Today is my birthday. Because I like symbolic gestures, I’ve scheduled this post to be released at exactly 8:50 am EST the exact time of my birth 48 years ago in a Manhattan hospital. I will be back in Manhattan at that moment, in the apartment I have known for almost 40 years, many of those as a resident, and no year having gone by without being a guest. I will likely take a long walk in my native town and pass through places my feet have touched and eyes have reflected hundreds of times over the years. Some journeys take you forward; others take you back, but every journey, whatever the gains and losses encountered along the way, is about movement onward.
I write those words with a smile, knowing that I have so often lamented that my life is going nowhere, or going wrong. With the perspective of age, I can now see that it was always going exactly where and how it needed to go, and that I could not be sitting here as the person I now am had any of those gains and losses been missed. I now understand that the happenings I construed as delays or detours or even disasters were all uniquely designed to keep me on track and safely arrived at my destination. But I haven’t always seen things this way. I haven’t always had this philosophical detachment from and faith in right outcomes. I wanted it all to be as clear as showing up on time with the right stuff and proceeding from point A to point B. Maybe this is why many years ago I came to love train travel. It gave me exactly what was missing in my life: getting somewhere.
Old Penn Station, NYC, archival photo
I love waiting rooms in train stations. Not only do they have inspiring and expansive architecture, like secular cathedrals erected to the gods of travel, but they hold the history of every passenger who ever left one place and went to another, for business, for pleasure, for family, to experience new things or revisit old ones, to embrace adventures or escape them, to change who they are, or rediscover who they always were.
It’s all there, in the great everchanging hanging board of destination cities and times, in the sellers of tickets who literally hold your future in their hands, in the great iron horses waiting on the tracks, ready to carry hundreds of souls to their destinies. It’s all there to feel anew as soon as I step into the great vaulted spaces, ceilings high to hold all those aspirations, my footsteps echoing on the polished floors, the air astir with the passing of persons with places to go, the very manifestation of a world of human possibility.
Rain Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner, 1844
I love the first forward movement of the train when I am in my seat and ready to go. There is always that slight tug backwards and then the first shift forward, like an animal recoiling before it can leap. I feel it in my gut, the way your stomach flutters when you set eyes on a lover, and in my mind I feel that same excitement and contentment of knowing now something is HAPPENING, now I am GOING SOMEWHERE.
But I also love the last moments of approaching the end of the line. For the route I most often take, the Boston to NYC Amtrak, this means my native city coming into view in the distance, and identifying all the buildings I know so well, seeing that crazy impossible cluster of tall buildings and the millions of lives in and around them, all standing together on a tiny sliver of island, and knowing that is where I come from, that is why I am who I am, that is the cityscape whose image is engraved on my heart. Then we enter the tunnel to pull into the station and those last moments of rushing through the subterranean darkness make my heart beat faster. I am transformed; when I exit the train in Penn Station, I leave behind who I am outside NYC, I become again the determined headlong urban walker, weaving untouchable through the masses of people, more people in five minutes than I normally see in a month back in Boston, like a shark through water, retracing a course I know so well I could do it blindfolded. The electricity rises in my bloodstream. I’m home.
I also love arriving in a new unfamiliar place, the feeling that anything can happen, the focus and acute senses needed to navigate an entirely unknown place and people and get to where I need to be, a hotel, further transportation. I have always claimed that I have “travel magic.” I do a lot of research when I travel, but there is always an element of the unexpected, and when I have taken great leaps of faith that things will work out, they always do, thanks to a combination of my own openness, curiosity and instincts with a lot of help from the kindness of strangers who seem to materialize at just the right time with exactly the right information or services. Knowing I have this luck does not mean I rely upon it, but I have come to embrace that sense of friendly uncertainty as both exciting and instructive. Its application to everything unfamiliar that presents itself to me has been one of the saving graces of my life.
Compartment Car 293, by Edward Hopper, 1938
I also love everything that happens between departure and arrival, especially on long distance train rides. It’s one thing to board a plane and several hours later find yourself across the continent in another time zone having only witnessed cloud formations and the seatback in front of you, and quite another to witness every city and every shift in landscape that lies between beginning and end. A few years ago I had the great good fortune to take the train from New York to New Orleans. My cabin was small and the hours many, and yet, I have never felt time pass so quickly or had more spacious accommodations. The rhythm of the rocking of the train lulled me to sleep at night, and the sight of one town after another kept me window-gazing between the calls for meals in the dining car where I met fellow travelers, train enthusiasts and lovers of adventure. By the time I reached the final stop in New Orleans, I felt so content and energized I would have stayed on that train and let it take me anywhere. When would you ever feel that way upon leaving an airplane?
There is a timelessness and universality to staring out the window of a moving train, aligning me with all the artists of the past for whom train travel served as a theme or motif, from the French Impressionists to Kerouac to Tolstoy to Hitchcock who understood the romance of the rails, but also aligning me with my own past and future selves. All of life seems like it is on track and making its way from where it once was to where it must eventually be, and that is a wonderful feeling to have in times of such great uncertainty.
Happy Birthday to Me. And to all of you good people out there, may your travels this holiday season be safe and satisfying!