As we leave our dens in this new post-pandemic era, I have found myself thinking about things like commuter rail. My last job was near a train stop, but in the great nation of America, car-free transportation is often inconvenient, if not impossible. Although my last job was a short walk from a T stop, I went by train only once, and then because I had plans in Boston after work. Otherwise, the ride to South Station combined with another ride out to Alewife completely derailed any notions I had of saving gas and time… and we also had free parking. My previous job, however, was right in Boston. I could walk a little over a half mile from home to my local station, then get off right across the street from my job in Back Bay. It was a nice time to read, or just enjoy riding instead of fighting traffic.
Many people who had worked at jobs for years took the same trains together, and I soon noticed the groups who had known one another and were friends, or at least train buddies. A group played gin rummy at the table seats in the afternoon. A woman knitted sweaters and displayed her handiwork to admiring friends. And then, there was the cowboy.
I call him the cowboy, because there were no other people on the train, or probably even in Back Bay, who wore a cowboy hat and boots everyday to work. He stood out like Jon Voigt’s John Buck, and was just about as naive. He was about my age, and seemed to glance my way from time to time, even tipped his hat once when he passed my seat. A few weeks after I first saw him, I noticed that he had started sitting with a couple of women who always got off at the stop before ours. Another week later, he started giving the blonde woman a kiss before she left.
The kisses went on for another few months, until one day, I noticed the cowboy was sitting alone. The blonde woman and her friend were still sitting together, and they seemed to avoid the cowboy. Ah, yes, trouble in paradise. I saw the cowboy talking to another woman one day, and then alone again.
One day a few weeks after the breakup, the train was very crowded for some reason, and I had to stand toward the back. The cowboy was already on the train, but he made his way back to where I was standing and said, “Howdy.”
I howdied him back, and started chatting with him. His name was Frank, and he worked for a publisher. His parents were still in Texas, but he had moved up, divorced, no kids, but a special education teacher before his move. He had decided to see something new, he said, and he told me a bit about his family, apparently more liberal than he was, which surprised me a little. We discussed politics, and in spite of this, he kept coming to talk to me everyday. Finally, near the end of the week, he asked me out. He seemed nice enough, so I gave him my number, and told him to give me a call over the weekend.
The weekend came and went, and he never called. But sure enough, there he was on Monday, with a seat saved for me on the train. He picked up the conversation right where he had left off without a mention of the call I had awaited, but his hesitation disappointed me. I lost interest. I wasn’t exactly trying to avoid him, but I wasn’t trying to be on the same train anymore, either. I sometimes took an earlier train, sometimes drove, and I talked to him if he was there, because, after all, this Frank was such a curious fellow.
One day, I had been on the train talking to him, and we walked up the stairs to head off for the day. He grabbed me suddenly, and kissed me. Nothing long and drawn out, more of a peck. It shocked me, but I told him that he couldn’t just do that. He tried again on another day, and I told him no again, and he stopped.
A few weeks later, he told me that he had something for me. The next day, he had a bag that contained a hat. A cowboy hat. He told me that he had found it in a flea market, and it showed. A few moth holes in the felt made me think of him, with his lanky walk, and his too-short trousers, and his curious timidity or awkwardness or whatever it was that just didn’t make sense to me.
A little while after that, I started dating a guy who ultimately also messed things up with me, but he was rather smart, and handsome, and sent flowers to me at work one day. I took my bouquet home at the end of the week, and a train friend quizzed me all about them and about the guy who sent them. Frank watched me talk, and frowned deeply, then asked me if I was seeing someone else. All I could answer was to remind him that he never even called me. I couldn’t imagine he considered it possible for me to betray him, but I suppose that in his mind, I did. My job was about to end, and I rode the train for only another couple of weeks. Frank started standing toward the back of the train, but I said goodbye to him on my last ride.
I hadn’t thought of Milan Kundera’s Slowness in years, but Frank reminded me of Vincent’s encounter at the academic conference. Vincent meets a woman and woos her, and she is interested in him. But then, he just kind of blows it and runs off in shame. I don’t know that Frank felt any shame, but I was always puzzled by him.
I recently cleaned out my hall closet, and found the hat. The moths had continued their work, it seems, so it is even a bit more bedraggled than it was before, which seems about right. I laughed a little when I found it, but then, I felt a little sad, and I hope Frank found some happiness in this strange place.
As for me, I miss the train. There were several people I loved seeing everyday, and I miss the camaraderie of it all. So many of my adventures in life have come through a form of public transportation, starting way back sitting next to Jesus on a Trailways bus back from college when I was a freshman who had not yet found the ride sharing boards. Public transportation was rare in St. Louis, but I did ride Amtrak fairly often, and there is always a story. It is an equalizing thing, riding with other people, and as much as I love to drive, I wish we could get around more easily, that trains and buses connected us more, that we could get out of our boxes and see one another up close. At least sometimes.