Traveling Together

“Hi Mom. Yes, I just got on board a few minutes ago… Oop, looks like were starting to move. Yah, I’m excited to go too but I’m missing the kids already.” I was trying to keep my voice down as I spoke into the phone, aware that the rest of the train car was nearly silent.

This is going to be a special couple of days. Not only am I taking off to go play all by my self, just like other adults do, I was getting there by rail. The “there” part is Boston, and the “all by my self” bit doesn’t mean “alone” as much as “not having to referee small children bent on annoying each other and cleaning up my living room which has been turned into a multicolored mine field of easily crunchable toys.” Action Girl is at the helm of the house for the next forty-eight hours and I’m getting a chance to reconnect with my inner adulthood and an old friend from High School, Ioseph.

I’ve spent some really wonderful time on trains over the years. I like the sway of the cars, the muffled rumble and the view of the back sides of cities and towns that the you get no other way unless you spend a lot of quality time with hobos and drifters. As I type these words right now, my coffee is at hand, my legs are crossed and I’m bumping along at fifty or so miles per hour, watching the trees go whipping by just past the lightly grimy windows. My train departed right on time and, for me, the unusual thing is that I’m doing this in my own country.

The vast majority of my rail experience comes from time spent over seas. The U.S. woefully underutilizes rail as a form of domestic travel and if you can find a train going from a place you live to a place you want to go to, it’s a noteworthy event. Europe and much of Asia is exactly the opposite. If there isn’t a train to whatever little podunk village you want to get to, it makes you stop and think, “Really?!?” Naturally, if there’s no train, there’s nearly always a bus.

I love that.

Here, in the land of the automobile, things are very different. Once, rail crisscrossed our country, taking goods and people just about everywhere they wanted to go. I’m aware that there was never the sort of rail coverage here that there is overseas, but still, it was pretty darned good. Then, for reasons totally inexplicable to me, they started to tear up the tracks. Literally. I remember this happening in my hometown when I was a kid. As a child, I can clearly recall running full tilt out of the cobbler’s shop where my mother was valiantly trying to get me crammed into a new pair of very nice and highly uncomfortable back-to-school shoes. I ran not because an escape was in order, but because the train was coming through. The tracks used to run right through downtown and bisect Main Street bringing all traffic to a halt bringing every kid within jogging distance out onto the sidewalks. It was great. Then one day, the tracks were gone and sold as scrap. I couldn’t believe it.

I didn’t get a chance to ride on an actual passenger train until years after I managed to finally get rid of those shoes. True, I did take a “scenic rail” trip with my Grandparents aboard a steam locomotive, but we didn’t really GO anywhere. It was really just a gigantic carnival ride and though I did manage to get a cinder stuck in my eye by hanging out the window like a dog in a station wagon, it was at least fun. But it was only part of the equation. I’m lumping the Disney monorail into this category as well. Though not steam powered, it was still essentially a “ride.” Come to think of it, steam would make the monorail far, far more cool and awesome. Can you imagine that one? Ohhh!

Once I started traveling abroad, I got my chance to do the train thing for real and I instantly fell in love. This was the way to travel. Leg room, sleeping compartments, the ability to ride them all night and wake up in not merely a totally different country, but a different region or even continent, and all at eye level. I loved to fly, but trains offer you a human touch that you just can’t get at thirty thousand feet.

Sometimes that human touch can be a bit powerful and hit pretty high on the Irony-O-Meter.

As I boarded my train, I looked down the empty car to pick my seat. Now, I’m not an overly tall individual, nor am short. I like to think of my self as stunningly average. I measure in at almost exactly six feet tall and though the seats on the train are far more generous in the leg room department that just about anything with wings theses days, I nevertheless eyed the four vacant front row seats, boasting easily six feet of open space in front of them, with envy. I couldn’t take one for the simple reason that I had also noticed the sign overhead mentioning that these super convenient, leg friendly seats were intended for individuals who might have legs that weren’t so friendly to their owners. They were reserved for the disabled.

