Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Train

There is a beautiful Andrew Wyeth painting called, "Chambered Nautilus" of a woman sitting up in bed staring out a window. For fun, I channeled that image for an illustration of a little girl looking out as the train passed by. That was my childhood bedroom. The Long Island Railroad Port Washington line was eye level with my window.

That sounds so quirky now. But it was so fun then.

I would hide as I changed in the morning, just in case the Manhattan commuters looked in. And although I barely heard the roaring engine, friends would bolt up when they slept over. My father told any little kids visiting that he had his own set of electric trains. He ushered them to the backyard. "I just turned on my train! Here it comes!"

Since it was up on a high wall, the train's guard railings were perfect height to attach a basketball hoop. It ensured many years of tournaments for my brothers and their friends. When I became of age, I would shoot out there for hours, until the basketball inevitably bounced up onto the tracks. The ladder reclaimed from our old picket fence was pretty scary, so I usually opted to wait until my brother Michael got home to get the ball. He knew how to scale the wall with a running start.

The sound of the train on Christmas morning was extremely special. It meant it was time to walk down the block and greet Grandma and Uncle Jimmy at the station for their visit.

Those trains were such a deep part of our neighborhood little gang of friends. We waved at them, called up to the passengers, and sang at the top of our lungs if one was approaching. One time we heard unusually loud honking and the train stopped abruptly right above us. The conductor got out and looked down on the tracks, so we had a good view of him from below. We giddily called up to him, but he had a pained expression on his face. He got back in, and slowly reversed the train. Someone had committed suicide.

As we got older, the train took on a whole other challenge: how late we could leave our house and still make it. Some of my siblings left with enough time to walk down the block for their various jobs, but Michael ran for it. We would leave the house at the same time. I made a left, running to the city bus for high school. Michael made a right, sprinting to the train in his suit. Years later it was my turn to do the train sprint when I went to college in Manhattan. I could do the long block, full art supplies in tow, but the the huge set of stairs up to the platform were a killer. I missed my train more times than I care to admit.

There were a childhood full of train rides: to Grandma’s house, parades, the circus, first dates in high school, concerts, late late night dancing, and finally to become one of those Manhattan commuters. My first apartment after I got married was on that same LIRR line, just one more stop east. My father knew which train I took in the morning, and he would sometimes sit out in the backyard holding up a homemade sign for me. "Hello, Patti!"

 That Wyeth inspired illustration captures one moment and a lifetime.

Andrew Wyeth "Chambered Nautilus" 1956