I am on the train to New York City. Outside streaming past my eyes is a view of the Hudson River misted over with grey hues that blur into bands of rain cloud blue. Seated in my immediate vicinity is a woman blaring soul music from her ipod, phone in hand. In front of her a girl is also plugged into headphones while tapping away at a text message. Opposite is a woman illuminated by her Kindle screen, phone in hand. Behind me are more cell phone bearing customers with screens glowing. Everyone around me is dislocated from the natural soundscape of the train and its unique sonic environment. They can’t hear the lazy squeak of wheels on track, the wail of oncoming trains flying past, the crackling of cellophane as someone unwraps a sandwich or the chatter of noisy passengers. They are also blind to the bewitching beauty of the Hudson River that sits modestly within its magnificence.
Trains have long been a symbol of modernity, power and speed. More than a transportation device for cargo and people, the train has been the inspiration of many a novel and movie. It is an elusive muse that continues to be a popular image inspiring rock and roll anthems and all manner of musical genres. It embodies an essence that I equate with American-ness. Signifying freedom and movement the train is a vehicle used to transport the restless wanderer from place to place. With the rumble of the carriage underfoot and the cinematic landscape blurring a romantic vision outside, I still get a thrill from riding the train.
When I moved out of Manhattan to the quaint village of Irvington I began my now daily commute along the Croton Harmon line back and forth to New York City. During this time I have developed a deep affinity for the train that shuttles me with effortless grace to the iconic and cacophonously busy Grand Central Station. Always prompt in its scheduling, the train delivers me to my destination come snow storms or clear skies.
The highlight of my trip is the opportunity to witness the sublime grandeur of the Hudson River. With its many varied guises the Hudson is constantly changing its appearance. Sometimes the river is misted over white and enveloped by cloud. It often resembles a moody painting by Turner or a color field meditation by Rothko. In winter the clouds cast long shadows onto the banks that line the brown muddy water and the trees stand barren and naked like a pack of matches askew. The Hudson swells and refracts light as a seemingly endless reminder of change. Every day it's different but it is always impressive and awe inspiring. Often the sun is dulled behind looming cumulonimbus formations, washing the day in a sepia tint. Or in the morning the sun might lick the surface of the river with its warm glow and deliver a quiet sense of calm. At night the glow of reflected lights reminds me of candle flames turned on their heads. I'm often filled with nostalgia as the memories housed within me project onto the landscape and reflect back onto me. The dusty film on the window only adds to the wistfulness.
After a hurried dash to get a seat I prepare myself to lull into daydream. I like to take the time to write down my impressions or perhaps to capture a lingering unwritten song I’m in the process of composing. Some of the most private moments of my day are spent on my train commute. But often this introspective moment is corrupted by the madness of collective humanity. Addicted to technology and unable to fend off the urge to talk on a never-ending phone call, someone shrills a one-sided conversation at an obnoxiously loud decibel level, interrupting my poetic meandering. And early mornings are often shared with what seems like hundreds of passengers travelling to the city for the daily grind. Late night trains are filled with drunken youths cat calling and eventually falling asleep and missing their stop.
Being in this shared environment can result in some pretty crazy interactions. I’m not even going to get into the specifics about some of the encounters I’ve had on the train. Well, ok, there was that time I was propositioned by a young man who wanted to suck my toes on a peak hour commute. Before I knew it he had whipped my shoe off and had my entire foot in his mouth. Then there are other cherished moments such as the one when I, along with several other passengers, got into a heated argument with some trashy white ladies who were verbally accosting tourists. The conductor settled the dispute by alerting the New York Police Force in Harlem who kindly escorted the offenders off to a new destination. Yes strange things happen on the train, it's never a dull moment (except maybe when all the suits are commuting to their day jobs early in the morning).
Back to the Hudson River, which seen daily on this electric commute to and from the city eases something in my mind. Having followed the edge of the river through the industrial areas where sugar refineries loom like a throwback to an earlier era, slowly the New York landscape reveals itself. It is an image so immense and dense, like a complex jigsaw puzzle of old and new piled one on top of the another. Grand Central Station is the final destination, busy with commuters ducking and diving through the crowds in their business suits. With its constant hustle and bustle and its magnetic energy pulling you in multiple directions, it’s easy to forget that just outside the city, nature awaits.