No problem. I had a whole car to pick from and quickly sat in down in the next row. It was about this time that my Mom had called to see if I was already on my way. We chatted while I watched the freight yards disappear and give way to trees and fields. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning. When the conductor came though and took my ticket, I was taken a bit by surprise by something you don’t see much any more, but recovered quickly and don’t think I showed my reaction outwardly. After he left, I thought no more about it and went back to my window view.

At the next stop just a few minutes away, new passengers piled in and shuffled past my seat hauling bags like unruly children with travel plans of their own. The car was still only about twenty percent full, but this seemed to be all the excuse that was needed for the woman who plunked herself down in the reserved section and then, sitting just a bit sidewise, take up both seats. She was sixtyish, very well dressed and had no baggage to be seen outside of an expensive looking purse. The aura she projected was of a woman who did what she pleased. I don’t know where her sense of entitlement originated from, but I do know that she was ill prepared for what happened next.

Guilt, is an amazing thing. Some folks are impervious to it; some simply have a very high tolerance. People like me, crumble at the notion that someone, somewhere might be disappointed in my actions in some way. I’ve learned to live with it. This lady, looked like she had some pretty good guilt armor. She appeared unflappable. Then the ticket agent returned.

Dutifully, he examined and punched her ticket while the woman did her best to not pay him any but the most cursory attention. Then he pointed out the sign.

“You might not have noticed,” he said in a quiet but firm tone, “but these seats are reserved for disabled riders.” As he said this, he tapped the very obvious sign hovering a few inches over her head. The tapping, he did not with the hand holding his paper punch, but his other one.

The hook hand.

You don’t see many hook hands these days. Most amputees use more realistic prosthetics, but this, I feel, did a far superior job of pointing out her error. The effect it had on the able bodied woman in the disabled seating was obvious. She turned a shade of red that matched her silk scarf beautifully and after a mumbled apology and rapid gathering of personal effects she said something about how it was no problem to move to another seat which she did, eyes averted from the rest of the car passengers.

The rest of the trip down is uneventful from my perspective. The towns roll by and soon, Boston will loom ahead. I’ll be down just for an overnight and I’m staying with my friend Ioseph, so who knows what’s planned. The ride on the train though is something that I have already found a lot of joy in. It gets people all together in one place with a common goal. We’re all on the same track, literally and figuratively.

A smile shared here.
Something interesting, overheard there.

It’s all good. It gets us closer to each other, even if we’re not actually engaged in conversation. You loose that in a car. We learn how to be around other people and to respect them a bit better; something the red scarf lady got a refresher in today. Hopefully it will stick with her better than before.

I’m almost at my destination now and I expect to have a lot of fun while I’m here. I have to confess though, I’m already looking forward to riding the rails again, back home.

All aboard!

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4 Responses

  1. I love trains. Since my parents never owned a car, they were my (our) primary means of transportation in my youth. I love the comforting sounds, the smooth ride, the fact that they bring you right into the city centre, the obscure(d) sights that unfold before your window that you talk about… I really can’t imagine living without trains. Apart from Syria and USA, all my travels have included at least one trip by train on top of other means of transportation.

    Was nice to read about the subject from your perspective.

    • It’s a point of view which I don’t get to see all that much, sadly. I love traveling by train and now that air travel has officially moved their PR Department to the fourth circle of Hell, I’ll do anything to avoid the airlines.

      We plan on going on a trip down south this spring but sadly, going by train is not a viable option. It SHOULD be and it was once, but not any more. We’ll be driving instead.

      I love european train travel. To me, it’s the pinnacle of transportation. It might not always be a wonderful experience, but it works so well that I can forgive it any discomfort. Well, maybe not those old DDR coaches. Those things were horrible.

      -TP

  2. Trains keep one grounded.

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