»  The Straggler, No. 13

November 10, 2003

  Riding the Rails


Off to a dinner date in New York City. This presents me with a choice: to drive, or take the train. My house is 36 miles from the Empire State Building as the crow flies, so I am far beyond the reach of the subway system. If I want to ride the rails I depend on the Long Island Rail Road. Driving in for an evening date like this one, I may be able to find a parking place on the Manhattan streets, but more likely will end up spending $20 on garage parking. Add in $5 for gas and I am way over the cost of a train ride — $15 round trip to Penn Station. On the other hand, as a driver I have my freedom. I can leave the event when I please and drive straight home. Taking the train, if I time my departure wrong, I can be sitting an hour in Penn waiting for a train. But then, on the other other hand, there is the near inevitability of a stressful traffic jam and a late arrival … I decide to take the train.

I can never ride the Long Island Rail Road nowadays without a smug, holiday sort of feeling. For seven years I rode the wretched thing every day to a job in Manhattan. Seven years! — more than three thousand trips on a packed commuter train, in full business kit! Now, thank God, working for myself, in my own home, I ride only if I choose to, and generally in off hours. I go to the station now like a soldier returning in peacetime to one of his old battlefields.

Battlefield it sometimes was. I recall at least two fights with fellow commuters. (The word "fight" here is to be understood in the context of middle-class suburban gentility. These were shouting matches with, at worst, some rude gesticulation, garnished with suggestions that the other party, being plainly too exquisite a soul to endure the conditions of a crowded train without bursting into tears, might perhaps be better off taking a coach and four to his place of employment.) Both my opponents were boorish idiots — Democrats, I feel sure. One was so obese he slopped over into my third of the three-across seat, obliging me to assert territorial rights by jamming my left elbow into his blubber. Another, seated next to me, leaned over to read what I was typing into my laptop computer, without even a pretense that he was doing anything else, and made a childish fuss when I told him to mind his own stinking business. Militavi non sine gloria.

There were occasional fatalities, too. Anna Karenina's example continues to inspire, and more than once my commuter train was slowed or stopped due to a "fatal incident" on the track. One of these occasions was in the depths of winter, so that from my window I could see bright splashes of blood in the trackside snow as we eased past, leading to something hidden from sight beneath a bright yellow plastic shroud, something smaller than an intact human body. My homebound train was, too, one behind the train on which Colin Ferguson went berserk and shot 25 fellow commuters, killing six of them, in December 1993. Our train was held up for over an hour, and we had no clue what had happened, this being in the era B.C.P. — before cell phones. My wife, watching the TV news at home, was frantic with worry, though kind neighbors came in to keep her company. (Telling me about it afterwards, she reported that: "People kept saying the same thing: 'It must have been a black guy. If it was a white guy they would have told us.'" So much for the careful sensitivities of the U.S. media.)

These commuter trains are, of course, little more than glorified subways. This is especially true on the L.I.R.R., which does not go anywhere. The lines north and west out of New York City were genuine railroads going to distant cities — Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Their commuter function was grafted on to a history of real locomotives hauling real people to real places. The L.I.R.R. never went anywhere, and there is something slightly bogus about its staff of uniformed conductors, its printed timetables, its high-flown announcements about "station stops" and "brake tests." Hey: If you're a real train, give us a buffet car. Otherwise, why don't you just integrate with the city subway system?

Even those better-appointed commuter lines going north and west are still not trains in the full sense. A real train has compartments and corridors. My English childhood was full of these wonderful conveyances. With very little difficulty I can still summon up the warm, dusty smell of the seat fabric, the little framed pictures of seaside resorts or mountainscapes that decorated the compartments, the fold-up tables you could race toy cars on, the strenuous finger-crushing maneuver with a leather strap that you had to execute in order to open a window, the drafty, ill-lit shabbiness of a waiting-room all fugged up with cigarette smoke … Robert Louis Stevenson's book A Child's Garden of Verses was a great favorite in my family, and we all knew the clattering trochees of "From a Railway Carriage":

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches …

My own children were denied these pleasures until we all went off to spend a summer in China two years ago. Then they savored the luxurious delights of "soft sleeper" class (two bunks on each side of a closed compartment) and the gymnastic adventure of "hard sleeper" (three bunks on each side of a compartment open to a common corridor). These experiences were, to judge from the children's subsequent reminiscences, far more thrilling to them than the Great Wall or the Summer Palace. They are spoiled for the Long Island Rail Road now, though. A weekend trip into Manhattan used to be a treat to look forward to. Now, they can't be bothered.

On this particular evening the ride into the city is uneventful, but I mistime the end of my date horribly, and end up with 45 minutes to kill in Penn Station. It is a miserable place, the one bookstore closed at this time of night, the magazine outlets patrolled by vigilant Pakistanis who stand behind you making dramatic throat-clearing noises if you browse a magazine for more than ten seconds. I slink off at last to the waiting room, just behind a noisy swarm of sports fans from some event at Madison Square Garden. By the time I get in there, all the seats are taken. At 11:30 p.m. on a weekday, I cannot sit down in Penn Station!

Glumly, a little tipsy, I stand there waiting for my train. My mind wanders. I recall a trip I made to Alabama just ten days ago. I had a rented car and drove all round the state for a week. Major sporting events aside, I was never once held up in bad traffic. When people ask me for my impressions of Alabama, the first thing that comes to mind is: "Wonderful roads!" I don't know anything about the trains in Alabama, but with roads like that, who needs trains? Someone remind me, please: Why do I live anywhere near New York City?