This is why trains are the best

I got on the train in New York City, and now I am somewhere a little bit south of Philadelphia. The tiniest bit south — we’re only just pulling out of the station. Now we are gaining steam (are trains still powered by steam?), speeding past rows of brick houses with white plastic balconies, past graffitied, wheelless boxcars, past power plants that look like huge metal stick figures with extended limbs.

A freight train is passing us in the opposite direction; its cars click by the windows as though they were images spit out of an old projector. It’s the kind of train that used to delight me when I little, as I waited beside my mother in the car, the motor idling behind the mechanical arms blocking the tracks. A freight train was an exciting, once-every-few-weeks diversion from the usual Boston commuter rail. I remember the first time my dad took me on that suburban train. I laughed the whole way, thrilled to be carried somewhere so swiftly in such a straight line.

Do you ever feel like you’re trying to do too much at once? Like you can’t sit down and do one thing because you’re thinking about all the other things you could be doing? What I love about being on a train is that you can’t do anything but be on a train. You can perform additional actions while you’re on the train, of course. You can write on a train, you can draw on a train, you can eat on a train, you can get drunk on a train, you can fall in love on a train. But the first thing you’re always doing on a train is being on the train. You’re accomplishing something simply by sitting still. Anything else you do on a train is a bonus.

A train is the least lonely place to be alone. When describing a train ride, you have to use “we.” “We are going underneath ivy-covered, cement-blocked bridges.” You’re not by yourself.

Here are some of my fellow passengers: There’s an older couple in the seat across the aisle from me. The man’s hair is white and he’s wearing yellow shorts, a Brooks Brothers pink polo, Aasics with Polo brand socks, and a watch the size of my fist. He has an iPad and an iPhone and he appears to be reading them both at the same time. He used to have a plastic cup full of white wine, but he drank it all, so now he just has a plastic cup. The woman, his wife, I’m assuming, has on a paisley print dress and practical white flats, but I can’t see her very well because his belly is blocking her. They haven’t spoken much, but when they have, they’ve been gentle with each other.

There’s a man in a black tank top with scrawling tattoos down both arms. There’s a woman sitting on the floor of the train with a small boy, and they’re playing with action figures using the seat for their stage. The man in front of me seems nice — he let me cut him in line at the train station. I’ve walked by him several times and we’ve smiled at each other. I wonder if I should say hi, but I don’t. We’re all accomplishing something together, my fellow train riders and I.

The dull clunks of the wheels are the most comforting sounds I’ve heard in months. I am unmoored, they are grounding. We’re past Baltimore now, and the sun hits the lush greenery beside the tracks at a low, evening angle. It’s cold in here. We are air conditioned to within an inch of our lives. Outside it’s sweltering, close to 100 degrees — you can see the heat from the window, you can feel it when you walk between the cars: The syrupy, swampy warmth of Maryland is seeping through the cracks of the metal and settling on it, sticky.

There are different kinds of restlessness. There’s the anchored, cement-blocks-strapped-to-your-ankles kind, where you’re so close to a place, so embedded in its soil, that you worry it’s starting to swallow you. Then there’s the floating variety, where you feel like one snip could sever the tenuous tie you have to a place and send you spiraling out like an astronaut loosed from the space station.

Get on a train, and no one can cut you loose because you’ve already done it yourself. No one can keep you in one place because you’re already barreling ahead, gaining momentum. You’re in control, but you’re not responsible: You’ve signed the business of moving over to the engineer.

The man in a uniform — white shirt with stripes on the shoulders, black pants, black hat — who scanned my ticket in New York keeps coming around. He’s checking in the new people who, though they might not realize it, have joined our little band, our place on the space-time continuum. The man stops at my seat.

“Did I already check you in?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Where are you headed?”

“To D.C.”

He nods, and I like not being remembered. I am one more face to him, a cog in his daily machine, a machine that is carrying me somewhere, towards some sense of purpose. Toward some sense of myself.

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