Where the trains run: A personal essay

Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

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I.

At summer camp between kindergarten and first grade, unamused counselors hauled us into a school bus and jetted us to a no-name water park. Six-years-old, choppy-haired and desperate for attention, I pretended to fall asleep during our return trip. I practiced utmost discipline, refused to smile, did not feign to stir until everyone else had returned inside Hopkinson Elementary School. Finally, the camp director walked onto the bus and snapped in my ear until I “awoke” from my slumber. I wonder if she could sense my narcissism and let it slide or if she sympathetically thought me a tiny narcoleptic.

After spending a month away from home before my senior year of high school, I rode Amtrak with my parents all the way from Seattle to Los Angeles, a 36-hour trip. My mother spent much of the ride looking out the window toward a coast I had not yet learned to love while I wrestled with Toni Morrison’s prose for a rushed summer assignment. I woke up on the train to the sunrise peeking out above the horizon at my right. It was a satisfyingly dramatic, if not too prolonged, homecoming.

Each time I’ve visited Japan I have ridden the bullet train, reveling in a metal tube — the closest I’ll come to time travel. The first time, this absurdity of traveling hundreds of miles per hour, watching towns and fields and cities pass by my window, allowed me to justify eating lunch at 10 a.m.: a bento of inari sushi and futomaki. I’ve only ever visited during tsuyu, the rainy season, my journeys accompanied by cloudy, humid sky.

II.

Even if I have nowhere in particular to go I feel tempted to hop on AC Transit’s 79 and head downtown whenever I see it. Running every 30 minutes, it seems I am always chasing the bus when I need it, greeting it casually when it has nothing to offer me. Creeping along the road toward Warring and Parker Street — I cannot count how many times I have opened the late nextbus.com or a transit app to find her either -1 minute or 30 minutes away.

After my first return to Berkeley from home in freshman year, I remember taking the BART from Oakland International Airport to Rockridge Station, then riding the 79 back to my dorm. As I opened the door I was overcome with a rush of exhilarating contentment — the most excited I’ve ever been to return to a faulty heating system and under-salted food. To this day I still can’t quite grasp what that feeling was.

Running every 30 minutes, it seems I am always chasing the bus when I need it, greeting it casually when it has nothing to offer me.

Weeks later, on a Sunday morning I hopped on the 80 at Ashby and College Avenue, sat in the very back right corner and cried all the way to Jackson and Buchanan Street. No one else was on the bus, neither on the trip to church nor back. When the road got rough on Sixth Street and the vehicle shook, screeching in protest to the unkept asphalt, I almost laughed.

When I have nothing else to do, I take the Muni in San Francisco: N Judah to Ocean Beach — I ride it all the way to the water, looking out the window when we pass by Sunset. I look toward all the houses I dreamed of living in as a child but know now I can never afford. Sometimes at the end of the line I just get back on the car heading in the opposite direction.

There is a divinely subtle intimacy about public transportation. In the conversations I strain my ears to pick apart. In the man who saw my angry scraped knee on the bus and told me I should take better care of myself before exiting. In the guitarist who stood in the middle of the BART car singing “Lean on Me.” In the conversations so much smoother eased out of me when I am sitting next to a companion rather than facing them. In the lack of eye contact. In the moment when the sky is suddenly released after you’ve spent minutes traveling underground. In being squashed like sardines against strangers during rush hour. In the public made private and vice versa.

III.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes I remember the travel of traveling much more than plopping into an unfamiliar bed past midnight. Sometimes I remember the bus ride to summer camp better than the first outdoor activity; sometimes I’d rather take the scenic route.

Sometimes I remember the bus ride to summer camp better than the first outdoor activity; sometimes I’d rather take the scenic route.

I’m not cheesy with the “it’s all about the journey” pseudo-wisdom, but when my father drives me down to Southern California from school and I see Citadel Outlets on my left down the freeway, I find myself longing for the ride to last a little longer. I can’t help but smile when we belt the lyrics along with New Order or The Killers so that he will stay awake.

When I’m not working, improving, chipping away at some goal, I feel out of place, like I’m wasting precious space and opportunity. But I don’t have to feel guilty for this lack of productivity when I’m within mobile walls. The sheer feat of moving through space in a hunk of metal seems impressive enough on its own. I can blame my motion sickness for my inability to read and write, can blame the lack of cell service for my withdrawal from social correspondence, can use comfort as a guise to throw my hair into a sloppy bun and sleep while wearing glasses.

When I am en route, traveling, in transit, I am free to just be. Oftentimes that freedom is applied to nothing more momentous than road trip games with my parents, laughing at a friend knocked out by melatonin during a plane ride, browsing Wikipedia pages or popping my ears when the BART zooms between West Oakland and Embarcadero. In this state of movement, I relish the in-between time. So as I painfully often must do, I try to force a metaphor out of it.

Rarely am I even at a destination — more often I am arriving, leaving, working toward something — everything in life feels in-between. What would things look like if I embraced the in-between and built my life around how and where the trains run? Late and early arrivals the same.

Sarena Kuhn is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected].