Thursday, January 21, 2010


I am nine and sitting in Mrs. Hussey's hot, dusty classroom. The floor is scuffed from the shuffling of 30 pair of brown oxfords and their correspondingly rubber-booted "going home" feet to a soft buff. I look at the floor a lot, trying to avoid eye-contact with Mrs. Hussey, and find this impression of softness comforting. The desks are wood, one piece, with a writing surface grooved bumpy with dozens of names and initials of previous occupants and connected to the seat by an iron arm. Beneath the seat is a wooden drawer, always too small for what it is expected to contain: textbooks, black-and-white speckle-covered exercise books and papers that are to be taken home but rarely are.

The radiators hiss and vibrate; the incandescent ceiling lights glow down on bent heads. In the cloakroom damp garments steam and outdoors the sky is the color of slate behind black branches lathered with new snow. In the corner of the room a faded American flag stirs gently in the heat.

Mrs. Hussey's back is to the classroom. Her wool sweater is ornamented with a string of yellowish pearls above which her red-brown hair curls in a militant ruff around her head. Her plaid skirt reaches to her calves; the heel of her left pump is worn slightly inward. I notice all these things because I can't get my mind wrapped around what she is saying. The chalk squeaks.

Oh, no! She has whipped around to face the class - is she looking at me?

"If a train leaves the station at one o'clock and another train leaves a station 60 miles away in the opposite direction, at what time will they pass each other if each train travels at the rate of..."

No, no! What is she talking about? When will I ever need to know the answer to this question?

I am sitting on the train waiting for it to leave the station in Albany when this scene flashes through my mind. I know how long it will take the train to get to's a long time: 16 hours. If there is a train traveling at the same rate of speed from Chicago, I know that we will pass each other at some point but I couldn't care less where. Right now my mind is focused with pleasant anticipation on the journey ahead.

I love trains, even though some of my experiences on them have been less than wonderful. There was the time we took the train to Florida when Lizzy was a baby. Awful. We broke down four times, and each time we were all told to de-train and stand along the side of the tracks, presumably for fear that another train would come upon us (at God knows what rate of speed from the same direction) and pancake us all into oblivion. There was the 20-hour trek from Chicago to Albany where we sat for 45 minutes looking at the station from 50 feet away, but we couldn't pull in because there wasn't a track available. To my mind, however, these were minor discomforts, compared to airline snafus - glitches in an otherwise pleasant history of riding the rails.

In Europe the trains were sparkling clean and fast. There was wine and fruit and cheese and the seats were large and inviting. On the Erie Lackewanna in New Jersey I took my very first train ride from Millington to Lyons Station (15 minutes of rushing woods, fields, horses, farms, a river and a trestle) where my Uncle Allen picked me and my grandmother up and drove us home. I rode the Erie Lackewanna many times after that when I was working in Manhattan - an hour and a half in and back. The seats were wicker and my stockings suffered, but I loved the old fashioned cars, the ironwork overhead luggage racks, the testy conductors, the sturdy-looking emergency pull cords, the scent of coal and oil and the way the engineer waved at departing passengers.

And in spite of time it takes to get there, I love the trip from Albany to Chicago and back again. A fellow passenger once remarked that the train is called the Lake Shore Limited because it travels along the lake shore of Erie and Michigan and the speed of it's forward motion is extremely limited. And sometimes this is true. So on the train I enter a state of suspended animation. I can't go anywhere except to the dining car. I can't concentrate much on the reading material I bring because of the fear of motion sickness. I am left with the options of napping or gazing out the window, watching the backyards of America blur by. I find a strange comfort in this moving forward without moving. Friends who fly cannot fathom my love affair with the train. But these days it takes a whole day flying or waiting in airports to get anywhere anyway.

Once, trying to articulate my reasons for taking the train, as I fumbled for an explanation my daughter said, "I think you just enjoy the journey." Bingo. Part of the enjoyment of travel for me is getting there, appreciating just how far it is to where I am going, the time changes, the people I meet, the sense of temporary community among the passengers.

Because of the length of the trip from Albany to Chicago we have to sleep on the train. I always go to sleep immediately in the oddly comfortable fold-down bed with the thin but warm blanket and the surprisingly plump pillow. But I often wake several times during the night, usually at a station stop. It's an odd experience at 1 or two in the morning to look out on a railroad platform (where are we?) and see travelers boarding or de-training in the dark. The early hour and the sense of not quite knowing where we are lend an aura of mystery to their behavior which would seem utterly ordinary in daylight. As the train pulls slowly out of the station I watch as the lights of whatever city recede. Along the way, no matter what the hour, there is always some car or truck waiting at a crossing, some light on in some lonely farmhouse, some watchman walking around a warehouse yard - some human activity to defy the night.

In the morning in the dining car we're seated with strangers and over eggs and bacon, cereal and juice, we soon begin to exchange information that finds common ground. Often, we become so engrossed in the urgency of learning as much as possible and sharing as much as possible of each other's lives that we have to be asked by the attendant to leave so someone else can sit in our place. This does not, I have observed, happen in airports, but it always happens to us on the train.

As we near our destination there is a purposeful bustle in all the cars, incoherent announcements over crackly intercoms, and a sense of departure that is at once more and less exciting than when we left our original destination. Here we part ways and go on to home or work or loved ones, to problems or joys unimagined or deferred. My heart always gives a little bounce at the end of the outward trip as I anticipate seeing my family and at the end of the homeward trek when I think about seeing Dick, if he is not traveling with me, waiting in the terminal for me to arrive.

There is a scary element, of course. At night the engineer may try to make up time lost during the day and I will awake to wild rocking and bumping and wonder briefly about infrastructure. And there are the moments when a passing freight or passenger train seems so close that I could touch it as it rushes by at some unimaginable speed - traveling in the opposite direction. Then these little alarms pass and I settle back and enjoy the ride.