The ludicrous amount of paperwork is what saved us. Or the fact that possibly no one at the yard had created the documents that would have been needed to handle the situation, or no one would have been able to find them if they did exist, to be the paperwork that I just mentioned.
We were up to no good, but in a harmless way, so no harm had been done, so nothing was done about us the night I stole a train.
I just burst out into a blush as I typed that, an unhappy-with-myself blush, a confessional blush, because even though it can be an entertaining anecdote, I am embarrassed by my one solitary teen-aged hijink. Perhaps because I was not a teenager at the time; I was 21 and I had graduated college moments before, with honors. All three of us were 21 and had graduated from college a couple weeks before, with honors.
The gentleman who stopped us immediately after the fact was, I choose to believe, suppressing a laugh as he approached. He was laughing an invisible laugh of relief at the absence of bad things, I choose to believe.
All I recall is the beam of a bright flashlight declaring its rule over the night with an almost audible brightness as it was swung between us and its bearer, the aforementioned gentleman. Its motion cut the darkness like the animated 20th Century Fox logo. Somehow I could see the bearer of the flashlight as its light traversed his face: a full beard reaching proudly down to his chest, a baseball cap, suspenders over a t-shirt. He was that era’s music video cliché of a redneck, in person.
A sportswriter once wrote of the legendary baseball player Hack Wilson, he was “built along the lines of a beer keg, and was not wholly unfamiliar with its contents.” That was this man, except my three friends and I were the ones at that moment not wholly unfamiliar with the contents of a beer keg. We had just left an end-of-college, beginning-of-summer, start-of-rest-of-life, any-reason-to-celebrate celebration. It was not quite four a.m., and we were on foot.
It was the summer of 1990, June, so 25 years ago last month. My blush does not care that we were not stopped or that it was so long ago.
As the light approached, S— nudged me and stage-whispered, “I think you should say something. I’m too drunk.”
“What are you boys up to?” came from the illuminated beard. We giggled. I thought, “I have never been addressed with a cliché before,” which is why I giggled, and I almost greeted him with that. Out. Loud. Some inner sense of something, my generalized anxiety at life and those who declare their authority, kept it inside my mouth. He was not a badge-wearer, he just worked there.
And where were we, the three of us and the flashlight? To get from one side of our city, where the party was, to the other, where our beds lay empty at that moment, the short-cut involved the Poughkeepsie Metro-North train station. At that hour, there are no trains running south to New York City nor are there any arriving. The station and its many tracks were silent at that moment and we crossed the spookily quiet train tracks, a route we knew well from other late nights that summer.
We got closer to the station—where the trains sit empty but operating, awaiting the hour of their departure—and our leader (me? someone else?) thought that a straight line, through one of the empty trains, would be efficient, since we were all sleepy. We hopped up into the engine.
I am certain that my memory of the inside of a train engine does not at all match reality. My memory is that there is a big red button, like in the old Staples television ads, and that it is labeled ON. I punched it. The train lurched. It started to move. Guh, guh, guh, came the familiar noise as heaving hinges clacked together, down the line.
I am certain that there is not a similarly obvious, bright red brake-type object in a real train engine, but something was obviously the brake and I mashed my body against that. We came to a non-screeching stop. Could we have traveled even five feet?
There are many yets I have in this life. Some of them I do not feel the need to experience and intend to let them remain yets. I have not yet fired a weapon, nor even ever held a gun in these hands. I have not panhandled, but I have exchanged possessions for rent, so maybe that feels, inside a person, somewhat close to that. But I have operated a commuter train. For less than five feet. At night. With no permission or knowledge of how to. This could have ended badly. It was stupid. It was exciting. I’m blushing.
We hopped off. Our giggling probably aroused attention more than the train’s sudden unexplained lurch forward did. The flashlight. “You do the talking, Mark.” “What are you boys up to?”
I replied. “I just wanted to make a train move.” Well, honesty is a policy. “Oh, did you?” He swiped the flashlight to his left and over his shoulder and said, “Go home.” I swear the flashlight was so bright it briefly illuminated a passing satellite. No salutations were exchanged, although the three of us said goodnight.
* * * *
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