Read Old Man Scanlon

Station Days

09 August 2008

As my wife, grandchildren, friends, ex-wife, and random people in the street are fond of pointing out, I am a strange man. One of many facts that elicits that observation is that I freely confess, truth being the absolute defense, that the Attleboro railroad station is one of my favorite places. Contrary to rumors, I wasn't present at its construction at the dawn of the twentieth century. It has been a mecca for me since 1964 or so, when I first started going there regularly as part of a roving gang of teenage bicyclists—Cav, Dave, Flash, Gus, and I—ostensibly to watch trains. That was not a lie, but the station's function has always been larger, though I didn't recognize it at the time. It was a place apart where we could assert our independence, get there under our own power and on our own responsibility, 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. Even today it horrifies me to contemplate what might have happened had we met five girls on bicycles who were watching trains.


The station buildings, one on each side of the tracks, are handsome brick, tile-roofed, distinctly not modern. They are durable, as are the low stone arches at South Main, Park, Mill, and Peck Streets, mute reminders that They Don't Build 'Em Like That Anymore. The arches and buildings were part of a project to raise the rail grade above street level, around 1906. The buildings are represented in the penny post card craze of the early century, served in both World Wars, and now house various commercial and public enterprises. Passenger service could not withstand the burgeoning automobile, and railroads came, merged, and went bankrupt. Track three was ripped up, the ties left to rot. As commuter rail traffic resurged and Amtrak electrified our end of the Northeast Corridor, track three was relaid, accompanied by an incredibly shoddy platform featuring crumbling concrete, railings held together with duct tape, sign posts hose-clamped to the railings—bleak testimony to the incompetence or corruption of the Commonwealth and the lowest bidder. The pavement's unshaded except at one end, but its twelve or fourteen foot elevation means, rather surprisingly, that breezes are pretty much unimpeded. This is nice in the summer, but less attractive in January and February. At ground level 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 Brockton. Blowing trash, miniature billboards, graffiti, and other vandalism add variety.

This is not a beautiful place. What is there to recommend it? What is there to do? Why even come here? I suggest that the Attleboro station, because of its skin-deep ugliness and seeming unsuitability, is an ideal place to cultivate curiosity, and practice makes perfect. Presented with this infinitely rich and varied universe, I believe that a sane human honors it by responding with voracious indefatigable curiosity accompanied by contemplation of the questions generated thereby. It is a sin to suppress curiosity by declaring boredom. It is blasphemy to deny curiosity utterly by invoking God to serve as the pat answer to every unanswerable question, and thence down the slippery slope to foisting Him off on every question that we are too ignorant, idle, or witless to answer ourselves. What a waste of omnipotence. Far better to just ask the unanswerable question, accept that there's no answer, accept what answers that our skillful curiosity may bring us, and embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty.

Curiosity alone does not fully explain the station's strange attractiveness. Other qualities of mind come into play. It helps to be able to live in the moment and be satisfied with what chooses to reveal itself to your curiosity, and to be able to stand being alone with yourself. These qualities, too, can be cultivated. Also, external factors beside the lure of throbbing multi-thousand-horsepower diesels apply. I go to the station when the vacuum cleaning juggernaut, the infernalest concentration-breaker in Christendom, runs amok in my living room. I go there to avoid the attractive nuisance of the Internet and the computer, and to write and rewrite in my head. I go there in the delusional hope that a two-mile stroll will get me in shape, and to indulge in the reverie that mindless exercise allows. I go for solitude and to watch trains, though often enough fail on both counts.

Proust, perversely French, got it exactly backwards. The station triggers decades-old olfactory memories for me. The concentrated mineral essence of a dusty humid Summer day released when the first fat raindrops smash into the street, before all particulate matter is sluiced down the storm drains. Creosoted ties baking in the sun. The subterranean smell of the now long-disused connecting tunnel, with zooey overtones of rock slowly dissolving under the onslaught of the inebriated and incontinent. New memories shoulder in amongst the old. Depending on the weather, you can be downwind from Morin's Diner, the Attleboro Department of Public Works' Christmas-tree chipper, or something dead in the trash. Last week, the wake of an Amtrak regional train carried the unmistakable final reminder of a skunk that never knew what hit him.

