I hear it before I see it. I look right. It approaches around the slight curve, the navy engines bright with the yellow CSX logo. I walk to the middle of the overpass and stand looking down as the train rolls beneath me.
I expect the thunder of the engine. It throttles my eardrums and rattles my feet in my shoes. What surprises me is the heat. A wave of hot rises up, at least 20 degrees warmer than where I stand, about 15 feet above, on the overpass. Another wave arrives moments later with the second engine. I blink.
I gravitate toward trains. Don’t get me wrong, I love planes too, and the thrill of looking down through clouds. Same with boats, the magic of moving toward a horizon you can’t see. But trains have an endearing quality unlike all the others. Perhaps it is the way they are stitched into everyday life. The way they cross streets and highways. Maybe their massive lumbering nature, the way they require you to stop and as they pass. The black and white arms descend, the bells clang, the lights flash, and you wait in line behind a few cars, with several others behind you. You will wait. Mandatory contemplation.
I unabashedly adore graffiti too. This strange travelling language, rich with stories. Where did that name get spray painted on that tanker, how many thousands of miles away, and where has it been before passing by me? What kids snuck through what fences on what midnight to risk this? What mountains have that name with the funny spelling and the adjacent cartoon passed by? What harbors, what ports?
A stream of white boxcars follows the engines, then orange. Occasionally a car squeals as it passes, but most move steadily, clacking along. I imagine being able to jog along their tops, like action heroes do in the movies. This probably would not be as elegant as it is on film. The mass of the boxcars belies their speed.
My grandparents on both sides had train tracks near their houses. The landscapes of southern New Jersey and western North Carolina differed widely, but I walked the tracks in each. In North Carolina, past Shurtape Manufacturing, King Furniture Makers, southern industrial. In New Jersey, more residential, dense: the Cumberland Farms convenience store, Italian ice shop. But the space between the slats was the same. The distances between the rails too, the wood of the slats, the ballast of grey rocks supporting the tracks and beams. In both places, a long slow highway where the horizon never arrived.
The temperature hovers in the mid-60s, unseasonably warm for mid-February. I turn and face east, the direction that the train is moving. Winter has been fierce here. The sun on my back seems redemptive after such a frigid stretch. My shadow casts long into Sisson Street. I feel strangely hopeful at the sight, like the groundhog earlier in the month. Warm weather may arrive yet. This possibility always feels unbelievable this deep into the winter. I close my eyes for a moment and bask.
I walked into adolescence. I was already a chubby kid but I ballooned in puberty, coping with feelings through food. Walking felt good. Being in motion, the propulsion forward. I kept moving to ward off the insecurity, the awkwardness.
But I also walked to slowly expand my understanding of the world, exploring. Block by block, the surplus store, the diners, the deli, the uptown squares. I threaded time along the train tracks into larger walks, heading out on them and then back through streets.
The boxcars clutter along. The train decelerated from its initial approach and the squeal of wheels along rails has faded. And then the thunder below my feet suddenly stops. The absence of the rumble snaps me from my daydream. I watch the last green boxcar head east, bank slightly, and disappear into the shadow of the overpass at Howard. I squint, listening for the rumble, now vanished.
I hear my own breath, the air passing over my teeth. This moment, too, part of the endearment – the quiet calm, the contemplation, the exhale – before I turn and continue walking south.