Monday, November 13, 2006

The hungry pavement & the mourning tracks

I live on a back street in what I've long thought of as "Barely Bethesda." It's a downwardly mobile corner of one of the nation's wealthiest enclaves. The apartment I rent is in an aging condo community with thin walls and crappy insulation that drives me crazy with the neighbors' noise and drives me to sleep in the living room in winter, when the bedroom turns into an ice palace.

I slept on my sofa for months and months after I broke my leg a couple of years back. I slipped in oil on the floor of the parking garage of my old job, and, as I turned and fell, I heard my fibula snap like a flimsy chicken bone. Because the break was so close to the knee, it could not be cast, and I was a virtual prisoner in my home for weeks. Late at night, when I turned even the slightest bit, I could hear the broken ends of bone tap against each other deep in my leg. I would try to focus on other noises - the neighbor's yippy dogs, the fox that barked under the crabapple tree by my balcony, snowplows coming to dig out the street filled with late winter snow.

And the trains.

I grew up in Moline, Illinois, next door to Rock Island, home of the Rock Island Lines, the venerable rail system - now mostly defunct - that carried freight across the country on our sadly neglected train tracks. Late at night, I would fall asleep to the sound of train cars coupling and uncoupling in the Rock Island Lines freight yard. I could hear trains clacking along their steady path, and the sorrowful whistle of engines, dopplering from downtown a couple of miles away, along the Mississippi River. It's a peaceful sound to me, and when I go back to Illinois, it's still a lullaby that quiets my mind and my heart and sends me to sleep with such ease.

Before they became a nexus of violent crime and shameless thievery (for Western foreigners, at the very least), I loved traveling by overnight train in Russia. The smell of the expended fuel - which reminded me of roasted chestnuts on winter London streets, the hot tea provided by the dezhurnaya, and the rumbling bunks that rocked you to sleep. And throughout, the whistle, calling you to rest.

But then, I moved to Barely Bethesda.

Just three-tenths of a mile past my crackerbox apartment lie the train tracks. Amtrak, CSX, people, freight, commuters and commodities... they all pass by my home. And when the night is quiet, and there are no trucks humming along the Beltway just a mile to the south, I can hear the click and clack of the night trains and the whistles that announce and farewell them. The trains run through the tiny town of Garrett Park, a mix of small post-war brick box houses, colorful Victorians, bungalows, and the occasional House Beautiful creation, like the rambling manse next door to my building, home to the Stupid Rich Neighbors.

A few years ago, an odd phenomenon began down at the tracks where they cross Montrose Road, a modest commuter street just past my place a few more blocks: people began using the tracks as a suicide spot. It wasn't just one case. It happened again, and again, and again. It was mostly women, mostly Latinas, mostly illegal immigrants. And most of them carried this out with children in tow. Onlookers, waiting behind crossing bars for the approaching train, initially did not know what the women intended. They would wander along the tracks, seemingly lost in though, somewhat confused. By the time the witnesses knew what was afoot, it was too late. Most of the women quietly knelt on the tracks, sometimes gathering children to them, just as the freight engines bore down upon them.

I would come home to the news of a suicide on the tracks and the strange silence from down the road. No click. No clack. Just silence. Trains were diverted. The track was a crime scene. The track was a gravesite.

And then, a couple of days later, I would hear a train whistle again. But then, the whistle did not seem peaceful to me. It screamed. It cried. It wept as it passed by. I know it may sound foolish, but it would raise goosebumps on my arms, and I would not be able to sleep until the train passed by and the banshee cries ceased.

Over the years, the tracks - and the pavement on Montrose Road - has soaked up more than its fair share of blood. I cannot help but thing of it as somewhat unhallowed ground. Too many years of reading Stephen King books, I guess. But it feels like the pavement is hungry.

Tonight, I came home to silence again. It was palpable - cut only by the lousy louts upstairs, pounding around and yelling to each other. I watched "Heroes" and then turned on the local news. Just behind my apartment, on the dark street between me and the train tracks, a twelve-year-old boy bolted out into traffic between cars. He was struck and killed. One of our local TV stations reported that neighbors can't help but wonder if the boy would still be alive had PEPCO and the Maryland State Highway Administration resolved a dispute that has kept the streetlights dark on Strathmore Avenue.

I heard police cars for a while. And still, the accident investigation goes on, three plus hours after the death. But the neighbors are shuttered indoors, on a rainy, tragic Monday night. No one is out walking. Even the Stupid Rich Neighbors have brought the dogs in. No cars out. No trains.


But they'll come.

The hungry pavement behind my home took another portion tonight. Another loss that will bring the weeping trains. It's so quiet now. I know the trains will come, and I won't sleep until they pass.

Come. Cry. And let me sleep.


Janet Kincaid said...

I know what you mean about the soothing sound of trains. Growing up in Utah, we lived five blocks from the train depot and switching yard. The clickety-clack of the trains, their mournful whistles, and the mystery of where they were headed remains a comfort to me. I live about four blocks from the Metro and CSX rail lines here in NW and I love hearing the trains come through, especially at night.

There's something romantic and nostalgic about a train, isn't there?

I also remembering riding the trains in Austria. I loved the big picture windows that let you see the alps and the quaint villages that dot the Land of Mountains and Streams.

When I'm not traveling on business to NYC, I prefer traveling by train.

My cousin, John, always wanted to be a train engineer when he was a little kid. Of all the grandkids/cousins, he's the only one who actually went on to do what he dreamed. He now lives in Cheyenne, WY, and rebuilds boilers and engines for train museums around the country. Before that, he was an engineer on the Heber Valley Railroad (aka The Heber Creeper) in Heber, UT.

Thanks for the memories!

Claire said...

Wow. Mighty fine piece of writing there, M.

I have my own train memories/stories, but their moods seem particularly off-kilter to your tale. Another time...

Janet Kincaid said...

I just read a follow-up article in the WaPo and realized what an ass I was to leave the kind of comment I did earlier. Trains have a nostalgic effect, but the larger story--both in the Post and in your blog--was the tragedy of this little boy's death and the deaths of so many others in your part of North Bethesda. I'm sorry I got so caught up in the happier memories and completely passed over the real point.

I can't imagine how the parents of little Luke must feel or how the gentleman who hit him must be feeling. I only know, every time I see/approach a jaywalker in my car, my heart skips a beat. The thought of hitting someone is horrifying.