An ode to trains and buses, crossed paths and imagination

This week’s newsletter has nothing at all to do with sports… but it does mention a baseball game. I’d like to use this space to occasionally write essays about things I care about, or things I’m thinking about, or things I’d like to think more about, and this is that. It’s about something mundane that I really missed during the pandemic: public transit. Also, I’d like to preface it with the caveat that I know how lucky I am. I know millions of people had no choice but to keep taking public transit over the past year, exposed to risks I was able to shield myself from.

That said, I recently started taking the train again after being vaccinated, and when I did, I got a bit emotional.

An hour before an afternoon game at Wrigley Field, the L stop echoed. The most recent train of incoming fans had cleared the platform, and no one was waiting around to leave, not then, not so close to first pitch, not when there were beers begging to be drunk and throats itching to scream at a bad call, a good call, any call at all. 

A turnstile clanged forward. Footsteps pattered on tile. Water (let’s hope it’s water) drip-drip-dripped from who knows where, and a few low music notes bounced off the empty. I moved against traffic, astonished at how normal this felt. Walking into the Addison red line station was pure muscle memory. Through the first gate, up the frozen escalator, southbound trains to the right.

And to the left, an elderly man sat on a bench, breathing a song through a saxophone. It wasn’t anything I recognized, wasn’t anything special, but I felt tears at the back of my eyes. I hadn’t realized how much I missed this: the in-between spaces where cities throw strangers together—on their way from here to there, home to work, fun to sleep. I missed sitting across from a woman I’ve never met, accidental eye contact, a polite smile, imagining her story as I look away. I missed clutching a suitcase to my knees and the pinch of the wheel against my foot when the train stops suddenly. I missed the puzzle of transit, of a million people getting where they need to go, feeling the satisfaction of catching a connection and the victory of arriving on time. I missed the stories we tell when we get there.

For me, one of the most upsetting facts of life in the pandemic was the absence of movement. I am a person who prefers to be in motion, on planes, in trains, on sidewalks, preferably not strapped into an automobile. And suddenly, that was all we had: cars that were now pods, sealed off from the people we passed or traveled alongside. That was the safest way to move if we moved at all: with a metal and glass containing our words and breath and germs and songs. And so I drove from New Orleans, where I spent the winter before the pandemic hit, back to Chicago, then across the country with my boyfriend, then all the way back to Washington, D.C. That’s where I live now, and thank god there are trains here, trains up the East Coast and trains underneath the concrete, a way to move with people instead of apart from them, finally, again.

I’ve loved public transit for as long as I can remember, in large part because I grew up with no reliable access to it, with parents who bemoaned this at regular intervals. Their solution was to plan vacations near subways, buses, streetcars, anything that forced us onto a moving vehicle with strangers. Riding public transit was a necessary life skill; we were not going to grow up to be people who took cabs. But this wasn’t only about convenience and practicality. My dad also took immense joy in the mechanics of public transit, in knowing his way and collecting stories of the things he’d overheard and people he’d seen. When I was in college, he learned to perfectly mimic—with an expression of total glee—the voice in the D.C. Metro that tells people to step back, doors are closing. And once, at the end of a long weekend in Boston, he made my mom and me go to an out-of-the-way brunch “because we haven’t ridden the T yet!”

My first memory of taking public transit is also in Boston, years before that brunch. I was probably six or seven, and each time my family walked into a T station, my dad pulled my brother and me over to a map, pointing out where we were and where we were going. He showed us how to swipe our tickets and press through the turnstiles, and we criss-crossed the city, visiting every Revolutionary War site in the guidebook. At one point, I noticed we’d seen the same man on the train more than once. I immediately panicked. There were so many people on the T, so many lines and stops and crowds; this man, I told my dad, had to be following us. Somehow, he convinced me that this was just a coincidence—a crazy, unlikely, odds-defying coincidence that only underscored the magic of the train.

And I still think it’s kind of a miracle, even after years of relying on the 8 bus to get to the dentist and the orange line to zoom to the airport, after enough trips that this should feel mundane. I’ve tried out transit systems in pretty much every city I’ve lived in or visited, from Denver to Istanbul to Sydney to Chicago. I’ve gotten to know a new home by traveling through it, observing the people whose comfort I learn to mimic. I’ve been giddy over how cheap it is to get from a far-flung European airport to my hotel, proud I managed to buy the right ticket in a foreign language. I’ve watched the sun rise over London out a rain-soaked window and daydreamed myself into the world of Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, C.S. Lewis. And every once in a while, I’ve thought of that man in Boston, the first of the people I’ve met without actually meeting, who’ve lived their lives alongside mine for a minute or two or 20. 

On the bus or the train, we become anonymous, blank slates for someone else’s imagination to impose a story upon. I do it all the time: the couple who look shockingly related are heading to the movies, the wrinkled woman with blue-gray hair is on her way to meet a boyfriend she keeps secret from her kids, the harried mom with two toddler boys is riding to nowhere just to keep them entertained. I know I’m wrong, know that odds are, these people are inventing my life too, deciding why my eyes are red one day, why I’m tottering in heels the next, who I’m texting, what I’m listening to, what’s in the crisp white shopping bag at my side.

A few summers ago, I injured my left eye really badly. I had to wear sunglasses at all times because I was light-sensitive, and underneath the tinted frames, my eye was a squinty, red, watery mess. My balance was knocked off-kilter, and I got headaches whenever I looked at screens. For a month, I stayed almost entirely inside and alone, except for every other day, when I rode the L to the doctor. I winced as I made my way down six blocks of sidewalk to the station, but as soon as I sat down on the train, I relaxed. No one raised an eyebrow at the fact that I wore Ray-Bans in the pitch-black tunnels. It didn’t matter that I looked physically frail, somehow even paler than usual, that I exuded pathetic. I was just another person on her way to somewhere, maybe reluctantly, maybe hopefully, maybe without any thought at all.

Most days, I’d see a man who would eventually introduce himself as Darrell. He’s blind and rides the L north and south, then back north and south again. He’s nearly tall as the train car and thin, with an easy smile. His presence put my watery, wounded eye in a kind of perspective, spurred me to buck the hell up and stop wallowing. A few times, the car was quiet enough for us to talk as he passed through. I told him I was on my way to the doctor, dropped $5 in his styrofoam cup. He told me he hoped I wasn’t too sick, and I said I wasn’t. Sometimes, he told me a detail about his day, and then I stepped off the train, and he kept going, and for once I didn’t have to imagine. 

Over the past year, I’ve wondered about Darrell. He wasn’t on any of my L rides last month, when I visited Chicago and tried not to cry at that echoing saxophone, so I can only hope he made it through this past year without too much heartbreak. With no way to know, I’m back to imagining: that he’s fine and his cup is full. And me? I’m just happy to be moving again, with a new train, a new bus schedule to parse, longer escalators and a thicker card, a maze to memorize and imagine, to explore for just $2 a trip. It’s amazing what a world that’ll buy.