Train Hopping

Glory days
They’ll pass you by, glory days
In the wink of a young girl’s eye, glory days
.
–– Bruce Springsteen

When I was a young girl and my life was full of fresh ripe choices every which way I turned, I found myself almost incapable of staying anywhere for long. The year I graduated from college and moved to L.A. to take a job with a major airline, I moved seven times, from one end of the state to the other and back before flinging myself 3,000 miles away to see what other possibilities might await. Such is the glory of youth, the unwavering and compelling faith that each move you make in a new direction will be a better move than the one you made before; the perception that there are no wrong or bad choices, only adventures of one sort or another.

I traveled exclusively by car in those days for my domestic transitions, and got on a bus or an airplane only every now and then to visit my family. Traveling to Europe, though I would have loved to book a passage on the QE2 had my circumstances allowed, was undertaken necessarily by plane. I wonder now that it didn’t occur to me to find a wealthy old dowager who was preparing to cross the Atlantic in need of a companion, or a couple with children in search of a nanny.

Like most Americans of my generation, I’d seen movies about trains, read books about trains, and learned about the importance of rail travel during American westward expansion in History class at school. Trains, in my mind, were associated with romance, the wild west, old money, mystique, and of course, a criminal element. But rail travel, at least while I was growing up, was either too spotty or too expensive or both to make it a viable form of transportation for trips of any length. So it was while I was in Europe, tenderly and enthusiastically just turned eighteen, that I rode my first train; where it was and still is the preferred method of transportation because it is efficient, cost-effective and highly accessible. I remember zooming southward out of Paris on the TGV, the first of many train trips I would make over the next two months within and between countries, and wondering what lurid and mysterious situations I might encounter. You can’t read Murder on the Orient Express or watch Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” under the age of twenty and expect your first excursion on a train to be anything less than a potentially sinister affair. Mine, as it turns out, was more sordid than sinister. I was cornered in an otherwise empty car while traveling at 180 mph or so through a tunnel by a probably-drunk Frenchman in a business suit who simultaneously clapped a hand over my mouth and attempted to force his way under my skirt. I managed to free myself with a good bit of elbow thrusting and one or two well-aimed or just lucky kicks, and hurtled myself out of the compartment, down the passageway and into the dining car where I remained, skittish and hyper-alert, for the duration of the journey.

Undeterred, I continued to think of train travel as a desirous form of transportation, and still do. I have, since then, ridden on several trains both outside of and within the United States, and while nothing that I’d consider romantic has ever happened to me on one, I don’t discount the possibility that it might. Being both a writer and a nomad, my thoughts of trains tend to gravitate toward a previous era when the haves with lavish jewels and expensive champagne were onboard, in ordained and oblivious comfort, the well-lit and posh trains with sleeper cars and first class; while the have-nots were onboard without sound, without fanfare, under cover of darkness and without permission, the dirty half-empty freight, cattle cars, and cargo trains. I wish that I could say, as an old woman telling stories of her glory days to her grandchildren, that I had been both passengers, on both kinds of trains; that I’d been on both sides of the coin, the head and the tail, the heiress and the tramp, depending on the year, the circumstances, the companion.

These days I live in a town with regular train service daily, both passenger and freight, to points north and south, the Amtrak station sitting several blocks from my house on the southern edge of old downtown. When the whistle blows at night, I’ll sometimes hear Arlo Guthrie in the breezy aftermath, or picture the look on Gary Cooper’s face in “High Noon” as he anticipated the arrival of death. The high school which my son attends, the only one in town, is just across the tracks.

Last Saturday was the first football game of the season, and his first ever. He’s a wide receiver — though there is nothing remotely wide about his reedy, sinewy frame. I say this with a wry grin and the chosen ignorance of someone who knows as little about the game as it’s possible to know. I envisioned him snapping like a twig under the weight of a full-on tackle and forced my thoughts elsewhere as my beloved and I ambled over to the stadium on foot, confronted when we got to the tracks and our usual shortcut by a passing train, with old rusted near-empty cars that had ladders running from top to bottom of each. It slowed as we stood there, and for a few moments we watched it silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We looked up and down the tracks but it was a long train and we couldn’t see the end of it in either direction, and as it grinded to a halt, he turned to me. “Want to hop the train?” he said, grinning. I looked up and pictured myself scrambling up the ladder of the closest car, scooting across the top, lying low and out of sight to the other side, then shimmying down the opposite ladder. Or would we stay on top of the car, our bodies pressed hard and flat into the warm metal surface until the train passed out of this town and into another, then jump off before it came to a halt? “Yeah,” I said, smiling back at him. “I do,” wondering as I said it what I would do if it was the latter idea he had in mind. After all, he is a nomad, too. But it was neither. He jumped up on the iron bars between the two closest cars, treading carefully along the metal yoke toward the inside till he got to the halfway point, and turned to face me. He braced himself, then held out a hand in my direction. I took it, he pulled me up, and I followed him across to the other side. He jumped down and turned around, putting his broad hands around my waist. As he lifted me gently to the ground I closed my eyes and saw the coin again, saw myself in cashmere coat and black hat, black silk gloves to the elbow and cuban stockings with a seam down the back, cigarette holder in one hand, a  martini in the other; flipped it over and saw the furtive chase, the raggedy, tattered clothes and duffel bag, the hands-out climb aboard, the musty darkness, the squeaky breaks a wake-up call, the need for imminent, albeit stealthy departure.

As we walked away from the tracks and toward the football field, I glanced back at the train, now moving again, slowly but gaining momentum. My glory days are behind me, I thought to myself. And yet if circumstances were different, I might have truly and literally hopped that train.

Someday, I still might.

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5 Responses to “Train Hopping”

  1. An Imperfect Servant Says:

    I love the way you write.
    I’m there, I’m not reading any more.
    Absolutely awesome.

  2. I agree with the imperfect one…Awesome

  3. aw, shucks…so glad you liked it!

  4. This is a really sweet little piece. I’m glad you’ve traveled to a good place in your life. The train is always there if you need a quick getaway.

  5. So good to hear from you again m’lady…

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