More night owl than early bird, I have little desire to deepen my casual acquaintance with rosy-fingered dawn. Well after sunrise my morning is supposed to be a time of quiet and reflection, of low stimulation, except for a leisurely mug of French roast coffee. I keep the spigot of inputs from the outside world cracked open to no more than a manageable trickle. It is not a time I'd choose to deal with any more than one human, let alone a city full of them.
But I need to be in Boston for an 8 a.m. appointment at Mass General, the last in a series before they'll replace my aortic valve. The highway traffic at that hour always irritates. Snow forecast for the night before guarantees it'll be downright ugly. The only sane option is to take a pre-dawn train and the subway. So I have a first world problem—I'm annoyed that access to top-notch, life-saving medical technology inconveniences me. Not only can I get a new lease on my life, I can whine about it, too.
Cheryl and I park—not yet the slightest hint of light in the east—just as the train pulls into the local station, and we board. It's a damned close-run thing. Devotees of the oracles might have recognized this undeserved hair's-breadth victory as an omen of powerful ambiguity, but as yet we have no clue that two stations before our destination the train will be delayed indefinitely due to a possible gas leak; and that as “indefinitely” sinks in, we will opt to abandon ship, scrap our carefully mapped subway route, scout out the nearest stop, plunge underground into it just as if it were not a loathsome urban hell-gate, and still make our appointment on time.
Aboard the train of doom, I'm still not loving plebeian mass transit before the sun even shows its face. I'm on a sort of zombie-shuffling autopilot exacerbated by coffee deprivation. We move down the aisle until we find a seat. I ooze over to the window. My physical state is “borderline conscious,” and “borderline sullen” is the most positive attitude I can muster toward this radical disruption of my routine. Luckily, Cheryl knows my morning disposition and cracks open The Great Gatsby, because it's pretty certain I won't be providing companionship of any sort.
The train slips out of the station. A sideways jerk as we pass through points verifies that we're on an honest-to-God train, perhaps even hints at the romance of the Orient Express. I'm aware it's the closest thing to a road trip I'll be on for a good while. My mood lifts as my core temperature approaches normal and a few more neurons start firing, the sluggish snarling reptile giving way to the merely antisocial geek. My jaw twitches as the reality of being surrounded by strangers seeps in. But virtually every one of them is fascinated by his hand-held device, so the probability of an unwanted conversation approaches zero. Relieved, I focus outside the window.
Snow did fall overnight. Dense cloud cover from the retreating storm locks in the dead-of-winter dark. Despite frequent deluges of sodium-orange lamplight, blue predominates. Not in-your-face cobalt, almost subliminal yet also palpable, it's a blue just this side of black. The snow seems to be its source, not its mirror; it could even be a trick of the eye. This uncanny blue begins to make the trip interesting. As the sun finally gains some traction, it's gone. It was a failure of imagination for me to assume that even so familiar a route would not reward my attention.
Reaching Readville yard there's enough dim grey light to make out the silhouettes of a pair of patient, domesticated CSX diesels. They'll soon be herding freight cars on their appointed rounds. From here on the three-deckers grow dense. The spaces between them are crammed with parked cars, and a shroud of still-undisturbed snow masks plenty of anthropogenic unloveliness.
Except for a nitroglycerin-assisted scramble to make unplanned subway connections, and supremely reassuring consultations at the hospital, our day in The City is uneventful. We head home. Stoked by my appreciation of the Mass General staff's sheer competent warm humanity, I pay more attention to the crowd aboard the outbound train. Like their dawn counterparts, they are transfixed by hand-held devices and pose no imminent threat.
I do glance out the window now and again. I see Murphy's—an Irish bar, if you take the name and uncial signage at face value—a one-story white cinder block building painted with the American flag from the ground up to its flat roof. In Hyde Park, partially sprung vinyl clapboards arc down from the back of a ramshackle garage. This wall cries out for some pretentious mountebank with a Sawzall and the gift of bombast to liberate and install it at the Institute of Contemporary Art. An artifact of another all-too-human endeavor: some bozo's snowmobile trail parallels the tracks.
What draws me back inside is the eight or so boys grouped at the mid-car tables. They eat. They help each other do algebra homework. They're serious. They're loud and silly and goof on each other. They assert, all bravado and confidence. They're talking to peers, marvelous talk, finding their voices. Quintessential early teen-agers. And in seamless segues, they're so tentative and full of doubt. It touches me, and I have hope for them.
Another day above ground. No complaints.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Has grandchildren. Extraordinarily lucky. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. His work has been published recently in Journal of Microliterature, land that I live, and Stymie. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.