It’s 6:14 on a Monday morning. I’m reassured by the sweep of hard white light skittering across the rails – my train is on time. Back at home, my girlfriend slumbers, having settled back into sleep after a drowsy early-morning goodbye kiss. My kids are still down. While they sleep, I walk the mile to the transit center.
My train is on time. With a pneumatic sigh, the doors open and beckon me aboard.
I ride. Dark or light, wet or dry, I ride. I share space with sleepyheads and businessmen, knife-toting reluctant early risers on their way to culinary school, survivors of the Walk of Shame. We peer at each other now and again, but mostly we bury our heads in our books, our laptops, our phones. I listen to music. The die-hard romantic in me likes to assume that those who go without headphones are doing so willingly, preferring to listen to nothing but the insistent ever-changing rhythm of metal on metal, wheels on track. Not a lot of conversation on the early train. The train home is a different tale, full of the chattering details of the day. The 6:14 is a rolling metal tube full of sleepy reluctance.
During a certain time of year, the sun begins to rise just as we cross the river. If the universe was mine this break of dawn over the eastside industrial district would happen at my whim, bathing me in summer light, silvering the slow-rolling waters of the Willamette. The angular glint of highlights on the Steel Bridge would be mine for the asking. The latticework of bridges stitched across the water and receding into the southern distance, the timed criss-cross of cars at a thousand intersections in the already-busy city, the barge laboring toward the Columbia, all would be there for me on demand.
On some lucky mornings we stop on the bridge. Suspended there above the river, our view is exclusive to transit commuters and to the legions of cyclists who now pass us in our moment of stasis. I wonder some days whether our train operator is just exercising his prerogative, remembering the days of childhood when piloting a train over a bridge and then sweeping into a bustling city must have sounded like the best job in the world. As the train starts to descend into Old Town, I hope my operator is still finding some joy in his job. I hope that amidst all the schedule pressures and time-points he gets just a moment to realize that he’s the one who got to grow up and drive a train.
I ride. This was not my childhood dream, to take a light rail for over an hour, to transfer to a bus, to spend a few hours of each workday in transit. I didn’t create this fantasy and then finally live it out. The thing is, though, that this has now become such an integral part of the fabric of who I am that I can’t begin to imagine my work week without it. On the days when I must drive my car I can tangibly feel the fossil fuels burning into hydrocarbon waste as we grind our way down the Sunset Highway and on into the farmlands, only to be slowed behind the relentless single-lane churn of agricultural machinery. I feel a little off as I face forward in my car – my favorite train seats are the sideways-facing seats with unlimited legroom and a place to stash my bag.
If we do get stopped there on the bridge, it’s easy to take a quick inventory to determine who is a regular commuter and who is new to the train. Perplexed looks cross the tired faces of the uninitiated. The regulars breathe in and enjoy the view.
There’s a dissertation to be written about the differences between those who drive and those who ride. That look on the faces of the commuter newbies betrays their dismay at not being in control. We who ride, and enjoy it, have long ago given up the illusion that we are somehow in control of our commute. We’re happy to sit back and let the world come to us, sliding past our picture windows at a stately pace. When we stop, we know that we will start again. There’s a certain gentle peace that comes between the stations, when there’s nothing else to do but offer a silent thank you to the universe for another day on earth. For another ride.