I love trains. I love everything about trains. I love that they arrive on time (usually), sliding into the station in a manner that is both unassuming and grand, as if to say, “Being this impressive is simply a daily activity for me.” I love how strangers get on a train, spend the ride quietly checking each other out from behind their newspapers, and then get off without saying a word to each other but somehow having come together as a community.
And then there are the people you do talk to on the train. Once, on a long train ride from D.C. to New York, I held my exhausted and crying ten-month-old, trying desperately to get him to sleep. By the time we pulled into Penn Station, every adult on our car had given a sympathetic nod or a completely useless piece of advice.
I used to take the train from the edges of Philadelphia into Thirtieth Street Station. I was working at Penn at the time, and I often worked on the train, leading to a remarkably high proportion of train metaphors in my writing. Zachary was just a year old. He quickly flunked out of day care and we got an au pair who would walk me to the train every morning. As the train pulled into the Wyndmoor stop, Zachary’s little arm and legs would start flailing with excitement, much to the amusement of the other passengers. He never cared that he was saying goodbye to me because there was a train to watch.
About a month into this arrangement, I found myself walking from Thirtieth Street Station to Penn with a young man. We started chatting and I introduced myself. “You’re the one whose son loves the train,” he commented. That, in case you were wondering, is how I would most like to be identified – “The One Whose Son Loves the Train.”
Alas, it is not to be. Because, while Zach became a train fanatic and spent one entire year playing with nothing but his Thomas set, my second son has only a normal enjoyment of trains. Fount of testosterone that he is, Benjamin’s third word was “truck,” and he quickly developed a passion for motor vehicles with giant carbon footprints.
Imagine the dismay of his mother, who would like nothing better than to never again set foot in an automobile and instead spend her life riding the rails.
Around this time we made a friend who worked for London’s Transport Authority. I was pretty much an instant groupie and worked hard to tone down my hero worship lest I scare her away. I kept pretending my excitement was only on behalf of my children, when really I figured only the coolest of the cool got to work in public transportation.
We were taking a lot of busses then, which might explain why Ben became more interested in automobiles than trains. Busses were simply easier with the stroller. We did, however, have special occasions when we used the Tube, and I loved that uriney rush of air that accompanied a train’s arrival into a tube stop.
I do think that the lack of daily train exposure in his life is part of why Ben has developed what I can only characterize as an unhealthy fondness for cars and trucks.
I was determined to avoid a repeat of that situation with Lilah. Unfortunately, the trains here in New Jersey run only at rush hour, which is also rush hour for us. They run outside my house, and we can see them from our window, but I’m having a hard time nailing down exactly when they go by. Usually, I grab her and lift her to the window to catch just the tail end of the train.
We also live right next to the heating oil company, and their trucks go by all the time. Hence, Lilah has mastered “Guck!!” but cannot yet say “train.”
One day, I took her to the Lionel store and was gratified to discover her enthusiasm for model trains. I would have loved to have given her a house with a train running through the kitchen, but as I am sure you could have predicted, that house has fallen through already. (You like how at this point a house falling through doesn’t even warrant its own post?)
A couple of weeks ago, I took Lilah to the station, but it turned out that I had gotten the schedule wrong. When we turned to leave without actually seeing a train, she burst into tears, making me terribly proud.
In the last few days, I’ve noticed a change in my daughter. When trucks drive by, she has stopped shouting “Guck!” with quite the enthusiasm she used to muster. Instead, whenever she hears a long, distinctive rumble slowly getting louder and the accompanying whistle, her head tilts up, she breaks out into a smile, and her little arms start gesticulating towards the train track while she says something completely unintelligible. It sounds like “ackghabacabaga.”
But I know exactly what she is saying.