In a moment of irresponsibility I left my wallet at the rec this morning, so I decided to swing by and pick it up on my way to work. I left the house at 7:55 AM, and didn’t make it to my workplace, two and a half miles away, until 8:23 AM. No! I didn’t decide to speed-walk today (though, as the crow flies, that might have been more efficient); I was held up by trains—two of them, smugly chugging across my path like mother goose and her graffiti-splattered goslings.

            The trains in Newton are kind of like that perpetual squeak in the back seat during a long car trip. The first time you notice it you think, “That’s annoying, but no worries; I’ll ignore it.” But after a couple hours more of its incessant noise, you find that you can’t ignore it any longer and something must be done about it, even if it means pulling over and kicking the back seat a couple times. But of course, no matter how much you kick and push and jiggle, the squeak remains, and the only thing to do is turn up the music one or two notches and cope. As with squeaks, so with trains. If you are on one side of the tracks and an appointment of yours is on the other, there is no way to confidently say, “Sure thing, I’ll be there in five minutes.” At first that is an annoyance, but after five or six late appointments and shortened lunch hours it becomes infuriating. And there is nothing Newton residents can do about it.

            But, I suppose there are nice things about living in a train town. Those huge, fearfully loud engines and their cars are material embodiments of commerce—a powerful word that brings to mind steel mills, feed lots, river barges piled with raw materials, meat-packing plants, eighteen-wheelers, cargo planes and trans-continental ships loaded with oil, coal, coffee, cars and computers. Those trains shortening our lunch hours are proof that goods are moving and at least some people are hard at work, and I appreciate that about them. In Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilderthe father in the story holds up a shiny new half dollar to his son and says, “Do you know what a half dollar is? It’s work, son. That’s what money is; it’s hard work.” And the same could be said of trains. Trains stand for hard work and are catalysts of commerce.

            To me the benefit of trains is in their sound. It seems simple and insignificant, but one of the most comforting, reassuring noises I know is the moan of a train whistle in the night.  There is a menace in it, like in distant thunder, but through the walls of a house or apartment it is muffled, far away and even beautiful.

            So yes, trains are a nuisance sometimes, and they made me late for work this morning. But I’m also a nuisance sometimes and make myself late for work—no reason to hate myself . . . or trains.

In “The Study” on 8th Street
April 24, 2013

Image: "The Great Western Railway Night Mail"

Oil on Board, 1913

J.G. Woodford