Saturday, January 17, 2009

A glimpse of Obama's train

This morning around 9, while listening to Weekend Edition and hearing the talk about President-elect Obama heading to Washington by train for the inauguration, I got it in my head that I must go and have a look as the train passed by. So as soon as I could throw on some running clothes, I headed out the door.

This was not one of your better organized trips.

For one, I knew only that Darby Station would be better for my purposes than 30th Street, where I anticipated throngs of people and it seemed unlikely I'd get to see anything (although, granted, if I could somehow squeeze close enough through the crowds, I might catch a glimpse of the man himself, rather than just the train--just that given the time I was leaving, chances of this happening would be pretty slim).

But beyond knowing my destination, I hadn't, as on other occasions when I needed to get somewhere, studied the transit and street maps to find a route. I vaguely knew that the 113 bus would be running somewhere on Lansdowne Avenue, and I seemed to remember Marshall Road as part of its route. This turned out to be incorrect. But by the time I reached Marshall Road, I'd walked/run up a lovely trail, the sun casting its sharp winter shadows across the crushed leaves and puddles. I was ready for a little adventure. No worries. I cut diagonally through neighborhood streets toward Lansdowne Avenue, then figured soon enough I'd find where the 113 turned onto Lansdowne Avenue. Meanwhile, I was getting a brisk morning walk/run (my heel is in no condition for running and not much condition for walking, but this was important).

On Lansdowne Avenue, I happened upon Neil's former downstairs neighbor who had moved to that area. We chatted briefly and soon afterward, the 113 came along, and I thought "great, Darby Station here I come." But it turned out not to be so simple. After getting off at the Darby Transportation Center--well, trains are transportation, aren't they?--I realized that while trains were transportation, they were not included in the available transportation at this stop. After asking one person who said there was no train station in Darby (oh, then I imagined the Darby stop that time I took the R2 to Curtis Park?), I eventually found someone who conceded that yes, there was a train station, and gave me directions. It turned out to be about a fifteen minute walk to the station. Actually longer: I had the good fortune of reaching another railroad track in time for a multi-car, slow-moving freight train to pass by. I doubted very much that our President-elect would choose a freight train for this historic trip, even if he is more of a man of the people than our outgoing president.

So I waited, fidgeting, until this seemingly endless train passed, anticipating that by the time I reached Darby Station, I would have missed the passing of the Presidential train. But as I was already enroute, I figured I'd finish the trip and at least know I'd been to the tracks on which the train had traveled. Sometimes we grasp at straws.

It was from here, a short trip to the Darby Station, and when I arrived, a couple hundred people were already gathered there, including police, a high school band, and people of different races and all ages, from babies to the elderly. I talked with a couple who said they'd seen FDR's funeral train and John Kennedy on a train trip. We exchanged memories, stories, jokes--even tissues. A woman who said the cold gave her a runny nose got one of her children to come with a supply, and shared them around with others nearby. The band would play a song or two and stop, then play again. A police officer with a dog chatted with us. We asked him if he knew when the actual train would come--an Amtrak train had passed by but it wasn't Obama's--he said he was pretty low on the totem pole and likely the last to know. "Otherwise I wouldn't be out here waiting in the cold," he joked. He promised to let people pet his dog if they stopped at the car afterward. Helicopters flew overhead. Black SUV's stood guard on each side of the railroad bridge. I joked with the elderly couple: "For all I know, you folks are in the Secret Service." "We're too old for that," the lady said.

Eventually the train came--an Amtrak train with an old-fashioned car at the end, with a balcony at the back decked with bunting. Although Obama himself did not step out--this was not one of the train's scheduled stops or even slow-down points, although the train wasn't traveling at typical Amtrak speed--it was exciting simply to see the train pass by. Cheers went up from the crowd, and the band struck up--and then the train was gone, enroute to Washington. Some asked if that was the real train or a decoy, and police told us that yes it was the one. With that, we said our goodbyes, witnesses from Lansdowne, from other parts of Delaware County, police officers from all over the Philadelphia area (I was told someone from Lansdale was on hand).

We had come to witness history. We'd come to watch more than just a train passing by. We came for the sharing of stories. And there in the frigid cold, we told stories and anticipated the stories we'd tell to others after leaving this station. I thought of Mom and how excited she'd be to see this day, to see the first African American president. And I think of Martin Luther King's words on this weekend celebrating his birthday: "
I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

And although most of us weren't sitting while awaiting this train, we were, whatever our race, awaiting not just that train but what it meant to us: new hope, new opportunity, a new place for this country to inhabit. Each of us had made some kind of journey to reach this place--not just my impromptu running/walking/transit riding, freight train awaiting trip... although come to think of it, this trip of mine signifies something: I knew where I wanted to go, even if I wasn't always sure how to get there and even if there were obstacles (mis-estimating the bus route and encountering the freight train), I found my way there. I hope we as a nation find our way to where we need to be.


A few days ago, a plane crash landed in the Hudson River, but all the people on board survived and there were no serious injuries. Somehow I wonder if this is a good sign of something. The pilot landed so skillfully that instead of the plane breaking up as planes have done on water landings, it stayed intact long enough to evacuate passengers. Everyone worked together to help one another out of the downed plane, including all the ferries and fire/rescue boats nearby which immediately came to the aid of the passengers huddled on the wings and in an inflatable exit slide. It gives me hope. Sometimes one can survive disasters and move forward.