Every summer of my childhood, my mother would take me and my sister from our suburban Minneapolis home to visit her family, which had moved from Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue to upscale Long Island on the momentum of postwar prosperity.
We would begin our trip on the legendary art moderne Great Northern Flyer. From its panoramic plexiglass dome, we gazed out on the fecund mid-century heartland, wheat undulating in fractalized amber waves; cattle barely blinking at our juggernaut; juvenile cornstalks growing into that nightmare forest of North by Northwest.
But reaching Chicago, we transferred to a different train that conducted us through a tenement landscape littered with wrappers, rags, and bottles. Dingy laundry swayed on clotheslines; broken windows stared back at us from blackened brick walls or splintered wooden sidings. Other eyes encountered ours too, and small hands waved in greeting: shabby kids not privileged to live in a home like ours, set on an emerald lawn edged with lilacs and elms, complete with a swing and a sandbox. As dawn broke, we still spooled through unrelenting poverty. The other side of the tracks was a long journey, I realized.
One that also awaited me, the daughter of a father who himself went broke. We lost our home to foreclosure and drifted to L.A. to rent by the week. Trails of rust ran down our building from the bathroom windows. We traded our car’s pink slip for rent, dodged creditors, and concocted excuses to school friends why our phone was broken.
Today, I earn an intermittent income writing about technology, leaping and clinging from client to client like a lemur to a tree. Whenever I go unemployed, I feel a sense of return settle on me like a familiar, threadbare old sweater.
My Menlo Park flat fronts the Caltrain railroad tracks; a brief stroll away, Atherton’s legendary rich endure their own version of uncertain reality.
On the nearby El Camino Real thoroughfare, a 21st-century architecture had been erupting to serve Silicon Valley’s phenomenal prosperity. Blocks of small shops, left over from a less muscular economy, were clawed down in hours, to be replaced by gleaming new tech palaces heralding unstoppable progress.
But now, we see half-finished facades, the buildings interrupted like half-grown cornstalks. They are built to withstand earthquakes without rippling a latte in its corporate cup. But they could not withstand the onslaught of a few RNA molecules. COVID-19 has halted construction like some stop-action shot, and we walk amid silent skeletons.
Their foundations now sprout tiny volunteer oak trees and pale, weedy wildflowers. They flaunt their freedom at the heavy, embalmed corpses of gladiolas and lilies that people carry past in wrapped bundles from Trader Joe’s up the street.
But the tracks still conduct the dutiful little Caltrain, which leaves San Francisco to bustle down the Peninsula through Palo Alto, just as if all were still well. The train stops mere yards from my doorstep, but it looks a lot emptier these days. In the recent past it would pick up and disgorge crowds of those fortunate enough to have Stanford as their destination. It chugs south through burgeoning San Jose and terminates in Gilroy before beginning its trek back to the City. When traveling south, the locomotive pulls proudly from the front, but on the northward leg, it must push the train and travel in its wake, facing backwards and looking a little confused.
Caltrain belongs to those who rode the rails of Bay Area prosperity: functioning, thriving, working, studying. Toned cyclists hoist their precision-engineered bikes aboard. Tourists mount, seeking the San Francisco of Hitchcock’s Vertigo—whatever isn’t yet gentrified out of existence. The City seems to be collapsing into a toxic new poverty lacking even its emblematic film noir flops. The poor and newly destitute have been chucked out onto the streets to scrabble for their lives, hunted by the triumphant virus.
Occasionally, on an enigmatic schedule, the train that my ex-boyfriend and I nicknamed Helltrain commandeers the Caltrain tracks. He jokingly designates Helltrain as “a real train” that differs as profoundly from our commuter choo-choo as Charon’s Stygian ferry does from a Venetian gondola. Caltrain’s brief, perky flyby has nothing on the poignant isolation of a true night train.
We hail Helltrain as a visitor from another dimension, a Dantean layer of America deep beneath our surface. The empties clatter and jamble noisily in the dark; we can only guess at the contents of the full wagons. For me, Helltrain conjures Holocaust, and Depression too—starving hoboes and freezing runaways huddled within, dodging the truncheons of the railroad dicks.
Helltrain announces itself with a plaintive wail that cleaves the night and claims our ears with the pathos of everything that has ever been alone in the deepest dark. Its metallic horn sings the arrow of time—mortality, futility and pointless perseverance; not merely earth’s story, but that of the probable universe too. I cannot imagine a sound more forlorn at 2 a.m.
As it approaches, the walls begin to tremble. Those of us who have known earthquakes might give an involuntary gasp before memory calls off the tachycardia. And barely have we braced than Helltrain is upon us; dredged up from the iron age like the bog-bedded mummies we see emerge from their own primeval sleep. Hooting its presence over and over, it now commands the night for a long run. We count the seconds of its passage, as if to calculate how many wagons are emerging from the hot, dim depths.
Helltrain doesn’t only pass at night, of course. I’ve been brought up short by it in the daytime, and it looks every bit like what you would expect: an endless chain of battered cars, each thickly plastered with graffiti of every possible hue, font, and warp.
Caltrain, though, even in its nighttime incarnation, is still a creature of the sun and the surface. Passengers glance out at us indifferently, as if at denizens of a quaint little zoo. Absorbed in their phones or laptops, they intersect our lives momentarily, and that’s the end of it, though the sound even of Caltrain lingers once it has passed, summoning those bereft in heart, the way trains always have.