So I arrived in New York City today. I’ll be here for most of the week attending an I.T. business development course.
This is the third time I’ve been to the city. I’d have to say that each time, the most enjoyable part of the trip was the actual train ride through Philadelphia to New York and then back.
I suspect part of it is because I love railroads — always have. It’s not that I care much for the actual trains — I don’t. But growing up, there was never a trestle or switchbox or underground tunnel that my friends and I wouldn’t explore. We were like amateur archeologists scouring over the crumbled, ancient infrastructure of generations past. The older and more defunct the tracks were, the better.
It’s a habit that didn’t fade away with age. When I was a freshman in high school, I actually failed ninth-grade English because of my preoccupation with the subway system.
It all started after a chance introductory ride when I was about 14. My imagination ran away with it, and I found myself wanting to examine and learn everything about Philadelphia’s simple, two-line subway system: How do the tracks, signals and switchboxes work? What’s in those underground storage depots? Where is the graffiti concentrated? What else can I find by following those older, defunct rail lines that split off into nothingness?
As a young rider, I realized pretty quickly that I could never get those premium-view seats at the very front (or back) of the train during the after-school rush period; I could only snag a good seat in the late mornings and early afternoons, when most people were at work or school. So I played hooky a few times and it eventually became a frequent habit; I’d use my school tokens to ride the subway all day long, mesmerized. I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I might actually fail English — a first-period class and therefore begged to be skipped. But what I was doing seemed so much more interesting than plain old writing. In my mind, I was discovering.
I had to attend summer school to keep up with my English requirements. Everyone who knew me was perplexed — English was my best subject. I never told anyone why it happened.
Fast-forward to today, and the train rides are more interesting for observation than youthful exploration. For a seldom-traveled person such as myself, even a 2.5-hour junket from Philadelphia through New Jersey to New York seems to provide an unending stream of side-scrolling snapshots of American life. I love to see that rare, resilient sign of vibrancy: the little-league baseball game; the bustling shipyard that sits on the edge of a beautiful bog; the tall building at the town center with an unforgettable architecture.
Most of the time, though, I’ve passed through one stagnant old town after another, and it’s sad. Decaying houses with boarded up windows and trash strewn practically from their back doors down to the railroad embankment. Schools with barbed wire fences that look like either high-rise housing projects or prisons. Clusters of abandoned warehouses that mark the hollowed-out heart of old Pennsylvania Steel.
The affluent settlements are notable, too, if only for the bland sameness of it all — Wal Mart after Wal Mart to seed the cul de sac colonies, with their cloned McMansions that stand shoulder to shoulder like circled wagons.
I look around me on the train, and people are usually napping, yelling at their cell phones or frowning at their laptops. They probably take the trip every week. Not me. I put on my headphones, queue up a soothing, instrumental playlist, lean forward and absorb it all. I dare not sleep, because there is a compelling story in the making here — the American story.