You could watch the pavement dry after a summer thundershower. The wet asphalt glistens black, and any water that can runs off. In a few minutes high places dry to grey and expand, leaving the low spots and networks of cracks wet, until finally there are only a few isolated puddles. It is much more dynamic than drying paint.


You could identify the wildflowers you see. Or weeds, as most people call plants able to prevail and thrive in barren untended places without benefit of ChemLawn (now metastasized into TruGreen) and untold gallons of municipal water. Today as I parked I recognized ragweed, smartweed, lemongrass, knapweed, common mullein, horseweed, and evening primrose. Those are all old friends. If I'd brought my trusty Newcomb I could inflict even more on you, and if I ever ran out of wildflowers I could start learning grasses and sedges. On the way home I saw 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. Starting in spring, my own personal crop of dandelions out in the yard, celandine by the roadside, yellow hawkweed, bird's-foot trefoil—all display in profusion the blazing life-affirming yellow of a child's sun-drawing.

There are chimney swifts the shape of a cartoon tycoon's cigar, stubby-tailed and crescent-winged. They chitter vaguely digitally, as delicious to the ears as cicadas and katydids, flying like bats out of hell to terrorize the insect population. (My favorite place for watching them is Bill and Jean's house in North Attleboro, where my grandmother lived in 1910, it being a small world. On the back deck, with wine and friends, 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. My second favorite place is some Rhode Island town south of Providence. I was waiting in the car, watching and listening to a flock of them. Suddenly they grouped. En masse, they took two or three spiraling loops around an abandoned factory chimney, and dived down it. Damnedest thing I ever saw, next to the school of tadpoles which leapt out of the water when a front-end loader dropped its bucket on the ground a quarter mile away.) There are pigeons—I'm sorry, I can't call them rock doves. When they take off they shed their half-wit rat-with-wings personas and become fast, powerful, graceful, even handsome flying creatures, though of course still dumb as posts. It's the same with gulls, obnoxious aggressive thugs when they're hanging out in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Their personality issues recede when they're in the air at the beach. With lift to burn and dead crabs galore, they are positively noble birds. There are crows. What is there to say about a bird so cautious and crafty, who'd as soon peck out your eyes as give you the time of day?

About three-quarters of the sky is readily available for your viewing delight here. You can look out at it. In my rural town you need to look up 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. Gram Brooks, a city girl, has it right: "Look at all the damn trees." The few existing fields are succumbing to a new invasive species, the McMansion; I haven't heard a meadowlark in years. At Attleboro station it is fairly wide open, and even the catenary for the electric trains doesn't obtrude much. In a single visit it isn't rare to see the weather change, 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 in between when you'll realize how well some of the Hudson River School painted clouds.

For those of us with the imperative to count and measure the opportunities abound to sharpen our Sherlockian proclivity to notice the obvious. The outbound platform's "stand behind the yellow line" zone comprises 170 four-foot fiberglass panels, the last two of which you can't walk. On various occasions I have covered the 672 feet in 268, 269, 270, and 272 paces (and not in that order); thus my strolling stride on the average is very close to two and a half feet. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to ascertain how much that stride might vary in a stiff headwind, and what the average separation of the ties on track three is.

When solitude eludes you, you could 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, apparently unaware that it will take a few minutes for a hundred or two cars to force their way onto South Main St. It's as if they miss their daily dose of road rage on Routes 95 and 128. I thought Attleboro was a zoo, but an MBTA trainman informed me that Mansfield was the busiest stop, and added: "A lot of tall ships... some attractive women there." Now he tells me. Apparently we were biking in the wrong direction.

There is opportunity to descend to the lowest, crudest form of humor, making fun of a person's appearance: a bariatrically-gifted woman heaved her bulk from the commuter train, and silk-screened across her panoramic ventral surface was the name of her favorite sports team, the Giants. More sophisticated humor is rare, as I am not big on asking total strangers their names so that I can make fun of them; besides, not being Jeopardy-ready lightning-witted, I could probably do no better than "Geez, that's a stupid name."

