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Riding the Rails



When riding the subway, a misplaced thought of normality would inevitably subside to a stark reminder of its untruth.  Whether attributed to the city itself or the hidden character of its underground labyrinth, complacency merited no part in Andy’s childhood method of conveyance.

To school, to the store, to ball games, to anywhere else, the subway transported Andy and his parents.  Car ownership unnecessary in the city, possessing one served only as a burden, if not mildly less convenient considering the lack of parking.

Crowds overburdened the green line, likely the cause of its prevailing in the run for worst smelling.  Other lines, too, topped the polls for their respective pejorative qualities: the purple line for most graffiti, the red line for most delayed and the blue line for the most decrepit.  A cast of characters further distinguished the quirks of each line.  Yellers, screamers, sleepers; unfortunate in many cases, and always present.

Population growth squeezed the city, while effecting changes in habits.  Over time, with increased riders and public awareness, the system improved; lines cleaner, the cars newer, and fewer altercations with increased policing.

Yet the experience of the ride would never change, a scourge of outdated infrastructure.  To conclude its time at each station, a reverberating buzz shrieked, alerting to the close of the doors, presaging their slamming shut with a rapid, rolling whoosh until striking each other to meet and seal off the car.  Roaring engines from the undercarriage broke any notion of relative calm in the station,  as the train began its race outward, overpowering the ambient noise of the car, forcing riders to raise their voices.  Instead of a controlled, consistent airflow, the air conditioners blasted air intermittently, the sound of which taking precedence over the chugging motors.

Amidst the sounds, the sensation of motion could not escape notice.  Small cars, close rails and deteriorated wheels and chassis suffered through bumps, shakes and twists as the trains hastened along the tracks.  On departure, the force to overcome the inertia of a stopped train thrust riders backward.  On arrival, aged brakes produced an audible shrill, rapidly bringing the train to a screeching halt at the next station.

“Why can’t they make it quieter?” Andy asked with near regularity.  “Because they don’t have any money and people have no alternative” his father would, bluntly, respond.


From the comfort of his suburban community, Andy’s sensibilities as an engineer took offense when reflecting back on his childhood days riding the subway.  His chosen vocation focused on streamlining, making things better, improving performance, reducing friction and lowering decibels.  Colleagues questioned his steadfast aversion to bumps and noises, to which he offered the canned response, “I hated it, through my spine, and could see that others did too.”

Visiting his parents, Andy chose to forego the use of his car, traveling the four-hour journey by rail into the city, then the last half-hour by the taxi, parting readily with money to spare himself the unpleasantness of the clanging subways.  Improved or not, jarring bumps of the local subway contrasted with the sense of gliding achieved on the rail lines Andy had become accustomed to in travels.

Studious ambition during his college years earned him a coveted role with a company that manufactured seats on various modes of public transportation.  His company catered to an eclectic mix of preferences for traveling comfort.  In a cross-section survey of countries, few had like tastes; in some countries, legrest stood prized above all else, in others width, in others still, maximizing the quantity of seats per car.  With endless capacity for differences, Andy’s charge, among his many roles on a renowned design team, required consultations with riders to elicit their inclinations.   Rapid adaptation to seats, trains and modes of transport of all sorts accrued over his travels to gather information.  Traversing the globe, flights up to sixteen hours, once obscene, became the norm.


Unable to overcome the influence of drastic time change, Andy had little presence of mind to notice the spotless surface of the platform on his first test ride, few years separating the day from receipt of his engineering degree.  Air gushed from the confines of the tunnel into the station, uplifting Andy’s parted hair.  Incipient riders stepped back from the edge of platform, taking the cue from the flowing air that the train would soon enter the station.

Andy’s recollection of the subway stations of his adolescence bore no resemblance to the high-speed rail depot in which he awaited his excursion.  Endlessly cavernous, well-lit ceilings, decorative paneling and clearly written signage in sufficiently large print diverged from the mold-strewn, dimly-lit, basement style stations of the subway.  The doors broke free of their airtight sealing, giving way to the sleek interior, the large windows to the outside passing the light from the station into the car.

He sat.  In this locality, the preference in seat comfort struck a mix between ample leg space and sufficient capacity through seats large enough to stretch but narrow in width.  Armrests provided a welcome separation from unknown neighbors.  Without the familiar inertial pushback, Andy hardly noticed the commencement of the journey, some three punctual minutes after boarding and exactly at the published departure time.

