Trains

Some nights like tonight—it’s chilled and clear—the sound of the trains working the switching yards a quarter mile south of us seems much closer. Nightshift crews at work. I can hear the cars connecting. A through-freight’s horn sounds for the grade-crossing at Pleasant Valley Road. A long consignment, the rumble of passing wheels on rails lasts long enough for me to ignore it. 

On my mother’s side, all the first- and second-generation immigrant Irishmen worked on the railroad. My mother’s grandfather lived in the section foreman’s house between the tracks. Not all of them were in the country legally. There are railroad bridges between Buffalo and Canada (over one of which my dad had a part in moving Prohibition whiskey).  I always had a thing for trains. I was of that generation when trains vanished from American consciousness. Boys younger than I did not receive train sets for Christmas.

At one point in history only Chicago had more miles of train tracks than Buffalo. I have firm boyhood memories of the bigger-than-life bronze bison on a high pedestal at the center of the rotunda in the vaulted deserted cathedral of Buffalo Central Terminal.  Terminally empty, pigeons and their droppings on the bison’s stained back, a cold marble breeze. As a teenager I paid for steam-engine excursions on the CNR over in Ontario. In college, I survived a continental summer on my Eurail Pass, sleeping on trains, living on trains.  

Anyway, I keep thinking of those guys working out in the switch yard. (“Guys” is gender-neutral, though the odds of a woman on the crew are pretty slim.) It’s not yet December, but the nights are getting nippy. I don’t know what railroad shifts are, but they are probably somewhere midshift. Can they smoke? I spend a lot of time wondering about people’s jobs and how they do them. I ponder who decided to make this cardboard box this way. Why did this shy woman choose to be a nurse? What do truckers think about on those long empty stretches? Can you care much if what you’re selling is worthless? I wonder what caused our mailman’s limp. I was in Ireland once with a doctor who only took photographs of men working.   

One thing I like about this town is that the tracks run right through the middle of it, and traffic has to stop, backed up, to let the freight trains pass, no contest. Nothing digital about it. It’s like the past intruding, interrupting. Men working here. Stop and watch.

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