In the old days it would have been called a ''crack'' train - the once-a-day special pounding south from Toronto to New York City. The railway company, with a certain poetic flourish, has given it a name: the Maple Leaf. These days, however, eleven hours and thirty-two minutes somehow seems less ''crack'' than it used to; and when I boarded the Maple Leaf at Albany the other evening, it was clear that there weren't many of us who still shared that delicate mix of nostalgia, civility, and leisure necessary for train travel in an airport age.Skip to next paragraph
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So I had, from the outset, half a car to myself. Now, that's a disorienting circumstance: I've been wedged into so many coach-class airline seats in this country, and settled for so many aisle seats on British Rail trains, that I've come to think of traveling as a gregarious and demotic sport. Suitcase in hand, I wandered down the empty, darkened coach (they were changing engines, and we boarded in the semi-gloom of emergency lights), tried several locations that were not to my taste, and finally came upon an alcove whose two pairs of seats faced each other. I chose the forward-facing window seat, hoping the lights inside might be subdued enough to let me glimpse the Hudson River.
But the train pulled out, and the lights came up full, and the window was nothing but a gloss of reflections. I had books and papers at my side, yet nothing called out to be read. So I sat and thought. That, after all, is what trains are good for: promising ample time, they are havens for procrastinators, dreamers, and those who have found the link between idleness and insight.
I found myself recalling a similar alcove a few years ago on a train from London to Scotland. I was with my wife (who likes sitting forward rather than backward) and we were rolling through Yorkshire pastureland in broad daylight. I had recently come (through the bizarre logic that sometimes characterizes changes in career) out of an academic life teaching poetry and into journalism; and I recall thinking that, given my newfound occupation, I was in the wrong seat. Looking backward, I saw only what had just gone by. It occurred to me that I should be sitting where my wife was - that journalism, wedded to the workaday world and intent on spotting trends before they crest, should take the seat on the train facing forward. The backward-looking seat - leisured, contemplative, and rooted in an academic turn of mind that ponders the ever-deepening past - belongs to history. To be sure, both journalists and historians do a good deal of rubbernecking over their shoulders. But their natural pose is straight ahead - the journalist keen to identify the speck on the horizon before it hurtles into the present, the historian content to wait until the massive object that once filled the window recedes and takes its place among the other objects of the landscape.
The metaphor came and went, I recall, and I had only time for a tremor of suspicion at its overly neat two-part structure before something - a herd of sheep, perhaps - sparked a comment from my wife and I craned round to see. So it was not until the other night along the Hudson that I came back to the analogy. What was it, I thought, that had made me slightly uneasy?