You know the train’s coming when the rails start to rattle. It’s not loud: a gentle, silvery whistling, so high and delicate that if you’re not listening for it, it’s invisible. It precedes the moment when the train’s grey nose slides into view by almost a minute. The station is the only broken down thing about this town. It’s been allowed to dilapidate: the paint peels in wobbly yard-long strips; the pavement cracks; the tunnel beneath the track leaks no matter the weather. It was a landmark once, a waystation for horse drawn carriages to the grand Devon hotel (an ashy shadow in the soil today; it burned to the ground in 1910), where Victorian ladies sipped lemonades under striped yellow awnings in between evenings at the horse show. The station is just a relic, its glory days forgotten by the living, but better a shell of a thing than no thing at all.
The commuters (businessmen in starchy black suits and oily loafers, looking harried and important) aren’t idle while they wait: they clutch cell phones and laptops and wrinkled newspapers and briefcases bulging with dog-eared files, jabbering and nodding and creasing and pacing. But they aren’t all that way. There was the man in a royal blue seersucker suit and a purple satin tie, a toothpick propped between his lips, who sat down beside me on the 10:10; a Bugsy Malone for this century, dapper and nonchalant, his feet planted firmly on the vinyl floor.
The people with questions are more interesting than the lawyers and accountants who crowd the train with their occupied boredom. They’re alone, dragging duffel bags and luggage; or they’re young mothers with children in strollers, or teenagers, newly permitted to venture into the city unsupervised. The travelers frown and tug their bulky bags out of the aisle, struggling to heave them onto overhead racks. The mothers plot out their journey’s course for their children: the zoo, or the museum, or maybe Daddy’s office in the skyscraper on Market. The teenagers chatter incessantly, their banter filling every car with bubbles of noise that burst when the doors slam shut. They bunch together, squeezing three to a seat, prattling about crushes and grades in cutoffs and polo shirts.
They’re all anxious, obsessively fingering schedules, folding tickets, and craning at the route map, asking the conductor to verify this or that stop, this or that detail. I can’t forget the blonde woman in a flight attendant’s uniform who slumped into the last seat on the last train out on a Saturday night, clearly addled, a bright flask in one hand and a pill bottle in the other. She staggered, her words melding into soupy slurs, as she asked if this was Radnor, and revealed in a stage whisper that she’d been mugged in New York.
The best thing about the train is the glimpse it affords into people’s homes by way of unshielded backyards. I love the split level with the koi pond, lined neatly with burnished stones in a well-kept and watered lawn, and the white clapboard house with a stream cutting a fluid angled path through its property. The houses grow as the train approaches Wynnewood and Merion; but these houses safeguard their backs with black woods and shrubs thick with vines, so that only tiny bits of gingerbread turret or stone-worked chimney are visible through the branches. After Overbrook the houses shrink, collapsing into brick row-homes with rickety porches and postage stamp gardens.
The train passes the Strafford station first. Now there’s a relic revived. I remember the reconstruction well; they loosened the whole building from its moors and set it back on stilts, gutting it and stuffing it with new insides. Its woodwork is cream and green, all curving arches, and it’s so lovely and antique and bric-a-brac that you could imagine it nestled on a hillside in rural Europe, maybe in Germany, maybe one hundred years ago.
Next is Wayne, with its competing church spires, and St. Davids’ apartment complexes and unkempt grass. Then Villanova: its station’s 19th century skeleton has been cased with lacquered blue and white paint in the name of school spirit. There’s Ardmore’s glowing shopping center, its frosty patrons and glossy windows such a contrast to its discount counterpart down the line, the one with red block letter billboards and abandoned storefronts and doors shuttered with boards. Narberth’s station is a study in the tragedies of modernity; the original structure was flattened in favor of a graceless sandstone box. There’s a gleaming charter school set opposite its languishing competitor; a mural of a little girl in braids, her head haloed by rings of color; an Acme factory whose gangly sign was probably last replaced during the Eisenhower administration.
There’s graffiti and the tube-like building that houses train cars in need of repair, an overpass and then a tunnel: 30 seconds of darkness before you emerge knowing that you’re finally in the city, its towers and its lights lined up before you, waiting.