Railfan

Dear J-

As we leave the station the voice whispers rules overhead. No smoking. No music. No noise. No conversations. No feet on the seats, shoed or otherwise. A thousand noes bloom through the public address system, and nary a one is relevant. Now arriving. Next stop. It is our guide through the lonely dark, our every very way and path. I could get up and explore the train from stem to stern, our sturdy iron ship of the rails; I’d connect the mystery voice to a face and find out for myself how the curves may match up. When they have male and female conductors working the same train they usually have female pronouncements from on high, perhaps and instinctive reaction to your mom. Yes’m.

We have a spell in the rain today, precipitation giving us a break from puddles and damp, Our sprinklers are still on a timer and going off regularly as their programming dictates, one of a thousand helpful robots I’ll see today, from door openers to ticket takers and all the electrical servants in between. You don’t realize what the gradual accretion of devices and objects mean, how it feels to be living in the modern world, as it becomes everyday amazing instead of novelly remarkable. The first time I rode Caltrain — and the last time, to be honest, having moved away almost twenty years ago now — I still would go to the window and buy paper tickets, which the conductor would punch and eye you carefully to make sure you were out at the right stop; you could be so brave as to nap and keep your ticket in the little metal clip (still present on the Nippon Sharyo gallery cars!) pointing to your seat but I knew I would miss my stop otherwise.

Then it was 4th and Townsend, a straight shot down from Powell Street BART and one you could time right on Saturdays: first train out of Berkeley, first ride out of the City and you were in Palo Alto by 0800, the rest of the weekend yours to spend together. I don’t remember what I must have seen along the tracks but the wooded Atherton stop and the Peninsula Italian-American Social Club ring bells in my head every time we pass through. The steady march of the conductors, though; the quiet solitude of having a car all to yourself and wow, we’re riding the train somewhere: we have commanded the earth itself to revolve for us in silent supplication of technology, a clear link to the now hundred years of nostalgia associated with rail rides.

Mike

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