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On Shining Rails Elizabeth Andrew Early on a summer morning when the house is stfll dim and I've barely surfaced from sleep, the train whistle, high and thin, passes over the city and enters my bedroom in a ghostly strain. A long double-pitch foUowed by the rumble ofmetal on metal. I wake up, but only enough to vaguely travel the whistle's airborne route, from Hiawatha Avenue where trains grind across city streets and aUgn their freight cars, mouths open, beneath grain elevators grumbling with corn, then move eastward twelve hundred miles through Chicago and Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania, over New York's hilly countryside to Albany. There the sound suddenly veers south, down the commuter line into the Hudson River vaUey It rounds a curve near a swamp and leaves the tracks, rising up a half-acre of wooded lawn to the wide windows of the home where I spent my chüdhood. In the daytime, metro trains ran and stiU run every hour to and from the city, more frequently during rush hour. First, we would hear the metaUic twang like a huge sheet of aluminum shaken to simulate a thunderstorm, and then a seven-car commuter train burst around the corner, interrupting conversation and shaking the windows. To this day when I speak with my parents over the phone, we pause mid-sentence to let the train pass, as though it's perfectly natural for NewYork commuters to render me speechless in my Minnesota home. At night, freight trains lumbered north to Albany carrying new cars from the GM plant in Tarrytown or overseas imports loaded from barges in the NewYork harbor. My sister and I peered through the living room window out over the yard and swamp, watching the heavy wheels kick sparks from the rails as they came around the bend— miniature fireworks in the foreground, the murky expanse of the Hudson, and, on the other shore, a few winking lights from the northern outskirts of Nyack. If the conductor blew the whistle at stray deer or fishermen, the sound passed up and down the vaUey echoing, carried by the water. No 81 82Fourth Genre melody is more familiar to me. Train whistles wrap me in a mournful lullaby : "I'm not with you, but you're not alone." It's strange to love a lumbering locomotive, with its graffitied boxcars and greasy engine. Every time I drive west from my home and get stuck in a line of cars in front offlashing Ughts while engines maneuver boxcars in and out ofwarehouses, I wonder why I have patience for these unwieldy locomotives and not for the city buses, stopping at every other corner, or for planes whose shadows pass over us in south MinneapoUs Uke portents ofdeath. I don't usuaUy feel affection toward vehicles of industry. The rails run north-south through a corridor ofgrain elevators—ungainly, towering cyUnders prone to gang tags and the dark smudge ofautomobile exhaust. The air is yeasty there, and on a humid summer day, sickly sweet. Down either side ofthe road are orphaned boxcars. Further south, the rail peters out and has been ripped up to beautify a city park; a charming, boarded-up station sits beyond the last glint ofmetal in the weeds. Going north, the raus interrupt traffic for another two mues, then veer east, mysteriously sUpping into the lesser-known arteries of the city. They reappear once over the interstate and once in a tough neighborhood where a friend ofmine fives, where in late summer there's an abundance of wild sunflowers. Then I lose track. Something about a train's whistle Ufts my heart from my slumbering body. It puUs me outside of myself, across the city and along the silver Unes that crisscross our country, joining urban sprawl to farming town and passing over hundreds ofuninhabited mues. The strangers who grow our food, the hoboes teUing stories, the conductors whose homes are always moving, the passengers raising their faces toward the landscape, and me, lying heavy in bed—aU arejoined together by this haunting sound. A pattern rises from this vast network oftransportation and stirs me. How is it that we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1544-1733
Print ISSN
1522-3868
Pages
pp. 81-94
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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