The Night Train: Around the Curve, Into the Future

And so, it’s January 2003. It’s that time, these first few days of the new year, when we all seem to face a blank page-a seemingly endless calendar that stretches before us, yet to be filled with events and deeds and challenges, still to be written in the longhand of our lives in the upcoming months.

Hope against hope, we make those same silent promises that this time, this year, we will be more productive, or thinner, or happier, or simply kinder.

And somehow, we will keep things in perspective, relegating the absurd (Sean Penn in Baghdad) and the ridiculous (did I tip the doorman enough at Christmas?) to the realm of background noise, where they rightfully belong.

As I write this, however, there’s a background noise in my life of an entirely different order, one that I simply can’t ignore.

It’s a gentle clicking that seems to begin at 6:45 in the morning and to end just before 7 at night. It’s the rhythm of plastic wheels, rolling across mitered birch. It’s the sound of my son, now just over 2, playing with his first wooden train set.

And as I watch him standing at his train table, sorting his engines and his box cars with a focus and a determination that I almost envy, I can’t help but wonder:

What is it about trains? What is it about tracks, and rails, and steam engines that have captured not only his, but our collective imagination?

We live in the age of jets and satellites and the Internet. Like so many children today, my son began clocking frequent-flier miles before he could speak, but toy planes seem to hold no mystery for him. Subway cars and commuter trains notwithstanding, train travel represents a technology firmly rooted in the past-but the romance of the rails remains present on our best-seller lists and in our language, from Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 , to catch phrases like “running off the rails” and “fast-tracking.”

Standing there, watching my son, I think back to when I was 10 years old, when my parents-in an act of either insanity or pure genius-allowed me the independence to take a bus from Maplewood to Manhattan and walk, alone, from the bus terminal on 40th Street, past my father’s office in the garment district, to Polk’s Model, Craft and Hobbies Inc., a long-since-forgotten hobby store just south of the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue, where I’d spend afternoons awed by the weight of the Lionel locomotives I held in my hand, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of a half-dozen living-room-size model-train layouts.

I think back to when my wife and I were first dating, when she told me about wanting to buy a train set and establish a girls’ locomotive club with several of her friends, who felt deprived of this childhood experience by their parents or older brothers.

I think about my friend Kevin, who would spend Saturday mornings taking his young son, Luke, on 20-minute train rides, from Southampton to Amagansett and back.

And I think about my bluest days in Manhattan-longing for a girl who was living with another man in Los Angeles-when the simple act of walking into Grand Central Terminal and looking up at the great vaulted ceiling would lift my spirits.

In a particularly beautiful and haunting song, Paul Simon once wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance …. The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly, into our hearts and our brains.”

I’ll accept that the lyrics resonate with adults, but they can’t account for a 2-year-old. So I am left with the same question: What is it about trains? What is it about steam engines and night trains to Memphis that has seeped so indelibly into our hearts and our brains, like so much creosote in a railroad tie?

To borrow a different lyric from Paul Simon, the past two years of my life have been filled with miracle and wonder-watching, often sleeplessly, as Thomas and his twin sister, Elizabeth, have grown into two little people, with distinctly different personalities.

Elizabeth is 2 going on 29, with a fierce determination that I find both hilarious and remarkable. Given my employment in Hollywood, I half expected her to walk around her second birthday party already lying about her age, insisting she was only 1.

As 21st-century parents, we can theorize all night about the need for nonsexist toys, and the desire not to impose any kind of gender-specific stereotyping on these two. But in the cool, first light of dawn, nature and several million years of genetics laugh at these foolish notions.

Thomas loves his trains and his trucks; he has the wheel gene. And although Elizabeth finds them amusing-and will no doubt benefit from her exposure to them, as opposed to little girls who know only dolls-her heart is with her toy kitchen.She’drather serve tea.

And so, it’s January 2003.

The events and the buzz and the boldface names of 2002-Trent Lott, Springsteen, The Sopranos -seem to recede in the distance, like so many small but brightly lit train stations, long since passed in the night.

Like you, I worry about a war, and terrorism, and Korea, and a U.S. government that wants to have too much information about all of us.

Still, tomorrow morning, I will laugh when the mail arrives, filled with offers of 9.5 percent Visa cards addressed to Elizabeth, which I am all but certain she applied for.

I will beam as Thomas takes my finger and drags me to the TV set, pointing to the Thomas the Tank Engine videos, stammering the words “choo-choo” and “steam engine.”

And at night, when I tiptoe into the room where they sleep, I know I will find Elizabeth clutching a pony and Thomas a train. And I will wonder, as I do every night: What do they dream about?

In my younger and more frivolous years, I admired the romantic tragedy of Gatsby-the idea that we are all boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But as we begin this new year, I can’t help but feel that the night train is a more apt metaphor for American life: Steel wheels on iron rails, we lean slightly forward, trying to peer around the next curve with hope and anticipation as we ride into the future.