one? Or is she simply ruminating on a favorite
television program, or plans to lunch with a special friend later in the week? It can be
anything, I suppose, but whatever it is must be pleasing. She is smiling and smoking as
the boy bounces tirelessly around in the yard. From my point of view it appears as if he
is pretending to be a horse. I used to do that too.

Just then the gears shift on the train and we jerk forward once again, but now
the engine remains running and I sense we are about to depart. At the exact same
moment, the boy has headed towards the tracks; he is still what looks like a safe
distance away when the engine’s racket snaps the woman out of her reverie and she
focuses on the straying child. Quickly she stands up and shouts something to him that
I cannot hear, but I have an idea what it must be. Inside my compartment, I too am
telling the boy to retreat to the refuge of the yard; it is a big scary world once you reach
the tracks and he needs to stay sheltered for now. There will be plenty of time for him
to cross the tracks later. Of course my words go unheard, even by myself.

The boy obediently turns back towards the house. The woman drops her
cigarette and crushed it on the stoop with her sneakered foot. Then she looks up again
as she holds the door open for the child and I could swear our eyes meet for just an
instant. But in fact the sunlight reflecting on my window glass is likely what has caught
her attention. She turns and follows the boy inside the house, closing the door to their
world behind them.

Meanwhile, the train beings to move ahead slowly and gradually picks up speed
as the station and the cluster of slightly weathered homes remain fixed behind. For
a few minutes I continue to sit with my face pressed against the glass, the passing
scenery escaping my notice as I ponder what the woman and boy may be doing at this
moment. Possibly she is fixing them both lunch as he sits in front of the TV with his
Matchbox cars: peanut butter and jelly on white, no crusts, for him and a carton of
blueberry yogurt for herself. Or maybe she is having PBJ as well? In the end it doesn’t
matter, not to me anyway.

Clouds are beginning to form in the temporal sky outside and the residents of the
second house near the Erie tracks are fading from my mind as rapidly as the fleeting
miles below us. I put my earphones back on and David Sylvian’s voice fills my head as
I open the book on my lap again and pick up where I left off a short while ago. Soon
thoughts of Manhattan will be consuming me, but for now all is as it should be.


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