Read Old Man Scanlon

Nerd at the Window

12 September 2012

As a nerd I lead, appropriately enough, a binary existence: oblivious to my environment, or gawking freely and unreservedly to provide a never-ending stream of raw data to my visual cortex. Airplanes are the ultimate platform for gawking, and I've been known to ask complete strangers if they'd like to trade their window seats for my aisle. Ever since Dad treated us kids to a flight in a small plane, I've lived for the days I can glue my face to a window, paralyze every muscle in my neck, and survey the earth as we begin our ascent of thousands of feet. On takeoff my mind can't shift scale fast enough; you go in minutes, if not seconds, from being able to see your whole town to seeing an entire state (at least if you're flying over Rhode Island). There's never enough time to orient; if you recognize anything from the air it's a true eureka moment. I lust for the bird's eye view—flight would be my superpower of choice—and I swooned when our PBS station unleashed "Over New England" during one of its interminable fundraisers.

I have always spent a lot of time at the city railroad station, eavesdropping on strangers, parrying the occasional indecent proposal, and watching trains. Perfectly normal, for a nerd. Yet for all the time I've spent watching these prodigious machines, it's remarkable that I can count on the fingers of one hand the hours I've spent riding them—excepting commuter rail, which hardly counts. Remarkable and unfortunate, because trains turn out to be perfectly acceptable platforms for serious gawking.


This year circumstances made it necessary and feasible for my wife and me to take Amtrak's Downeaster to our annual sojourn in Old Orchard Beach. Our good friends would drive themselves to our Maine destination early in the day, carrying our luggage. We would take the train from Boston in the evening, unencumbered, meet our boon companions at the Old Orchard train station, and start the revelry.

Even without a hard and fast diagnosis of being "on the spectrum," I do not travel gracefully. In a pitiful but futile attempt at control I pore over and memorize maps of my main route, and at least two others in case of emergencies, and then try to foist it off as a love of maps. As an experiment, this time I'm taking our trip cold turkey, refraining from even glancing at a map until we are ensconced on the B&B's porch in Old Orchard Beach. Living on the edge, this morning of departure I alter the usual order in which I put on my socks and briefs. I stretch and warm up by taking the commuter rail to Boston, where I meet Cheryl. We take a cab to North Station (blissfully ignorant of where North Station is), savoring the tropical August day in an un-air-conditioned car with its windows closed. Our driver doesn't react to Cheryl's small-talk hints about the mugginess of the day.

So our journey begins. We had the better part of an hour to spare, and grabbed a bite of supper: check. We have no luggage to schlep: check. I'm no longer hyperventilating: check. The Downeaster eases out of the station, on schedule. Time to test the gawking.

It is immediately apparent that train gawking differs from airplane gawking. There is no need to force an overloaded brain to make your mental map congruent with what you see on the ground. Since I have no altitude, and have denied myself a mental map, that's not surprising. There will be no eureka moments. We have palpable speed, but none of the majesty and awe I feel when staring down from seven miles up. Nevertheless, there are compensations, as there often are when you're not wasting brainpower wishing you were someplace else.

Today's gawking engages more than vision. I hear and feel steel wheels running on jointed track, a contrast to the continuous welded rail on the Northeast Corridor south of Boston. There are grade crossings galore, another contrast to the Corridor. We whistle for them all, the constant pitch oddly monotonous because there is no Doppler shift, since we listeners are not moving with respect to the diesel's horn. The grade crossings are the only places where the train passenger's perspective coincides, however briefly, with that of the motorist. As dusk deepens we get unique glimpses of towns and cities we've heard of but never seen—and which we will never recognize if we should pass through in a car.

We're booking it when we pass a quarter-mile of graffitied box cars ten feet from the window, a sort of linear kaleidoscope. We see mills and rivers, the robust ironwork of old bridges, a hint of faded industrial power as rain and darkness fall. We make more grade crossings, the pristine red of individual LEDs in the signals streaking past. There's the noirish feel of specular reflections of neon and headlights off wet pavement. We pull five minutes late into downtown Old Orchard, within earshot of the Atlantic kissing the miles of sand known ironically as the Quebec Riviera. For a moment before we reunite with our friends we are jetsam on a sea of nasal French vowels.