Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Riding the Train

I was thinking about my first visit to New York when I was a young teen. My uncle, who was a New York City cop, took me on my first subway ride. I was both thrilled and alarmed by the loud, fast moving train. We stood at the front door looking out the window (it was round, and partially open) and he pointed out the signals and other technicalities.

Then the walls of the tunnel closed in tighter and a rush of cool, dank air wafted through. My uncle told me were under the East River. Faster and faster the train charged and suddenly a loud bang, some drops of water rained in through the storm door window and I was truly afraid. The river was breaking through into the tunnel! But nobody else seemed concerned. They just kept reading their papers or staring into space. How could they be so unaffected by all these overpowering sensations?

A few years later I lived in Manhattan and rode the Lex-Pelham to work every day. During the summer I liked to ride mid-train right by the open storm door, the wind rushing through the cars, holding onto a grab rail that was actually on the outside of the car. From that vantage point you could look straight down at the roadbed as it rushed underneath to a deafening cacophony of familiar as well as inexplicable sounds.

My car would fly blindly forward, trusting that the car ahead knew where it was going, like elephants in the circus parade, trunk to tail. The headlights and taillights were dark but intimately close. The endplates of the two cars would gyrate in a crazed dance, never quite on the same level, lurching back and forth, up and down. The chains between the cars would swing and jump erratically.

In a car far forward the lights would go out for a moment. Then the next car. The momentary blackout would work its way back through the train and as it passed into my car, I would turn to watch it continue its journey towards the end of the train.

I used to wish that ride would never end. But I left New York in my twenties on a long journey to follow other dreams. The subway trains today are nothing like they were then. The windows and end doors are always closed. Air conditioning replaced the tunnel breezes. The interior lights no longer flash on and off. The operator’s cab now extends all the way across the front of the train so you can no longer stand and watch out the front window.

I’m glad I had a chance to ride the trains as a kid when life’s responsibilities didn’t prevent one from the sheer joy of just going for a ride. Maybe that's why an aging man came back to New York, to that magic city where a boy from the Midwest discovered terrifying but fascinating monsters galloping beneath the streets.

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