Noticing the art of a passing train

It’s a hot, sticky August afternoon. Going outdoors is like walking into a wet blanket. Cicadas buzz into the still air. But I’m free. The kids are back in school, and I’m going to shopping all by myself. You parents out there know what I’m talking about—shopping without kids is like a miniature vacation. I hop into my SUV, turn the key, and crank up the A/C. The radio is already on my favorite station, so I’m ready to rock.

I swing out onto the limestone road. Someone has driven by recently, and a fine cloud of white dust hangs in the air. As I drive, the road shimmers at me in the heat, blindingly bright against the dusty green weeds along the ditches. I fumble my sunglasses on my face as I approach the railroad crossing. Of course, as I get closer, the lights start to flash and the arms come down. Here comes a train.

My mom grew up near a train track years ago, and grew to love the sound of a passing train. Every time we stopped at one, she’d open the windows so we could hear the rattling, rumbling, rushing, squeaking of the passing cars. I started doing with my kids, and I do the same thing now, even when I’m the only adult in the vehicle. Oh, four engines. It’s going to be a long train. I settle in for the wait.

As a child, we’d always look for the trains on road trips through western Kansas, trying to see who could count the longest train, or count it fastest, or how many of each type of car we could spot. Back in those days, we made sure to wave at both the engine and caboose, and almost always got waves back. Mom recently met a conductor that remembers passing her farm and waving to her as a child. Nowadays, there’s no caboose, and the engines are long past by the time you can see a wave. Sometimes you can recognize certain whistles. Personally, I wonder whose signature that is, and what their life is like. I especially wonder on the holidays. Maybe they wonder the same about me as they pass my car at the crossing. Probably not.

Since I have a while to wait, I watch the graffiti go by, an art show delivered carside. Some of it’s pretty good, considering it’s spray paint, probably done quickly. Seeing some of the larger works almost make me sad . . .whoever did that really has talent, but probably won’t be pursuing a paying art career anytime soon. Hopefully they’ll find a way to get and stay on the right side of the law. I wish I could read more of those big complex pieces, but maybe they’re in a language I don’t know.

The smaller tags draw my attention too. Some are hasty, amateurish, trite. Some become familiar, noticeable in their simplicity or originality. For years, everywhere I went, I seemed to see a certain tag. Seemingly done in white chalk, it was a martini glass with either olives or bubbles, and “Port of Beaumont, TX.” I asked around, and a friend remembered that one as well. “That’s the Bubbler,” she said, adding that she thought she heard it was someone who worked at the railyard. I still wonder who it was, even though I haven’t seen that tag for at least two years now.

Watching this train, many of the cars have a new tag, which seems to have evolved on the same train. Again in chalk, it begins as a large, curlicued “WASTE OF LIFE.” That’s sad, I think. I wish I could tell them they’re not a waste. But, as the train passes, the tag changes. Still in chalk, still with some curls, but now two wavy lines depicting a waist and hips, with “WAIST OF LIFE” in the center. Hm, a woman, I think. It strikes me as unusual that a woman would be tagging, especially one with that message. And that’s pretty original, as train tags go. I don’t know if I want to see her tags again. I want her to be at home and happy, maybe with a little one. Still, I’ll look for her tags when I pass a train. Maybe she’ll leave an update. Probably not.

Trains are an odd juxtaposition of everything we have in common and everything we don’t. They’re the way we all get goods or travel. We all end up waiting on trains in one way or another. But my life, and the taggers’ lives, are so different that we might as well be living on different planets. I’m not suggesting that vandalism is a good thing (let’s face it, spray painting something that doesn’t belong to you without permission, no matter how artistic, is vandalism). Please don’t go out and do it. But maybe, next time you wait for a train, look at that graffiti and think about who, or why. We all want to be seen. How can we see each other better?