As Danny Rivera lobbed an empty water bottle over the railing, I telekinetically shot him a message of scorn and defiance; slight regard, contempt; but his head failed to explode. I had never seen such an overtly antisocial act before, except among Massachusetts drivers, where antisocial is the norm, and I was reduced to impotent quivering-with-rage disbelief. I might have spoken, but I would most likely have been intemperate and even profane, thereby earning his retaliatory knife between my ribs. An oaf this untidy could be capable of any enormity—pederasty, torturing small animals, punning, voting the straight Democratic ticket. I'm lucky to have lived through the encounter.

Though anonymity is the general rule, the regulars waiting for Providence trains eventually look familiar and begin to differentiate into distinct organisms. Even New Englanders occasionally nod and admit another's existence, or exchange sweet nothings 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."

There's an older man who walks south through the station. His suit, modest cowboy hat, and erect posture mark him; he's polite, in a vaguely not-from-around-here manner; he seems calm, deliberate, self-assured. He's different, as if the aliens' human-fabricating process were just a hair off, a shade heavy on gentlemanly. Another thin, wiry guy sits while he waits on the granite stairs coming up from the street. Under a baseball cap (bill to the front, he's that old) there's white hair nearing his shoulders. He has a long white mustache, he's fond of cigarettes, lottery scratch tickets, and an occasional beer. I have no trouble seeing him as an extra in The Sting. I've met a man who'd just been ejected from Sturdy Memorial Hospital and was going to Providence to try and find a detox unit which would have him, and I've met more than one reprobate wending his way home after release from county jail.

I'm sure they all have a story, but I don't necessarily want to hear it. Conceding that I share a species with them creates no desire or obligation on my part to hear intimate details of their lives, or even their names. The probability that a story will prompt me to act is vanishingly small, 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 dispassionate ear may be valuable to him.

However, when Donald Patten the dervish appears from who knows where I avoid making any disturbances in the Force which might betray my presence. I know from experience that gesticulation, loud singing, and animated conversations with no interlocutor are red flags. I also know from experience that when Donald arrives he's there for the duration. Unless I leave I won't escape detection, and avoiding eye contact is not a viable defense. He'll inspect both platforms and rummage through every trash can, the top layers of refuse flying, and slam each hinged top down at least once. It's not the nickel deposits he's looking for, but occasionally he comes up with a prize whose nature I can't even guess. He's 53 and looks it. A short grey beard provides minimal camouflage to a copper face; this is not a man who spends his time sitting at a desk. His eyes are grey-blue and startle-wide, as if he sees things that shouldn't be seen, the kind of eyes you occasionally notice on MIT students. He dresses at least as well as I do so he hasn't yet fallen through the cracks in the system. The giant autograph on the pavement up by milepost 197 implies that he's literate or at least has a spray-painting fan club that is. His language is not genteel, but he has a rudimentary sense of word-play: "I said read not bleed," and he once introduced himself as "Donald Patten, not Duck, not Trump, Patten." Chances are good he'll do his litany of the weekdays: "Today's Tuesday, after Tuesday comes Wednesday, after Wednesday comes Thursday...." My best guess is that he is possessed by a demon or demons unknown, yet I will listen to him. The conversation is grueling, dealing with personal injustices and petty violence at the hands of police, authorities, and peers. His part consists of an apparent duologue with interjections from a chorus, all in essentially the same voice, so it's hard to follow; my part consists of monosyllabic agreement or denial, as seems appropriate. I force myself not to overthink or indulge my sense of humor. A Boston-bound Amtrak headlight snaps into view at East Junction. Donald balances on one leg, leans forward toward the train while extending his other leg back like an ice skater, doffs his ever-present baseball cap to the oncoming Acela, and curls his tongue out and down beneath an upper jaw totally devoid of incisors. This man is a living gargoyle, I think, and realize that the conversation is coming rapidly to an end.

Notes for the Reader

"Station Days" can be construed as a ripoff of H. L. Mencken's Days trilogy.

No names have been changed.

"Infernalest" is a Twainism.

"Scorn and defiance"—Henry V, 2, iv, 1021

Thanks to Daniel J. Yagusic for describing our Motorola colleagues as carbon-based coding units.