Getting ready for bed just now, I heard a train whistle out my window. It’s been a little warmer, more like spring, and I’ve started leaving the windows open just a crack at night to get some air. This train was not all that way off in the distance, probably ten blocks or so from my apartment, but I heard that first punch of the whistle as the train comes out into the open after leaving Grand Central and the labyrinth of tunnels that take trains north into the suburbs and away and it stopped me.
I grew up with trains crossing fresh fields taking fruit and vegetables from the farms near my house into the city. It was exciting. We used to wave at the engineers and count the cars every time we’d stop in the car at a lowered crossing gate, watching the trains cross in front of us. But it’s a very different sense you get of trains when they are transporting people instead of cargo. The same sound that used to mean something fun was about to happen now, a game even, sounds just as lonely as it’s always described. The lonely sound of the train whistle, disappearing into the night, isn’t that it? That sound leaves a hollow, empty echo of the trains as they dissolve in the distance with just enough of the rumbling sound of all that metal on the tracks to remind you of their size, their weight, their speed.
Traveling on trains used to be an elegant business in my family, all white gloves and bar cars. When I was little, my grandfather would take us into Chicago on the trains to go to political events and parades. We would dress up with hats and patent leather shoes and he’d introduce us to the train men as if we were celebrities. I felt so grown up.
There it is again. The train is getting farther away now. The whistle competes with the sound of traffic, car radios and horns.
That whistle should call up images of folks going home from work or visiting family, going out to dinner, or getting away for a few days. But it doesn’t. It sounds like heartbreak and loss, as if the train is separating people instead of bringing them together. Running down the platform, waving for the train man not to leave without you, settling into a seat, glancing out the window, but there’s nobody there. The whistle is about loneliness, leaving, and loss. It never reminds me of coming together, only of coming apart.
So, how is it that the one calling card of the train displays such sad sentiment when the whole purpose of trains to take people where they are going, bring them closer to where they want to be? I’m going to take one of these trains in a few days that will bring me to the airport so I can fly out to visit my family. But I know already, having done this so many times, that I will feel wistful, anxious, and unsettled doing so. And I think it’s that whistle. Once you start to move out of the station, you hear the whistle and it means leaving, not going. I won’t be going to visit, I’ll be leaving my home. Why is there no neutral ground?
It could just be that I need to take trains more often so that I can remember how thrilling it was, sitting in the back seat of the car, hearing the ding of the bells as the gate was being lowered, and waiting to catch the first sight of the engine or the last sight of the man on the platform in the caboose. When I was in high school, we’d shout out at the engineers and the train men to see if they would wave back to us so we could tell our friends that we’d made contact. We were stuck in place, but they were going some place. These guys were working on the railroad, and moving freight. They stood for progress and Made in America.
I don’t hear it now. The passengers on that train are probably out of the city, on their way north, maybe all the way to Albany or Montreal. Should get there in a couple of hours. Just enough travel time to catch up on that book or finish that report that’s due tomorrow. Maybe when they come back, they will take in a show or try a new restaurant. Maybe they are gone for good, giving up on the city and whatever brought them here.
When I am on a train, hearing that whistle, it sounds to me like, “Get out of my way, I am coming through! I've broken free of the city and the vast open stretches of the prairies and fields lay out before me.”
It’s nothing but empty bravado, but I love it.