Nearby voices eerily audible, the wind rushing over the aerodynamic body of the carriage inflicted the only sound imposing itself on the car.  An articulate “welcome aboard” crisply chimed over the audio system.  Digital signs alerted passengers of the upcoming station and the time remaining until arrival.  Miles of land blurred in the nearground, only the mountains in the distance remained visible against the hardly appreciable brisk speed of the train.  An hour passed, along with nearly two-hundred miles of earth, before Andy alighted from the car, his perception of rail fundamentally altered.

Through the passing of years, Andy’s fellow engineers lost enthusiasm for the continuing demand of sampling the rails.  Filling their slots voluntarily required little more than an expression of desire to do so.  Andy’s whimsy failed to escape him in spite of repeated occasions boarding, sitting, staring, measuring and reporting of his duties aboard the trains.  From an initial dose of three per year, within five years, his logbook received the benefit of one new train per week.  Repeats first arrived in year three, when Andy’s duties shifted from initial analysis to re-analysis of the products installed per his evaluations.

His first year’s worth of voyages spent seated adjacent to strangers, a notion of solitude overcame the pleasure he initially experienced.  Stepping down the steps to the platform in Rome, a familiar face glancing in his direction could not escape Andy’s attention.  “Andy!” a familiar voice called, confirming that he knew the identity of the person behind the happenstance encounter.  “Andy!” the voice again called, the tinge of unsurety revealing concern over whether Andy had expressed sufficient acknowledgement of the first call.

“Teddy?!” Andy called out, his voice unmatched to the certainty of identification.  “What are you doing here?” Andy asked, once within close enough range to speak without yelling.  “Tourism…sort of” Teddy replied, seeming embarrassed that he lacked a more concrete response.  Andy prodded him, “you sound unsure, Teddy.”  “Not sure if you know, but I’m traveling the world riding trains” Teddy confessed.  No further verbal response could formulate in Andy’s mind before his facial awe gave away his amazement.  “Incredible” Andy finally blurted, before continuing, “are you leaving now or do you have time for coffee?”  “Yes, of course,” Teddy replied, before asking, “did you come from Milan?”  Andy looked back at the train, then to Teddy, “yes, this train here, carriage number 8.”  Teddy nodded, “I rode in car 7, how about that?”


In like form to Andy, Teddy had no companion on his trip.  Beneath the shade of a large umbrella, spraying fountains within earshot of the cafe required an upward adjustment of their speaking volumes.  The heedless driving of their taxi across the ancient city suppressed their ability to speak on the journey to their destination.  Sufficient equilibrium to walk in alignment required the passage of several steps before the stasis of solid ground offered its assistance.

With the aromatic blend of ground coffee and frothed milk permeating the air, Teddy recounted his trip to date.  A disclaimer, “you may think I’m crazy for this” led off his tale.  Teddy’s flair for vividity in his storytelling illustrated a cohesive adventure of traversing Europe by rail, following which he set his sights to the Middle East before proceeding east into Asia.  “Fascinating,” Andy stated, as blunt as his father once did.  “You may be the only one who thinks so,” Teddy lamented, his gaze drifting down as if to shade it from embarrassment.

All the while Teddy spoke, Andy struggled to contain his excitement about the opportunity to detail how fate brought him to the same train.  The arrival of the chance to recount his history before he anticipated took Andy by surprise, resulting in a rush of the words comprising the tale from his mouth.  Despite twenty minutes worth of details in mind, Andy finished in seven, but not before Teddy’s head could rise from his ashamed gaze down at the table to express a like fascination.

“I never knew you had such an interest in college” Teddy stated, his disbelief over Andy’s professed captivation apparent, “you always took the bus home.”  Ashamed of his past habits and ostensible aversion to rail, Andy confessed, “the unpleasant subways I used to take I thought had turned me off forever to trains.”  Teddy nodded, seemingly in agreement, but with his face contorted in a manner indicative of his inability to empathize, uttering quietly, almost ashamedly, “I lived in a small town growing up; I never had the chance to take the subway.”

Andy continued, “if you’ve never taken it, it’s hard to describe, but I eventually discovered this job, and would never again shy away from the rails.  I think the difference is what allures me to it, that something I once despised could be so interesting and harmless.”  Teddy let a moment pass before responding, “that’s great, I know how you feel.”

