Train Travel

city flower

I took the commuter train out of the city this weekend for a jaunt with old friends. I was looking forward to taking a familiar route  to meet up with familiar faces, but mostly I was excited about the few quiet hours I’d spend alone on the train. I have a deep and long-standing affection for the Metro North’s New Haven line which barrels along the Connecticut shoreline, into the belly of the beast at Grand Central, and out again. When I was a little girl, my dad worked in publishing on New York’s 5th Avenue. His building at number 666 looked to me like a giant cheese grater and on special occasions I would get to go with him there.  We rode the train together, I wore lace-up sneakers and carried my fancy shoes--mary janes--like the other commuting women. In college, the train was my salvation. I would pack a duffle and squeeze my way onto a crowded rush hour train, thoughts of my mom’s chili and the crackle of the fireplace luring me homeward. When I was lucky, the conductor would never even get to me and I’d have fare for the trip back into the city. For the two hours it took me to get home, I would lean my head against the greasy train window and watch the gray world pass by. I used to prop my weekend reading on my lap. Learning by osmosis.

For people who don’t live there, the route along the Connecticut shore can feel like an interminable middle road between New York and Boston. On summer weekends, traffic on I-95 through Connecticut is so sluggish that even the state’s most stalwart defenders will curse its name. But the train? It just rides along. If you’re lucky enough to live east of New Haven, like my parents do, a connecting train snakes you through marshes and homeward. Depending on the time of day, the light is either all pinks and blues and silvers or golds and greens and blues. Train travel is pure romance.

After college I flung myself across an ocean to live in France. My return stateside found me first in North Carolina and then in Rhode Island and all this life in other places meant years away from this particular train. I didn't have to be on the train to imagine it: the smell of the vinyl seats, the smudgy spots on the windows where other passengers have leaned their weary foreheads, the click, click of the conductor as she'd make her way toward me to punch my ticket, the crumpled brown paper bags with empty cans of cheap beer, the dog-eared copies of the New York Post left on seats, the conductors calling out the town names, their Connecticut accents causing them to eat their t’s.

The catch, of course, is that nothing stays the same for very long. The trains that I took for much of my childhood and young adulthood have recently been replaced. The new trains are glitzy by comparison---all lights and beeps and clean white and red seats. Lucky for me, on Saturday morning the new automated announcements weren’t working. I got to hear the the conductor’s voice just the way I remember it, “New Haven will be the last stop. Please remember your belongings as you exit the train.”