Steep concrete steps take you up to the train tracks in what has been my hometown now for 13 years. The red brick station house, if not for signs advertising the local radio station and where to place recyclables, looks like it could be standing in the 1800s in Anytown, USA. If look hard enough, I picture what it was like once when the steam engines rumbled in…weary travelers tumbling from this “new” mode of transportation.
There is something still romantic about train travel, perhaps more for me since I am not a daily commuter. Perhaps I recall old movies where the dark handsome stranger sits beside the thinly-veiled woman and pierces her with his eyes. Perhaps it’s that something so heavy and powerful can race through the night. Or maybe it’s my penchant for scrutinizing the travelers, guessing as to what they do, where they’re coming from or going to. My daughter often pulls my arm and tells me that I am staring at people. I call it observation.
When I board the train for the hour’s ride to Manhattan, it is nearly an adventure. I carry a small bag with a book and water bottle, a pair of gloves, and a small pack of tissues. I am like an old woman, wrapped in my winter coat, preferring a seat where I can sit alone, wanting to avoid those with colds and coughs, suddenly a germaphobe am I. I wonder if anyone is watching me…wishing I were that veiled woman of mystery…or am I all too transparent in my suburban persona?
Last night, I took the train for an evening in “the city,” I found the lone seat without someone speaking on the cell phone, and opened my book, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell It’s a strange novel about a lonely married woman with three children whose main problem is a plethora of leisure time and a dearth of romance. Set in the Midwest in the World War II era, the book amazes me because the rebellion of the Bridges’ children and the feminine condition of Mrs. Bridge balancing individuality with motherhood and marriage remains relevant despite the notion that we often assume that the past among the middle class was “simpler.” Mrs. Bridge’s condition is what we find now…what Betty Friedan identified in the 1960s. It’s just as complex.
The conductor asked what I was reading as he punched my ticket. “Ah, a classic,” he remarked as I showed him the cover. “I just bought an Emily Bronte for my wife.”
“Wuthering Heights?” I asked.
He smiled. “That’s the one.”
I think to myself how nice that he bought his wife a book, and one by Bronte no less…but I don’t say that. And then my mind races, and I picture his wife reading the book by a dimly-lit lamp in an apartment, waiting for him to come home late at night from the railroad, a sheer curtain blowing gently in her window, the train whistle sounding deep and hollow in the background.
And then I snap back from my trance, noting the conductor has moved on to the next passenger, making conversation. I wonder: does he know about the brooding mystery of the moors? The tragedy in Bronte’s books? I hear him say to the next passenger nearly what he said to me, “That’ll be ten dollars fare just for you. Tell me, what’s that you’re reading?” And I feel almost foolish that for a moment I thought I was special.
I now know which way to turn when I get off at Grand Central Terminal. In the beginning, when I started riding the train, I always turned the wrong way. Despite the recent renovations, the essence of the station remains unaltered by time, at least the time I recall from my teen years. A distinct aroma penetrates the air: diesel, hot pretzels, stale coffee. The crowds seem to spin in circles. Backs rigid, heads facing forward, visages determined. They have the rigidity of Egyptian cave drawings…a still-life of humanity in motion.
A sense of anonymity envelops me as I wend my way through the hordes. It is unlike the visibility I feel in my suburban community. Here, no one knows who I am or where I am going. Perhaps I am meeting a lover in a smoky bar, or I am an undercover agent, the bag with tissues, book, and bottle all just a ruse.
I get in the taxi queue on Vanderbilt Avenue when I arrive in Manhattan. I am dropped off in the queue when I return to Grand Central. And then I realize that probably no one is wondering who I might be, and I probably just look like a woman who is meeting a friend for dinner and has to make the 9:09 back home. And indeed, that is who I am. It is, as Mrs. Bridge says, “…sometimes tiring to be a planet instead of a star.”