They were never before, when I lived on the eastern seaboard, an item of interest. Now, in Chicago, or what they call Chicago-land (God knows where those borders reside), interminable freight trains, not to mention the occasional idling commuter transport, insist on inserting themselves into daily life. No schedule of mine therefore, is safe, and must be flexible enough to accommodate these hulking, cacophonous conveyances.
They remain for me to this day, some twenty years later, alien interruptions that continue to take me by surprise. But I accept them with grace and patience (rarely forgetting to congratulate myself on my equanimity). While I wait, I look around to peek in on my counterparts in the neighboring cars, looking for any signs of frustration or impatience, for the fuming, for the steam coming out of their ears. But no, they too seem unconcerned.
But no matter. These trains, I contend, are a blight. No, that’s unfair. Not the trains themselves, of course. Clearly, they represent a failure of urban planning, the unwillingness or inability on the part of townships and counties and the state to come to some sort of understanding. Where are the bridges and underpasses? Few and far between is where. This is hardly rural Oklahoma, but a major American city, around which a multitude of communities have spread outward until a map became the only real way to tell them and their five million inhabitants apart. And yet, countless pairs of train-tracks criss-cross Chicago’s many interlocking communities, seemingly willy-nilly, their only rhyme or reason being whatever individual history can explain them.
Yes, these constant, random, unpredictable interruptions of traffic demonstrate a clear indifference to the admittedly provincial needs of what must seem, to the Grand Poo-Bahs, to be the great unwashed, of which I proudly count myself a member. I suppose there’s just a little steam coming from my ears after all.
On the other hand, I willingly concede that the tracks, along with the trains that roll along them, are a lifeblood coursing through our collective, arterial thoroughfares. They carry the raw materials necessary to our society to those places where they can be smelted down for building, or burned for fuel, or cut down to a more manageable scale, where they can eventually be converted into that in which we live, or upon which we sit, or at which we eat.
In fact, I love them. I love the look of them: the official stenciling upon their iron walls, as well as the rebellious graffiti beside it. As frustrating and unaccountable as I find the occasional delays they impose, I love to watch them as much when they sit as when they rush by. I love the sound of them: the rumble of their weight, the clacking of metal. When the sun is down, and I am safely home, sitting on my back porch stoop, I hear the distant, prolonged wail of the Burlington Northern, and feel somehow comforted.
But in the early AM, when I’m racing to be on time for work, I see them only as impeding my forward progress. They obstruct me no less when I’m rolling home, but somehow the effect is less pronounced. Sitting in my car with the day behind me, the wait takes on a meditative respect. In those final moments, as I watch the last of the blinking of the cautionary red lights, and the rising of the flimsy, striped, wooden gates, and the slow rolling past of the last of the innumerable freight cars, I think to myself, each time almost without exception, how much I miss and how much I long to once again see, that traditional punctuation following what seems like the longest sentence in the world, the humble red caboose, whose sole occupant would, a long time ago, sometimes emerge to wave, as if in thanks, to all the cars quietly waiting for his train to pass by.