Late at night or early in the morning, when the automobile traffic has slowed, I can hear the trains as they creep their way up the tracks parallel to Grand Avenue.
The most dangerous train/auto intersection is the state is literally right down the street, about two miles from Casa Flor, which is perhaps why I can hear the engineers sounding their horns cautiously, continuously, as the p.m. trains crawl through town. That’s far enough away for those horns to sound musical, like trumpets playing a fermata note, but if I lived closer I probably wouldn’t find it as charming.
My sisters’ father lived literally steps away from a train crossing in Laurel, a town so closely associated with railways that the local high school teams are called the Locomotives. My family moved to Laurel when I was in high school, and Bruce’s bachelor pad was a fascinating yet cautionary experience. I’d never met anyone who had Playboy magazines just out in the open, for example, so I admired that whole “who gives a damn?” attitude, and this guy who arrived randomly to pick up my sisters and take them (but not me!) to Disneyland always seemed like, well, a swinger. But then again, he was living in a mobile home, a few yards away from a train crossing, something even 13-year-old me recognized as not optimal.
That judgment was more about the dirt lot and the real estate than the train tracks. When I was a little kid, I loved trains. Whenever I saw one, I’d wave frantically at whoever was in the caboose—“ca-BOOOOOSE!”—hoping for some reciprocity. When my parents would be driving alongside one, my sole focus was trying to catch up to the caboose, waving, waving, waving, just in case. I envisioned them being like the quality control agents of the train, communicating via CB or something to the engineers in the locomotive—“Yep, still on the rails back here”—so naturally they’d have lots of time to look pensively out the window and return the waves of eager fans.
In Laurel, the train tracks bisect the town with a clear north/south divide. Most people cross it at First Avenue, which has an underpass that brings you up right into a stoplight at Main Street. That’s where I discovered that I was incapable of starting on a hill in a manual-transmission vehicle; I was driving my sister’s Mustang and kept panicking every time it slipped back when I took my foot off the brake—so much so that we had to put on the emergency brake, then switch drivers in front of everyone, so that she could drive us home. When I was driving my dad’s Jeep pickup and if it looked like the light would change to red before I made it, I’d automatically veer right and head east one block, rather than risk that damn light. (I got better at it before I moved away, but I still prefer vehicles with automatic transmissions.)
For all my fascination, though, I’ve never actually been on an actual train. (My East Coast friends look at my like I’m crazy when I say that, just like my West Coast friends look when I tell them I’ve never been to Disneyland.) The trains that went through Laurel were all freight trains—tank cars, boxcars, flatcars and hopper cars, not passenger coaches, and the lone Amtrak line that went through the state hugged border with Canada, way north of us. During all my trips to New York, I took the subway everywhere but didn’t manage to ride the Long Island Railroad to or from the airport even once.
And yet, on those dark mornings when I’m grumpy and headed for my car, that siren song puts me in a happier place. The most recent time it happened, I said, “Aww” out loud to myself and considered waving to the caboose guy for old times’ sake, but I decided that because it was dark outside and I was two miles away, it likely wouldn’t be worth the effort.