28 December 2009
I freely confess that the railroad station in Attleboro, Massachusetts is one of my favorite places, though few people would call it beautiful, or even scenic. What is there to recommend it? Why do I come here? I believe that, presented with this infinitely rich and varied universe, a thinking man honors it by responding with voracious, indefatigable curiosity. For me, the Attleboro station, because of its skin-deep ugliness and seeming unsuitability, is an ideal place to cultivate and practice curiosity. Nature Conservancy Great Places are well and good, potentially transfiguring, but Minor Places—or even Minimal Places—like Attleboro station help sustain one's quotidian slog. They are places which reward patience and curiosity, where you can go day to day for the small escape, to let your mind and senses out for a romp, to observe nature, and to contemplate the human condition. Minor Places serve us well by reminding us that we humans are part of nature, and that it surrounds us, wherever we are. They teach us to be able to live in the moment and be satisfied with what chooses to reveal itself to our curiosity, and so, perhaps, to be able to stand being alone with ourselves.
Attleboro station has been an oasis for me since the 1960s, when I first started going there regularly as part of a roving gang of teenage bicyclists, ostensibly to watch trains. Even then, the station served as more than merely a place to watch trains and feel the earth shake under our feet, though I didn't recognize it at the time. It was a place apart which we could get to under our own power and on our own responsibility. There we could assert our independence, try on adult language and thoughts, and talk about what teenage boys have always talked about, no doubt to the disgust of passersby. In addition to seeing trains, we hoped to meet girls, which, even in the bloom of hopeful youth and crazed by testosterone, we knew was improbable. Now, fifty years later, I am still drawn to "the tracks" almost daily.
The station buildings, one on each side of the tracks, are handsome—red brick with orange-tiled roofs, distinctly from another time, a hint of the American Southwest in the monochromatic New England winter. They are solid and durable, as are the four low granite arches which carry the rails over downtown Attleboro streets, mute reminders that They Don't Build 'Em Like That Anymore. The buildings and arches were part of a circa-1906 project to raise the rail grade above street level. The buildings are represented in the penny post card craze of the early twentieth century, served in both World Wars, and now also house various commercial and public enterprises, their continued usefulness enabling them to survive the decline of for-profit rail passenger service. At ground level below there is parking for 700 cars, and the ragged edge of a downtown that's seen better days, but is clearly nowhere near as desolate as some of the surrounding cities. Blowing trash, miniature billboards, graffiti, and other vandalism add variety.
One is surrounded by wildflowers at the station—or weeds, as most people call plants able to prevail and thrive in barren untended places without benefit of chemical fertilizer and untold gallons of municipal water. One day I recognized knapweed and a half-dozen other old friends, including stiff goldenrod, which doesn't have long clusters of tiny flowers like other goldenrods, but is also bright yellow. Blonde per se does nothing for me in the vertebrate world, but a brazen yellow flower will turn my head every time—the gaudier the better. In the spring dandelions, roadside celandine, yellow hawkweed, and bird's-foot trefoil all display in profusion the blazing life-affirming yellow of a child's sun-drawing—an unexpected visual delight in a place easy to dismiss as bleak.
Often the overhead digital chitter of chimney swifts, as delicious to the ears as the sound of cicadas and katydids, alerts me to a squadron of fat cigars, stubby-tailed and crescent-winged, flying like bats out of hell to terrorize the insect population. Once I saw them actually gliding at half-speed, shattering my lifelong belief that they'd drop like stones if they ever stopped beating their wings. Another time I observed them as they instantly coalesced into a tight group. En masse, they took two or three spiraling loops around an abandoned factory chimney, and dived down in. Ah, I thought—chimney swifts. When the pigeons, so commonplace as to approach invisibility, take off they suddenly shed their half-wit, rat-with-wings personas and become fast, powerful, and graceful flying creatures, though of course still dumb as posts. It's the same with itinerant gulls doing their inland dumpster circuit. Obnoxious aggressive thugs in the station parking lot, their personality issues recede when they're aloft, heading into the wind. With lift to burn they are positively noble birds. I occasionally run afoul of a wary crow doing sentinel duty atop a lamp post. Not one has ever let me pass without flying off raucously to alert the rest of the gang, no matter that I pretend not to notice them. So cautious and crafty, of such a criminal bent, I'm sure they'd as soon peck out my eyes as give me the time of day.
