I'm a Train Girl
By Deborah Gambs
I lie ensconced in cool cotton sheets of a slightly scratchy weave.
Denise sleeps next to me, occasionally smacking her lips, her head burrowing
tighter into the pillow. It is late, nearly 1:00 am, we have gone to bed
after a shower in the pantry off the kitchen downstairs. Cleaned off the
4th of July smoke of charcoal snakes and sparklers, the mucous-y glitter of
lightning bugs, and sweet watermelon juice. Our grandmother and grandfather
snore lightly in their room across the hall from us. The window is propped
open several inches, and July night breeze comes through the screen.
Through the filmy curtains, a street light brightens a corner of the room,
and I see the book shelves built into the wall above the small empty single
bed. The light glances off old Donna Parker stories, and the "We Were
There" series. Books our father and his brothers and sisters never got
around to packing up to put on the shelves in their own homes. Off in the
night, from the edge of town, I hear the Burlington Northern's whistle. Its
sound enters with the breeze, dances with the light, makes music across the
pale green walls of this bedroom. My palms touch the chilled bars of the
iron headboard behind me while my mind is carried with the cargo, around the
bend, beyond the point where the tracks meet the highway.
I rode a train only once as a child, when
I was eight. The four of
us--mother, father, two daughters--rode Amtrak from western Iowa to Chicago to
visit my dad's sister and her family. We drove from our hometown to
Creston, Iowa, the nearest Amtrak stop. The train departed in the middle of
the night, amidst a summer thunderstorm. Ours was a double decker car, and
we sleepily climbed the carpeted stairs to the top level. Several hours
into the trip, I awakened. The lights had gone out, the air conditioning
failed, and sweaty air clawed at my neck. Through the window, by flashes of
lightning, I saw we traveled across a narrow bridge, and black space fell
below us. The air colored green by the stormy sky, the black of slapping
tree branches and the smudging gray of clouds and rain were framed by the
rounded rubber edges of the window. A dim palette, I turned to see if
anyone else had woken, if anyone else was startled. They lay there silently
sleeping. My excitement at chugging across open space to a new destination
won out over fear. I closed my lids, forced myself back to sleep.
I am a train girl. I like the pace and sway
of trains, traveling
across space en masse. Trains are one of the more perfect technologies,
elements of being social creatures. As a mode of transportation they were a
good idea, and it's a shame they haven't remained well-received in the U.S.
Traveling by train is a cheerful alternative to the alienation of car
culture, small units of people traveling rapidly across land just to get
When I moved from Chicago to New York at
24, I took Amtrak for the
second time. The train leaves Chicago at 3:00 in the afternoon, and so you
sleep (if you aren't too near the doors shuttling open and closed between
cars) through Indiana and Ohio. The train slows at tiny depots, sounds its
horn on the way in and out of town, and the older buildings close to the
tracks, sided in cheap aluminum or peeling paint, slowly slide past. Early
in the morning, passing through the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania, the
mist rises off Lake Erie. The train then ambles south along the Hudson
before arriving at Penn Station around noon. Rivers and grasses, trees,
fields, towns and the back ends of small cities. The world and its living
constantly pass in and out of view. Trains ask us to experience the trip,
not just the arrival and destination.
My love of trains is both a romance, and
a romanticization. Trains
are a nostalgic attachment of mine. Their rhythm, the changes in geography,
slows me down. They connect me to the softer side of myself, the girl in me
which experiences wonder at so many things. Trains leave time to adjust,
take in. Time to experience the passage across.
Living in the borough of Queens now, this
romance of mine has
transferred to the elevated 7 train. I love the Number 7. My roommate who
recently moved here from Boston hates it, and I've heard it's ranked pretty
low in the Straphangers polls. She argues that it is inefficient,
unreliable, slow, and takes an indirect route to get into Manhattan. I say
the last is certainly true, and part of my delight has to do with how it
wends through western Queens. As a small town girl transplanted to the
city, I am so captured by this train that I risk appearing a fool, trotting
out my quaint affection for it in random conversations.
If you take the train at night, sit facing
'the city' as the cars
curve from the 45th Rd-Court Square station toward Queensborough Plaza. The
lights of the 59th street bridge will string across the East River before
you. Midway between those two stops, notice that the bridge is overlaid by
the grid which supports the Silvercup Studio's sign, and the looming letters
block the lights of Manhattan. From this position, the capital S is on your
right, the word, appearing in reverse, lit to be seen by those who live on
the other side, at the center of the New York universe.
