Time Travel

From my seat on a quiet car, declared by small paper printouts taped to the crossbars in the ceiling, I watch old cities go by. There is no hassle in this travel, no removing of shoes or early arrivals to ensure timely boarding. I’d gotten to the train station 30 minutes before my trip and had more than enough time for coffee and a muffin. I had watched a few people run to catch their rides, guessing this was their regular commute and smiling at the ease of arriving minutes before leaving.

Sleepy in my seat, I hand the conductor my ticket and watch him punch a simple hole with a simple instrument I probably still have in a drawer somewhere from 20 years ago. Such an old-fashioned, simple way to do the job. Train travel sends us back in time.

Outside my window, scenes roll by in quaintness that quickly slides into sadness, the images punctuated by the sudden passing of trains heading south within inches of my eyes. But when those trains clear, the scenes do not: dilapidated houses, crooked and perpetually on the brink of falling down. When had that begun? On what day had they settled into their lurch toward the ground? Were lives still lived inside them, or did their walls house only the memory of vitality? This is the fate of the homes along the tracks – once beloved, now abandoned to chance and decay.

This stretch of rail running through the Northeast never looks for signs of civilization. It merely reflects the signs of what once was, rolling through the past and making riders wonder how they once must have appeared. Could they ever have been shiny with promise?

A few minutes’ time, and another town gone. Aboard this train, I watch hundreds of years go by in minutes. Buildings stare back at me from their places in glory days, unused now, and blighted, signs of industry once lauded and now left to rot. The tracks are littered with the detritus of ages, with ties that may have been there for months or decades. I think of Ayn Rand, and a wan smile comes to my face. It is railroads that have put food on my family’s tables for a generation and more. Pulling through Philadelphia, I watch workers make repairs and wonder if I will see my uncle.

This is always the surreal part of the trip, riding parallel to I-95 and watching cars on a highway I often drive. I see familiar street signs and identify neighborhoods, recognizing easily the ramp I would take to go to my grandfather’s house. And then, with suddenness, I remember he is not there, my image of him in his chair changing to one of the chair sitting empty, the home’s occupants since 1945 both buried now in the cemetery of the church a mile away. The snap back to the present makes me feel less connected to the city, less from it now that there is less in it for me.

But then Philadelphia is gone, and Trenton comes. I look out at the bridge with its dormant sign that will glow red in tonight’s darkness: TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES. Aged pride now turned to bravado. The giant words seem to try to convince rather than to declare.

My train passes empty platforms in Trenton, in Metro Park, in Newark. When it pulls to a stop at Penn Station in New York City, there is no crush of clustered riders waiting. There is only a picture in my mind of corseted women and suited men with bags and baby carriages, sepia-toned and charged with human electricity as they wait to embark on their journey.

By train, there is no sense of tomorrow. There is only yesterday.

Now on my bookshelf: The Magician’s Assistant – Ann Patchett


11 thoughts on “Time Travel

  1. There is something melancholy about traveling by train that I love, watching out the window and seeing images and buildings from the past flash by. There’s not much train travel down here, but I loved trains when I lived in Europe. Nice piece!

    • Well I’m jealous that you lived in Europe! Admittedly, I’ve only ever taken trains in the US and France, but they were distinctly different scenes. There is something profoundly sad about the view along American rails… at least in the East.

      • I lived in Switzerland, which was beautiful beyond compare, but it’s actually a tough place to live. Coming from Texas, where people are gregarious and outgoing, to a country known for its insularity and caution, was a bit of a shock. I loved living in Europe, though, and visiting different countries and cultures was fantastic.

  2. Terrific imagery, skillfully and gently offered.
    I, too, love to ride the train–partly because I lived for three years in Europe, but also because taking the plane is now almost torture, and I won’t do it unless I absolutely have to. Once or twice a year I take the train from Charleston to New York, and truly enjoy the time to read and write and watch the world scurry past the window. I hope there will be a rebirth of the passenger train in this country, in this century.

    • Thank you. I don’t do it often – maybe once a year or so, because New York is the one place to which I refuse to drive. But it would be nice if people traveled more by train. I’m afraid it’s just not fast enough for everyone!

  3. I kept picturing the little town from Fried Green Tomatoes that disappeared when the train did.

    Also, I had a jolt when you mentioned your Grandfather not being at the house anymore. I knew he was gone, but it hit me that you wouldn’t be writing a line about spending time with him the next time you write about visiting your family. That’s one of the things about death, is the constant little reminders of what must change and what you have lost.

    • It’s so sweet that you shared that realization with me. February was a very odd month, his illness and death included, and I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. I cried today for the first time. I used to tell him when I talked to him or wrote to him that I thought of him every day. I don’t think I realized how true that was until he was gone.

  4. I’m reading backward on you’re blog … you are on a roll, as they say. I love trains. I used to take the train into NYC when I was a young man to hang around Times Square and I used to have a client in Philadephia so I’d take the train into Union station in DC. I also traveled around Great Britain by train on business … even though the surroundings are older, they are more picturesque than the decay you see traveling in the East. If you ever have a chance, take the train from LA to San Diego along the Pacific Coast. It’s a remarkable ride.

    • I’d love to see the West Coast that way. The limitation I’ve suffered is only taking trains on the East Coast (and France… but that didn’t feel like a limitation. That was beautiful.)

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