My Ticket to Belonging

That's the best thing about your new job? my sister wanted to know. I didn't hesitate: "My train pass."

I waved it in the air in all its garish plastic splendor, and she blinked. But I was perfectly serious. This, more than anything, was my sign. I had arrived.

Trains have always marked important points in my life. When I was very young, I wanted nothing more than to turn 5 so I would have to pay. Children under 5 rode free, and after that you were a half-fare until age 12. I couldn't imagine I would ever be older than that. But I wanted to matter enough to be a half-fare.

My father took me somewhere on the train the week after my fifth birthday. The conductor jerked his thumb at me and growled, "She 5?" My father was completely unperturbed, but I stared out the window in a huff, terribly offended. Couldn't he see that I was clearly no four-year-old?

In fact, I rode the train infrequently as a child. It seemed that I rode the overnight Amtrak to Boston to visit Nana almost as often as I rode the local commuter trains. But each of those latter trips was of almost mythic proportions. My mother would load my sisters and me into the grimy silver breadbox that hissed in the station and off we would go on our grand two- or three-stop adventure.

Our semiannual shopping trips usually took place in this manner. We sat excitedly on the nondescript red-and-yellow seats and marveled at the novelty of no seat belts.

My mother always reminded us of the mnemonic device for remembering the order of the stations: Old Maids Never Wed And Have Babies, went the sexist old chant. It stood for Overbrook-Merion-Narberth-Wynnewood-Ardmore-Haverford-Bryn Mawr, a string of little suburban towns.

We got on at Bryn Mawr and rode to the big department stores: Ardmore, Wynnewood, sometimes even past Overbrook and into Center City Philadelphia, if Mom felt especially energetic. Buying spring or fall clothes wasn't a chore, it was an event.

Most conductors were nice. I liked their black-and-gray uniforms well enough, but I loved their booming voices. Both men and women had a way of stretching "Ardmore" into four syllables. "Ahhhhd aaah mooooah rraah comin' up!" they'd sing out, and my sisters and I would look at each other delightedly.

Once, while getting off the train, I was observing the conductor with my usual awe when suddenly one bushy black brow moved and an eyelid descended in a wink. I stared openmouthed. Instantly, my ability to curl my tongue faded into insignificance. I wanted to be able to do that.

It took months of practice, but finally I mastered the wink.

When I got older, I rode the train in the other direction, to dance class. Getting on the "wrong" side of the track took some getting used to. I had no fun ditty to keep track of the stations, but I muttered under my breath anyway: Rosemont-Villanova-St. Davids.... The first few times I took the train alone were terrifyingly exhilarating. What if I went past my stop? What if the train forgot to stop?

Eventually, I stopped pumping adrenaline every time the train slowed for no discernible reason or sat for more than 90 seconds in the station. Having memorized the instructions on how to open the cupboard holding supplies "In Case of Emergency," I learned the hidden benefits of trains. There were secondhand newspapers with splashy pictures and other newspapers printed in unreadable Chinese. There were kind strangers who would pay a quarter to make up the change for another's fare, or would help an immigrant get off at her proper stop. Snoozing off-duty conductors and others, on-duty, had important-looking black cases that were carefully transferred to the station attendant at the end of the trip.

I heard a half-dozen languages and saw a thousand kinds of people. There were funny incidents: One night a conductor waved a textbook in the air and bellowed, "Somebody's gonna flunk Western Civ!" But nobody came forward to claim it.

Still, I never quite belonged. Always there were those other people, the ones the conductors simply nodded to and passed by. I always had to pay money and wait for a long receipt to be punched in 17 different places. Others flashed a pass - or displayed one conveniently clipped to their coats - and that was it.

I burned to be them, to truly belong in this mass of varied humanity.

I stopped dancing and started college, and still I rode the train only four times a week. Buying a pass was not economical, no matter how I worked it out in my head. I tried to imagine other train rides I could take, but it was no good. I worked a mile from my house; it was a lovely commute, but I had no need to take the train.

AND then, finally, I got a new job. Better pay, more regular hours, and more than a mile from home. I would have to take the train.

My ticket agent, Sandra, and I had a long discussion about exactly which pass I should buy. I live in Bryn Mawr, I explained. I'm going to work in Strafford, but I go to school in the city. Zone 3, she decided. I paid a fortune - $109.50 - and when I walked away from the window I clutched a small rectangle of plastic. The promotional feature that month was the Phillies, so the boldly colored illustration was of a baseball player. I admired my pass and read the fine print on the back, signing it immediately as advised.

The job's newness has worn off; I'm accustomed to my weekday routine. But I still get a goofy kick when I buy my new monthly pass, or flash it at a sleepy-eyed conductor.

The funniest thing: The other day I got on the train, and the conductor nodded to me. He knew. I had a pass, and he knew. He didn't even have to see it.

I belonged.

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