The four-hour transition from sun-filled afternoon to moonlit evening covered extensive histories of their experiences aboard various trains; comfort, speed, services, boarding processes, every niche of their esoteric hobbies receiving mention.  A comparison of notes revealed overlap in every continent but Asia, which deficiency would cease upon completion of Teddy’s trip in the subsequent weeks.  Their tab ran upward with the switch from coffee to wine, the necessity of greater sustenance obliging them eventually to order dinner, having not re-located for several hours.


Increasingly incoherent voices of revelers in the square signaling a close to the evening, Teddy and Andy’s parting of ways concluded with the exchange of updated contact information and an agreement to reconvene, in one year’s time, at the same location, to commence an excursion to experience their passions in tandem.

The gap of a year affording sufficient duration to address the logistics, their meeting at the same café materialized precisely at the planned moment, one year in the making.  One hour’s worth of coffee, the view of the timeless piazza unperturbed in the ensuing year, offered ample occasion to fill in details of the past year’s events.

Eleven confirmed tickets safely packed in each bag, their jaunt would take them north through Europe to a departure from Paris to Japan, eventually to China and concluding in Taiwan.  High-speed lines assumed the primary focus of the present junket; they would assemble once again at a later time for a sampling of slower, regional lines.

Mere acquaintances in college, Andy and Teddy’s bond grew by the draw of their common hobby.  With each new boarding, the discussion of the finer points of rail travel preoccupied their conversations.  Small cameras never absent from their possession, both employed them to document the most inconsequential of details: seats, meals, tray tables, cupholders, bathrooms, sliding doors, window shades, luggage racks and any other minutia deemed worthwhile of a photo.

Photos served multiple purposes; for Andy, professional analysis; for Teddy, to dress his travel website dedicated to rail, which he had started the prior year after his chance encounter with Andy in Rome.  Coffee with Andy overcame Teddy’s initial reluctance to publish his travels, inspiration coming from the fact that at least one other person shared the interest.   Parked behind his desk in the weeks subsequent to his chance encounter with Teddy, Andy took solace in the anonymous reference to him to as the travel companion noted in Teddy’s accounts of his travels, all of which peppered by Teddy’s vivid attention to detail.


Passing years brought greater innovations to the rails.  Automated systems, higher speeds and more comfortable seats, many of which produced by Andy’s company in part due to his earlier evaluations, made for more comfortable rides on Andy and Teddy’s yearly reunions.  Marriage, families and increasing work commitments precluded their ability to meet for long enough periods to replicate the two-week span of their first trip together, leaving at most one week at a time.

New lines superseded slower, regional trains in parts of the world they had visited, offering the necessary excuse to return to certain locations.  Seven years, during which time Andy’s daughter had started kindergarten, passed without missing a single instance of foregoing their annual expedition.  In the process of planning the next, Andy researched routings and hotels to finalize details, a month separating him from departure.

A beep, indicative of an incoming e-mail, sounded.  Already seated at his computer, Andy opened the e-mail without delay, reacting with dismay to its content, “Dear Andy, Sorry to say I won’t be able to make it this year, my professional obligations have required me to be in New York the week of our trip, save the date for next year.  Teddy.”  With a click, the e-mail closed, revealing behind it the screen with a confirmed itinerary.

Andy peered at the screen, making note of the pertinent details.  Cancellation would result in a large fee, plus foregoing the opportunity to ride one of the newest forms of rail travel developed in China.  With the ability to receive partial reimbursement from his employer, Andy faced little incentive to cancel this year’s trip, save for the fact that he would return to the previous habit of traveling without a companion.  He hovered the cursor over the cancellation option, staring at the screen, wondering how to proceed, eventually directing the cursor to the top, closing the window and confirming the validity of his passport.


Arriving from different locations in the U.S., Andy and Teddy’s ritual involved meeting for drinks in the hotel lobby of the first destination to discuss their plans.  Compensating for the adjustment that stripped him of his friend, Andy elected a luxury hotel, free from the budget constraints imposed on accommodations by Teddy.  Its lobby embraced opulence, adorned with angled mirrors, glass-blown red lanterns and crystal chandeliers, the décor of which matched that in the bar accessible from the lobby through a brass portal.

The bartender filled Andy’s wine glass halfway with the red wine Andy selected, one which he recognized from a hotel lobby bar in Rome, on his first trip with Teddy.  Before retiring for the evening, overcoming the jetlag from his long journey, Andy selected a second wine of similar variety, striking conversation with the bartender over the reason for his presence in China.