Despite its downtown location Attleboro station is fairly wide open, and even the catenary for the electric trains doesn't obtrude much. There is an unimpeded straight-out view of about three-quarters of the sky. Ironically, in my much more rural town you need to look overhead to see the sky, since we each live in a two-acre clearing hacked out of the ubiquitous woods, and there's nothing like a true horizon. In a single visit to the station it isn't rare to see the weather change, sometimes dramatically, and over the course of seasons you can watch the sun move north and south and its zenith rise and fall, and perhaps gain some sense of the natural time of our ancestors. There will be days when there is not a cloud in the sky and the air is so crystalline you can almost see individual molecules, days when the ceiling's at about fifty feet, and days when you'll realize how it feels to be living under the clouds in a Hudson River School painting.
When solitude eludes you, you can study the sample of fellow humans thrown your way, starting with the Boston commuters who detrain every afternoon. It is best to hug the fence when a train rolls in. The vanguard are maniacs. They jump off before the train stops and run for their cars, competing to be at the head of the pack of a hundred or two cars forcing their way out of the parking lot. Perhaps they miss their daily dose of road rage on the interstate. It's a fruitless race—in five minutes, about the time it takes for a relaxed walk to the edge of the lot, the way is completely clear.
The commuters generally remain anonymous, but regulars eventually look familiar and begin to differentiate into distinct organisms. Stereotypically reserved New Englanders occasionally nod and admit another's existence, even exchange observations concerning the current temperature or how late the train is. It is good for carbon-based units to acknowledge the social fabric, ping each other now and again, and think "Yes, human."
One afternoon, as I watched one oaf empty his designer water bottle (as if he would have dehydrated and blown away between the train and his car) and lob it over the railing, I telekinetically shot out a message of scorn and contempt, but his head failed to explode. I had never seen such an overtly antisocial act before, and I was reduced to impotent enraged disbelief. I considered for a fleeting moment attempting a citizen's arrest (Massachusetts has a $500 littering fine that I've yet to see enforced—except against Arlo Guthrie), but thought better of it.
Then there are the human flotsam and crazies, who tend to tell you their names. I've met a man who'd just been ejected from the local hospital and was going to Providence to find a detox unit which would have him, and I've met more than one reprobate wending his way home after release from jail. They all have a story, though I don't necessarily want to hear it. But I will certainly listen when the arc of a transient's life unavoidably intersects mine and he chooses to reveal things that I'd keep to myself. I'll listen because it's polite, and I have nothing to lose, not even my time, which has already been allocated to a station visit. I'll listen because the story might be interesting and instructive, if only in the sense of "there but for the grace of God go I." Moreover, I'll try to listen with the respect due to a fellow (possibly armed) human being, believing that a willing dispassionate ear may be valuable to him.
When Amtrak electrified our end of the Northeast Corridor in the late '90s, we gained the commuter rail platform, wretched, jerry-built testimony to the incompetence or corruption of the Commonwealth and the lowest bidder. It opened with railings held together with duct tape, sign posts hose-clamped to the railings, and no sooner did the politicians leave the ribbon-cutting than the concrete started crumbling into its constituent sand and library paste. Bureaucrats seem to have a lasting genius for doing the maladroit thing. Last year they decided to mow the meadowed embankment between the parking lot and platform and plant a grid of rugosa roses and small evergreen shrubs. Meanwhile, the concrete's still disintegrating, litter blows in the wind, the mini-billboards still stand, but the meadow's gone. This misbegotten and ill-executed project could have been a total loss, except that the roses give olfactory reminders of the beach and dunes, which is never a bad thing. Even more gratifying is watching the meadow resurge; no skim coat of bark mulch could hold it back. Already ragweed, Japanese knotweed, foxtail grass, yellow toadflax, Queen Anne's lace, and poison ivy are thriving. The coming spring promises more.
Ruskin dismissed part of the Midland Railway with "You enterprised a railroad through the valley.... The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange—you Fools everywhere." Yet people were outraged when a century later the powers that be proposed to raze the line's Headstone Viaduct. What had started as an abomination came to equilibrium, pearl-like, with its surroundings. As humans we derive comfort and strength from anything which has lasted longer than a human lifetime; it becomes for all practical human purposes eternal, like nature itself.
If Attleboro station disappeared, its physical traces erased, nature would soon enough fill in the vacuum, leaving only memories and old photographs. While the station is still here I've taken care to create and share memories of it with my grandchildren. And so, this Minor Place where my grandfather began and ended his Army career on Armistice Day, 1918, where my father saw feral steam locomotives roaming the rails in the '40s, will give yet another generation a framework on which to develop their own curiosity and sense of place.