I started a new job a few weeks ago up in Boston. The commute, by train and bus, is on the long side but about the same length of time it once took me to get to work when I lived in Northern Virginia. And, like that earlier commute, I'm spending a lot of my time reading, listening to music and podcasts, and doing crossword puzzles. It's quality "me" time, something I haven't had as much of in recent years working out of home most of the time. There I'm either at work or I'm "Dad" and, either way, I didn't have much time for the simple, self-indulgent things like books and puzzles.
One thing I like about taking the train is the joy of people watching. I sit in the same seat every morning (boarding in Providence, the start of the line, means I have an empty train every morning) and I've started getting to know all of the people I see day after day. There's the couple who always sits across from me with matching iPods who rarely speak to each other but kiss when one gets off a stop before the other. There's the older woman who's friendly with everyone and chats with me about my puzzles. There's the young woman with the MacBook who plays with iTunes and then writes. And there's the pretty woman a bit younger than I am who I am convinced I somehow know or have met but cannot place her. Her lack of any expression the rare moments our eyes meet tell me she does not recognize me in any way so I suspect she just looks like someone I once knew.
And taking the train reminds me of another time in my life where I was a commuter on a commuter rail: high school. I lived in Bronxville, NY and took the Metro North Commuter Rail from the Fleetwood station (walking distance from the apartment I lived in with my Mother) to Fordham where I attended Fordham Preperatory High School. I remember very little about the commute as it was largely dull and I didn't really know anyone on the train. (When I was in 11th grade we moved to Manhattan and, in 12th, Brooklyn and taking the D train up to the Bronx was far more interesting but a story for another time).
One memory stands out loud and clear for me: The Red Haired Girl. She was there every afternoon on the Fordham platform waiting for the train. I think she may even have gotten off at my stop though I do not clearly remember that detail. All I know was that over the course of 10th grade, I became fascinated with her. She was very pretty and her eyes were especially striking, contrasting with her bright red hair. I was always looking at her and then looking away when she caught me, wondering if she was the least bit interested in me as well. She seemed to look at me too but that could just be because I was staring at her so much. At that age, everything seems so overblown and important.
In English class we had to write a short (very short) story and I used her as the plot of the story. It was about a man who lacked the courage to speak to someone with whom he obviously connected. It was a melodramatic piece and if there's any justice in the world, no copy survives today in any boxes of stuff I have. But it speaks to how much I thought about her.
I was a drama club geek in High School and was in every musical they put on. When I went home after school when we had a rehearsal she was sometimes there taking the later train as well. If I was with any of my friends from the show, I would ham it up with them, all to get her attention.
One day, I got the nerve to speak to her. It remains to this day the most anti-climactic event of my life. I had built up for months this fantasy of finally talking to her and making this connection and we'd fall in love and clouds would part and doves would drop olive branches on us or something insipid like that. But it wasn't to be. No, instead I got up from my seat and moved over and sat next to her and told her that I'd been looking at her for some time and wanted to say hello and something mumble mumble. She just sat there and said nothing. She said nothing at all. So, I got up and moved away, maybe even to another car. I avoided her after that, mortified as I was.
Soon after we moved and my commute went from Manhattan north into the Bronx rather than south and I never took the train again nor did I ever see her again. I never did learn her name (or I forgot it if I did). For quite some time I avoided thinking about her or the situation as it was too cringeworthy. But now I look back with some fondness on my awkward, shy, teenaged self and actually feel a bit of pride that, after everything, I at least had the guts to go and talk to the girl.
And, here I am, 25 years later still thinking about that girl, about that commute, and about trains. Some mornings I just want to tune everything out and stare out the window while I listen to something on my iPhone. But some days I'll sit and chat with whoever is nearby and in a chatty mood and get to know some new and interesting people. Either way, I love riding the train.