Notes from Inside the Train

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On Amtrak, my so-called real life is held at bay

In Philadelphia, the quiet car fills up completely– so completely that I can’t keep my screen hidden from my seat mate.

I don’t know him, but I know enough that he was kind. He gave up his window seat to a couple so that they could sit together.

From WAS to PHI, the quiet car was mostly empty. The lights are dimmed. The car’s mood matches Winter Storm Titan’s steady clouds.

We are heading out of PHI on this hardly-romantic rail line. Train 140 on the Northeast Regional is the blue-steel, hard-working cousin to Amtrak’s more languid long-distance routes.

Like the California Zephyr. I took that old girl from Osceola, Iowa to San Fran in my college days.

The Zephyr crossed Nebraska in the black of night, pulled into Denver in time for breakfast, then climbed and dropped us through the Rockies in the glory of mid-afternoon. Salt Lake City is another midnight stop, so that by the time you are heading over the ghostly Donner Pass, the stories of pioneer cannabalism swirl into stange mid-afternoon naps with the end game of Bay Area strip malls  like a time and space teleport.

Today, I am still 3 hours from my Connecticut home, from the grinding schedules of home, of the expectations of my mom identity. I know the Northeast Regional is primarily a commuter train, and it is filled with business women and men shuttling between big cities and big meetings. Today’s train is swollen with spare tourists trying to run out of town ahead of predicted late season snows.

But to me, these qualifications are side notes. None of this really detracts from the impact on each of us because of what the train is.

The rhythm of the movement and the particularness of being caught for awhile between here and there.

Being on board Amtrak — and other trains — is a forced meditation. It’s a surrender. While I control my home and my schedule and my family, here I’m a passenger, literally and figuratively.

I learned this in my London years, when I gave up the American Middle West way of “My Own Car Island” and moved to this other state of being: inside public transportation. Particularly, inside the train.

People on Tube

Inside the Underground in London, I found my hands were free. I read book after book after book. I knit. I could write or draw or cut pieces for a quilt. I took photographs. I ate noodles.

I once observed a woman using her time on the Tube to trim her fingernails.

Inside the Underground, my eyes were free. I sat with my hands in my lap and stared straight ahead at my own plexiglass reflection. I let them travel inconspicuously over the people around me.

I took in how people looked at different times of day — in the morning, under the fresh sheen of powder and eyeliner. At mid-morning— their eyes already glazed and their shirts considering becoming wrinkled.

At workday’s end, like a misused and under-appreciated action figure, dis- then re-assembled by a five-year-old.

At suppertime, after they’d reassembled themselves, splashed cold water, reapplied their joy.

Late night after drinks, eyes snapping open and shut.

Inside the train, I can listen — to music shambolic music flying down to my ears, curated by me, escorted by my ears straight into the artery of joy that forces my head to sway, because I want to dance.

Or I can listen to the voices of couples, friends, dads, children, in any language, shade or tone.

On Amtrak, like the Underground, my so-called real life is held at bay.

The world outside becomes one long, fast moving picture show, for me alone toPyramid Electric Windows enjoy. The graffiti, the bruised-flat bay waters, the paint-chipped water towers, high-black stone walls, the miles and miles of entrepreneurial spirit reflected back in hand-painted signs on metal-roofed buildings. It all keeps on offering, like a buffet.

Now and then, I pass by the highway. I look into the ant-stream of cars. Tiny individual windows of a red Dodge Caravan or a dingy, sputtering Toyota Corolla. I look hard at the head silhouettes. I imagine what rolls on inside there. Each universe of dreams and failures.

A million images fly by my window, yet each moment is a perfect photograph of nothing particular: a reservoir of possibility and dreams. I do try to Instragram, but all the meaning is inside me, inside the train.

From here, I see hard snow and dead grass alongside each other, leaning into a broken road and I understand what it means to be American again. Imperfect, dissatisfied, constantly pushing through the plains of beauty to find an answer, one which just might be grass and snow and road.

The rails, the frontier… closer to my memories and my ideas collected. Created from necessity, machines speeding movement but also slowing time.

Inside the train, inside this “break” from the right now, I am still. I drink it in, the free world flying by.-

Written on Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 140, WAS to BRP, March 2, 2014

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She teaches and speaks about the rhetorical impact of beautiful writing. A recent transplant to Connecticut, she calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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  2 comments for “Notes from Inside the Train

  1. Mary
    March 3, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I sometimes wonder how we could be related. How come I don’t think and write as beautifully as you. When I read your posts, I wish they would never come to an end, because of their beauty. Your writing makes me smile :).

    • March 3, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Well, I think we all think this beautifully, but the writers’ jobs are to write it down for us. Thanks for doing my taxes all those years, by the way!!

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