Electronically-operated sliding doors opened the path for Andy’s departure the following morning into a taxi bound for the central train station.  Recently inaugurated as part of the new high-speed rail operation, the station’s spotlessly clean façade and interior reflected the minimal span of its lifetime to date.  Gleaming signage directed Andy to his designated platform, from which his six-hour journey to Beijing initiated.

Approaching the stated departure time, Andy could see in the distance the lights of the incoming train, his instinctive reaction to which included stepping back from the platform.  He did so despite the presence of a five-foot high safety barrier separating the platform from the tracks.  Nearly without a sound, owing to its magnetically driven propulsion system, the train slipped into the station, onlookers frantically snapping photos to preserve the memories.

Doors on the platform barriers opened simultaneously with those on the train carriage, freeing a rush of passengers from inside the car.  Andy stepped in, turned left, and took his seat next to the window, as always, and prepared for departure, which occurred within four minutes, precisely matching its schedule.  A brief sensation of inertia pushed Andy back into his seat, the only noticeable indication of the train’s movement other than the increasingly blurring scenery beyond the egg-shaped window.

Service carts populated the aisle within several minutes of departure, offering snacks and drinks to patrons.  Andy followed his usual routine of eschewing the first class tickets, the practical result of which included the obligation to pay for desired offerings from the cart.  In the subway, Andy’s father refused to purchase snacks or drinks, a function of the inflated prices inflicted by vendors with a captive audience.  On this excursion, the selections displayed prices reasonably reflecting similar prices in fixed locales.  Andy decided to indulge in a sandwich and ginger ale, erecting a coy smile at the thought of his leap from the dank recesses of the subway to the levitating scion of the future, snacks and all.

Andy nestled back into the plush rear of the seat, resting his head against the microfiber headrest and closed his eyes for long enough to reflect upon an image of standing, with a grip upon a metal pole, bouncing through the turbulence of the underground train.  He continued smiling, until the touch of a hand landed on his right shoulder.  As the seat next to Andy initially remained vacant, the close contact of a nearby person startled Andy.  He turned to his right to face the aisle, opening his eyes as he did so, revealing the owner of the wayward hand as Teddy.


Andy called out, “Teddy! You made it!”, his wide eyes and teeth-baring smile demonstrating elation at the sight of his friend.  Teddy did not return a response in kind, lacking a smile or the wry expression of the successful execution of a surprise.  “Stand up, Andy,” his face devoid of emotion.  Andy rose to his feet as Teddy spoke again, “turn around and face the seat.”

Confusion consumed Andy’s face, shifting to concern as Teddy held Andy’s arms together, fastening handcuffs over his wrists.  Andy yelped, “what is this?!”, writhing in his restraints until the command to sit and remain quiet.  Andy noticed the golden-plated badge hanging around Teddy’s neck, its glistening glow from the protruding sunlight interrupted only by the inscription “D.S.S.” featured prominently in the center of the badge.  Teddy sat down in the once-vacant seat next to Andy.

Across the aisle, the previously unnoticed patrons suddenly stood out from the remainder of the passengers, bearing the size and disposition of law enforcement agents.  “We have two hours until we get off, I’ll read you the charges while en route” Teddy stated, without turning to face Andy.  A litany of money laundering, corruption and environmental violations, each of which with Andy appended as an accessory, followed in the ensuing continuation of the journey.

Andy rapidly commenced his verbal denials and nothing more, knowing not to speak in the absence of an attorney.  The first common thread of the accusations included actors from various departments within Andy’s firm, none of which directly involving him.  The second common theme elicited that Andy’s involvement consisted of supposed knowledge of such activities, lacking an active hand in them.  An hour’s time sufficient for Teddy to read the charges, a full hour remained until arrival at the next station.  In the absence of noise from the train, nothing could break the silence or its associated tension.  Braking disrupted the otherwise unnoticeable motion of the train car, which came to a halt as the station entered the view framed by the windows.


Blue lights topped the car into which Teddy loaded Andy outside a back entrance of the train station, a flanking of local officers escorting them to the door.  Blue-painted bricks formed the secure layer of the interrogation room of the nondescript building into which Teddy escorted Andy following their twenty minute ride through the city streets.  Free of the prying ears of a public train, Teddy offered the interstitial details of their earlier conversation.

