If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that trains are wonderful creatures.
I might not have said that a week and a half ago. At that time, I was standing on a platform at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal ten minutes before my train was supposed to depart, wearing about twenty layers of clothing and carrying a thirty-pound duffel bag. The doors to the train were closed. This closed-door thing had never happened before—usually early passengers are free to board the train—and it was not an altogether pleasant surprise. The underground passageway was a good four hundred degrees warmer than the outside temperature. I think I actually saw steam evaporating from a few bald people’s heads.
Would-be passengers began to congregate, but the doors remained suctioned shut. I set my bag on the gum-speckled platform, held it firmly with my feet so that nobody would take off with my knitting needles and toothpaste, and unzipped my winter jacket. My other nineteen layers stayed put.
At first people were agreeable, even jolly, about the circumstance, but soon the businessmen became terse. Many of them began to loosen their ties. One man reached into his bag and pulled out a glass bottle of beer, something that I wasn’t quite sure was legal to do in public. I seem to remember there being a small wedge of lime wearing a tiny plastic umbrella perched in the neck of the bottle, but that might have been a heat-induced hallucination.
The time of departure came and went, marked by the businessmen checking their gold watches aggressively. The doors were still closed. Another man took out a carton of takeout Pad Thai and began to eat it with his fingers. This group had reached a new low, I decided.
A businessman in a red tie began to get anxious.
“I’ve been riding the train for ten years!” he said, anguished, “and this has never happened before—not once!”
Other people murmured their agreement.
Ten minutes after the train should have departed, the engine turned on again and the doors finally opened. We let out a collective sigh of relief and piled in. It was all terribly undignified, and I found myself squished between the red tie businessman and the Pad Thai businessman. Within minutes, we were pulling out of the station, faster than I could even make a mental remark about the tie/Thai homophone. To my surprise, nobody came to collect my ticket, and I realized that because of the ten-minute delay, we weren’t being charged for the ride. It was probably the classiest thing that has ever happened to me.
Trains in general are probably the classiest things that have ever happened to me. Even the closed-door fiasco, which lasted 10 minutes and can hardly be classified as a fiasco, was classier than any other mundane disturbance to befall Thanksgiving travelers. Something about riding a train—not a subway, but an above-ground train, preferably owned by Metro North—makes me feel like a World War II-era spy en route from Russia to Switzerland. You can be anybody you want on a train, and it doesn’t even matter how you act, because the entire fantasy can live in your head. On a train, everything and everyone is much more romantic: even though sometimes there are gross people, such as the fellow who plucked his hair from his scalp and used it as dental floss, who ride them, it’s O.K. Being on a train in the first place gives him 10 automatic sophistication points.
Riding a train is like being at a weird dinner party at which you know none of the guests and don’t particularly care to get to know them. I’ve never been to a dinner party, so of course I’m only guessing, but that’s part of the fun of riding the train: guessing what it might feel like to be a dinner-party attendee. I imagine that people who go to dinner parties also frequent the train, but again, that’s only a guess.
I once rode the train in front of a British woman and an American man who were, at least by my interpretation, conducting a covert affair. She was tipsy and he sounded as though he was positive that he was the most alluring man on the planet. She had put the kids to bed in Larchmont under the watchful eye of her 95-year-old husband, and they were on their way into his New York City apartment while his wife tended to the country chateau in Connecticut. I believe I fabricated every detail of that anecdote besides the accents, but my point is that the truth doesn’t even matter. On the train, everything is fair (fare?) game. Making assumptions about people is only part of the fun.
On the train, you can listen in on people’s conversations, formulate a perfect image of the people speaking in your mind’s eye, and then spin around in either satisfaction or disbelief. Harriet the Spy played a similar game, I believe, though she stayed off the rails and dabbled mainly in restaurants and dumbwaiters. After listening to the conversation of the affair people for about twenty minutes, I had decided that the woman would have chin-length blonde hair and Anna Wintour sunglasses (or maybe she would just be Anna Wintour) and be middle-aged; the man would be balding and have a mole on his right cheek. I was right about the blonde hair, but it was long and stringy; I was dead wrong about the man, who was strikingly handsome, with no mole to be found.
I should have berated myself for making such an abysmal guess, but my point here is that on a train, abysmal guesses are irrelevant, and so I forgave myself pretty quickly. I’m still using my train(ing) wheels, after all.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.