This Window Seat World

A subtle symphony of life along the tracks

One of the simple joys in my life is watching the world pass by from the window seat; a train window to be exact.

This morning, I find myself in seat 12B on #2151 en route to Washington D.C. I boarded just outside of Boston around 5:20 am and I’ll disembark when we hit New York City around 8:45 am—a trip I’ve made at least more than fifty times since moving to the big city.

I’d safely say it’s a trip I have down pat. I know all of the idiosyncrasies of the Amtrak system. I know where to stand on the platform so as to be jussssttt aligned with the perfect train door. I learned a long time ago to always sit facing in the direction of the train’s forward movement. I know that I always take a right from the cafe car—the hot dogs are surprisingly flavorful. I know that if I go to the bathroom during the northern Connecticut segment of the trip I’m basically asking for an unfortunate accident—it’s the fastest part of the route, hence quite a bit of unpredictable lurches and lunges. I know that on trips northbound out of New York City I should always sit on the left side of the train so I can bid the city farewell and, if I’m lucky, even catch a city sunset like this:

And I know that no matter what, I’m sitting in the window seat. From this pale blue seat, the color of your dentist’s chair, I watch these quiet Americana moments pass by as the ultimate voyeur—there one moment, gone the next.

Depending on the time of day, these scenes and moods I observe change dramatically. Today, on this pre-dawn trip southbound, the sun just now starts to timidly paint pastels along the lazy horizon. It’s most definitely still blue hour—here wait, I’ll show you what I mean:

Blue hour along the tracks (Photo by Jack Cohen)

This world that rushes by—or rather that I’m rushing past—never looks the same despite the fact that both it and I always meet in the same space each time. Me, in a ten-car train zippling along cool steel tracks. It, along the Northeast coast of America.

This morning, these dawn scenes would make even Turner tear up and reach for his brush. Mist lies along the wintry bog, seeping in and out of the icy waterways as if to plot a miraculous escape towards open ocean. It’s a clear morning and I can almost smell the fresh ocean air through this slightly smudgy-glass window. Seagulls dance with egrets and hawks above the mirrored coves and bays.

Nascent forests and desolate beaches trade places with American suburbia in a constantly intertwined dance, both vying for the attention of the train passersby while at the same time beautifully disinterested in our gaze.

I can’t help but recall one of my favorite words at this moment, its application too perfect.

This window seat world feels oddly personal, oddly mine. Like a snow globe scene that only I witness. When I turn away, I half expect these figures and forms to pause, only to resume their rhythmic motions when I tilt my head back towards them.

I often wonder how this world I see would change if I were to stand still, outside the train along these same tracks, now painfully aware of my mortal stance, no train to propel me past.

What I’ve come to realize after all of these years is that this window seat world retains its magic because of its simultaneous permanence and impermanence. Each time I revisit these places, I’ve returned just for a moment to once again soak up every visual, to gather a new batch of passing paintings, to recharge and refill, hopefully holding me over until our next encounter.

There is much I still have yet to learn about this window seat world of mine, but it’s a relationship I look forward to cultivating time and again. I feel a strong connection to these places I pass, like I’ve been a citizen from afar, wishing these towns and terns safe passage until we meet again.

So goodbye for now, I hope you take this trip sometime in your life. Where I fall short in description, this window seat world offers a most wondrous Americana depiction.