IT’S EARLY – seven in the morning. Early, at least, for a writer who tends to hit her stride at around four in the afternoon. But I teach writing at a university in Boston, and this semester I’ve drawn the short straw and am teaching the morning class. I cover my ears; I’m on the green line, heading around the bend out of Lechmere station, and the tracks always rasp and screech at this point.
Riding the train is how I have always gotten to know the cities I’ve lived in. They are the vein that injects you into downtown, the long steel spine that carries you home in the tired evening hours, the place where I think, where I look out the window, where I press into the bodies of strangers. It is the most intimate and the most lonely place to be in a city; and it is the best place to understand a city’s character.
Take my hometown of Boston, which I have returned to after grad school. The trains are grimy and caked in rust; slow moving and small. They trundle like trolleys through the traffic of the city in places; in others, they dive and roar underground like a real subway. And in the suburbs, they rattle through the wooded backyards of the kinds of houses I grew up in.
Here in Cambridge, the people are tired but not impolite. A pregnant woman gets on or a guy with crutches and a seat appears. Even in the rush hour crush, there is good natured shoving, but it stays quiet. The T is one of my favorite parts of Boston, maybe because I grew up shuttling back and forth along the green line to school. It’s my place to think. When I turned in a couple of stories in my college creative writing class that involved train commuters, my teacher looked at me thoughtfully and said that my childhood commute had probably shaped me for life.
I can’t argue with that. Even now, in this early cranky morning hour, I look out the window as we crest the high bridge over the Charles River and I get thoughtful. There’s my city in the morning light — the Science Museum with its massive Tyrannosaurus rex, the duck boats chugging out into the bay — and I think I probably have the best seat in the house for all Boston has to offer.