How (Not) to Steal a Train

The ludicrous amount of paperwork is what saved us. Or the fact that it is possible that no one at the train yard had ever created the documents that would have been needed to handle the situation, or no one would have been able to find them if they had been created. That is what spared us.

We were up to no good, but in a harmless way, so no harm had been done by definition, 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-because-I-am-better-than-that blush, a confessional blush, because even though it may be an entertaining anecdote, I am embarrassed by my one solitary teen-aged hijink. Perhaps it is because I was not a teenager at the time; I was 21 and I had graduated college just moments before, with honors. All three of us were 21 and had graduated from college just moments (weeks) before, with honors.

The gentleman who stopped us immediately after the fact was, I choose to believe to this day, 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, but in front of us.

A sportswriter once wrote of the legendary baseball player Hack Wilson that 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 4:00 a.m., and we were on foot.

It was the summer of 1990, June, so 25 years ago this past summer. My blush right now does not care that we were not stopped or that it was so long ago.

As the light approached, my friend S— nudged me and stage-whispered, “I think you should say something. I’m too drunk.” (He is now an important educator and organizes the TED talks.)

The question, “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 observation. Out. Loud. Some inner sense of something, my generalized anxiety at life and those who declare their authority, kept “I’ve never been addressed with a cliché before” inside my mouth. Perhaps that absence of idiocy saved us. He was not a badge-wearer, he just worked there. His presence there was his badge.

And where were we, the three of us and the flashlight? To get from one side of our city, where the party was still unfolding, to the other, where our beds lay empty at that moment, the short-cut involved crossing the Poughkeepsie, New York, Metro-North train station. At that hour, 4:00 a.m., there are no trains running south to New York City nor are there any arriving from the south. 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 their engines are fired-up and their cabins are lighted, 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 an efficient one, because sleepiness dictates a loopy efficiency. We hopped up into the engine of one of the trains.

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 clearly labeled ON. For no reason other than red, I punched it. The train lurched. It started to move. Guh, guh, guh, came the familiar noise as heaving hinges clacked together behind us, down the line.

I am certain that there is not in reality 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? Probably not.

My friends, there are many yets I have in this life. Some of them I do not feel the need to experience so I intend to let them remain yets: I have not yet fired a weapon, nor have I even held a gun in my hands. Also, I have not yet panhandled, but I have actually exchanged possessions for rent, so maybe that might feel, inside a person, somewhat close to begging to survive. But I have actually almost 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 in 2015 at this.

Guh, guh, guh. The train ceased its motion, almost before it started. We hopped off. Our giggling probably aroused attention more than the train’s sudden unexplained lurch forward did. There came 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 one of many available policies one can choose from. The best?)

“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 in orbit. No salutations were exchanged, although the three of us said goodnight. Even in my one moment of almost doing bad, a relieved politeness prevailed.

* * * *
This is a re-write of a column from July 2015, which then re-appeared in October 2015.

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