Andy learned with the span of minutes that the coincidental nature of their meeting in Rome had not truly unfolded as such; Teddy’s travel website served merely as a cover; the purpose of their trips to gather information from Andy about his company’s operations.  Denials overcame Andy’s instinct to remain silent under interrogation.

Concluding the day, a significant diversion from his intended plans upon departing the hotel in the morning, came an offer.  Testifying to the details of his company’s plan, operations and connecting the dots of a scheme would result in freedom from the charges against him and immunity from any further prosecution.  Andy delivered a response without hesitation, “I don’t know anything or what you’re talking about, how can I possibly do this?”

Teddy’s reply arrived in similar fashion with unflinching promptness, “it’s your choice, but we can put you in places with people who do know this information, and you’ll go down with them.  We can send you back home in chains to a federal prison, or you can finish this right here, right now.”  Andy managed a smirk at his consideration of the thin veil of the threats against him.  He looked around the room, three sets of eyes, framed within the large heads of undoubtedly powerful individuals, staring upon him.  “I’m pretty far from home” Andy got out, staring forward at the blue walls.  “What do I do?”


The trial took place in a courthouse located within the jurisdiction of the office prosecuting the crimes, by coincidence located in proximity to Andy’s childhood home.  Oak paneled walls lined the courtroom, providing no contrast from the oak benches, oak jury box, oak witness stand and oak furnishings of the tables at which the parties sat, including the defendants, many of whom Andy’s close colleagues.

Two days of opening arguments and other testimony preceded Andy’s.  In the shadow of the glaring eyes of his now former co-workers, Andy provided details of the company’s work in response to questions by the prosecutors, establishing, what they argued, formed a conspiracy aimed at paying off foreign officials to award rail-design contracts to Andy’s firm, laundering certain proceeds to disrupt the traceability of funds.  Andy sullenly slumped in the chair on the witness stand, sitting up only when describing the occasions on which he rode the trains, documenting their features to be incorporated into reports, which, according to the testimony of others, the company employed to provide precise specifications for ill-gotten contracts.

Murmurs in the courtroom grew louder during Andy’s examination by the defense, in which several hours passed detailing the manner in which Teddy had apprehended Andy on the train in China.  Eventually asked to admit whether he did anything wrong, Andy held back the release of his anger, bluntly stating, “no.”

Further questioning implied the absence of an explanation for why he would choose to testify, unless compelled by the government.  “I had no choice,” the only response he could sheepishly muster, satisfied the defense’s line of questioning.  Andy slunk back into his chair, the question of his credibility, and his integrity, looming over the courtroom; his hobby now inextricably associated with calamity.

The verdict returned days after Andy’s testimony, with Andy seated in the courtroom gallery to witness the aftermath of his contribution.  “Guilty” proclaimed the jury foreman, in response to the question of guilt or innocence on all sixty-two counts against the three defendants, whose heads bowed with the recognition of their impending futures.


Pushing open the door from the courthouse proved difficult against the force of the early-winter winds, bringing about the first day of the season’s blistering cold.  Early arrival of the night’s darkness fully consumed the day by the time Andy left the courtroom.  Looking to his left, he eyed an entrance to the subway line that would leave him in closest proximity to his parent’s house, where they, along with his wife and daughter, awaited him for dinner.

Andy descended into the subway, which funneled the wind down the narrow corridor accommodating the staircase, offering no relief from the frigid temperatures on the surface.  He lowered his head, avoiding the direct force of the oncoming blasts of air, popping up the collar on his peacoat to protect his neck.  The wind ceased for a moment, Andy’s head remained down, his eyes gazing at the feet and legs of strangers in the corridor.  Small patches of water, once puddles of standing water accumulated out of leaking pipes, had frozen in the pools in which they came to rest.

With several hundred feet remaining to the platform, the distinct rumbling of an incoming train sounded, accompanied by the shaking and rattling of ceiling fixtures and the concrete ground.  Andy expedited his pace, arriving in time for the train to pull into the station.  No seats remaining, he grabbed the steel of the support bar above the row of seats that lined the side of the car, the bar still warm from the hand of its previous occupant.  Andy tightened his grip as the doors slammed to a close, bracing himself against the force of the train’s abrupt start of its journey into the lightless tunnel.  He released the pressure his hand exerted on the bar upon the disappearance of the station’s lights, applying enough to weather the bumps and curves of the jagged ride through the tunnel, bouncing and shaking upon his return to the subway.



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