The 7 train line is the home of Queensborough
Plaza, my preferred
train stop. I will hop onto the 7 Express when I am leaving Midtown, just
so that I am forced to switch to the local at this station. It is an
opportunity for waiting. Wind whips across the platform in the winter
months, and people take refuge in the stairwells or look for a good angle in
relation to the wooden backs of the benches. If you look to the north
during daylight hours, the red train bridge faintly flames through the
washed out blue swoops of the Triborough Bridge. To the south and east, the
bridges of Brooklyn are framed by staunch watertowers atop the low offices
and industries of Long Island City. This is a spot for people watching.
Latino daylaborers head home to Corona in workboots and with backpack
dangling off one shoulder. Gray-suited and heavily moustached white men
trek back to Long Island, transfer to the LIRR at 61st and Woodside.
Chinese women return to Flushing. Kids of all ethnicities go in all
directions after school. And there are sprinkles of people like me, a young
white woman, student, no true Manhattanite, living in an outer borough.
I love that the 7 is an elevated train all
the way from Hunters
Point just up to Flushing. That it rides upon tracks supported by a cement
bridge trimmed in tiled blue and yellow. The trestle is not delicate, not
an intricate criss-crossing of steel girders, nor is it crude or overly
stocky. Just a pale cement lodged with a layer of small pebbles. A
handsome aunt. Solid, comfortable, a bit old-fashioned, stodgy. Not unlike
this part of Queens. The tiling hints of Scandinavia, and this confuses me.
As a support for the old red train cars, those contrasting colored tiles
worked. Now the Redbirds are gone and the modern silver replacements seem
off-kilter. But it is not just its cars or trestle that I adore. In the
summertime, when I bicycle from Sunnyside, through Woodside, into Jackson
Heights, the 7 moves thunderously above me and its condensation spits at my
bike helmet. It is glorious to pass the bodegas, fishmarkets, diners, and
99cent stores of Roosevelt Avenue beneath that deafening damp from above.
The movement of bicycle on pavement, between lines of black cars, not quite
in sync with the clack overhead is a risky rush.
I wonder, if I had been a boy, would I have
been given train sets?
Collected them? Placed wooden tracks together with puzzle-piece connecting
points? Might I have painted models, sent electric trains through tunnels
covered in green Astroturf? I don't think so. There is something 'girlish'
in my romance. No desire for conducting the train, for orchestrating its
movement. Rather, to be pulled by it, transported, moved across space and
time, at a speed allowing for adaptation.
In college, sitting on the edge of my narrow
twin bed, propped up on
cement blocks to create storage space below, I make a weekly phone call to
my parents. "Hello?" My mother's voice on the phone. "Hi Mom, it's me."
"What's that noise?" It is May, a Sunday afternoon. The windows of our
dorm room are wide open. "The men's volleyball team is practicing, there's
a sand court on the lawn." I get up to close the windows, carrying the
phone with me. "How is everything?" "Fine. We're going to your
Grandmother's for Memorial Day weekend." I lean back against the mattress.
Her voice chats on. Through the phone line, past her conversation, a
train's horn weaves into my ear. From its sound, I know she sits at the
kitchen table, chin propped on elbow, the wooden back door open, and the
storm window of the aluminum screen door slid up so that spring might enter
Just three blocks away from my parents'
house, the train tracks run
parallel to the last streets of town. Train tracks my sister and I walked
along, our shoes dragging through the porous red-brown rocks. We picked up
iron spikes come loose from the ties, tossed gravel down the side of the
embankment, laid our ear to the tracks, feeling for vibrations from the
oncoming train or the one just past. Climbing down the embankment along the
tracks, we discovered raspberry bushes tangled amidst itchweed and scrub
brush. The first time we found them, we ran home to tell our mother, feet
slapping the pavement down the hill, across the bridge over Red Oak Creek,
up Reed Street, through the neighbor's back yard. She came back with us,
carrying buckets and pails. We pulled the ripe fruit, careful to avoid
pricking our fingers, popped them into our mouths. As far as we knew, no
one owned the land along the railroad tracks, and we laughed at our find,
gleefully collecting fruit free for the taking. Mom taught us to just
barely fill the bottoms of the pails, so that the small dark purply black
flesh stayed firm, would not be crushed, damaged and bleeding in the bucket.
She froze the berries to make fruit crisps the following winter.
Years later, when my mother came to visit
me in New York, we rode
from Sunnyside to Flushing, watching Queens shift before our eyes. She was
weak from chemotherapy, couldn't walk far, and the 7 train was our crowded
tour bus across Jackson Heights and Corona. We got out at the end of the
line, came above ground, and had bubble tea in Flushing's Chinatown. Sweet
hot drinks with dense prune-colored tapioca pearls, and light buns filled
with pasty red beans. Afterwards, we carried leftover tea to the train, for
our ride home on the number 7.