The subject of trains has been a popular trope for many mystery authors. From THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN to THE ORIENT EXPRESS to STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, trains have proved to be a fascinating vehicle to set a thriller novel. Why is it we have such a fascination with trains? What is about them that so captures our imagination?
My own love of trains began a long time ago. It wasn’t toy trains that caught my attention, but the locomotives that clattered past my house. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the sight of these empty containers barreling down the track. When parked in the yard, we would often climb in and explore these cavernous metal boxes, only to get chased away by the engineers and maintenance men. We would place coins on the steel tracks and watch as the trains crushed them into flat, thin spheres.
In high school I took the subway train into school and work every day. Known as the T, these trains would transport me to most anywhere in Boston I wanted to go. I would first take the Red Line and get on at Quincy Square. The tracks were powered by the daunting third rail, electrified and lethal to the touch. Once I reached Downtown Crossing I switched over and took the elevated Orange Line, getting off near the Pine Street Inn. The old, creaky Orange Line is no longer there, replaced by a sleeker version of orange travel. The old South End was a downtrodden, beat-up neighborhood with lots of crime and dire poverty. The nearby Cathedral housed the Cardinal. The Red Fez was a venerated culinary institution, the fragrant smell of shish kebabs and baba ganooj filling the air. Today the South End is one the most fashionable and gentrified neighborhoods in Boston.
In college I got off at Park Street station, which was partially located at the end of the Boston Commons. Park Street was always a source of entertainment and inspiration, part travel depot and part street circus. A hub of sorts located within the Hub of the Universe. Located on multi levels, it was a place where all manner of human behavior could be seen—and smelled. Singers and guitarists used the platform as their platform for future greatness: Mary Lou Lord, Shawn Colvin, G Love and Special Sauce, to name a few—have performed in MBTA stations. Large crowds would gather around these musicians until their train arrived. Then after the train departed, the buskers would start to grow another appreciative audience, the sounds of their voices echoing throughout the station.
On too many occasions people—many inebriated—would fall onto the tracks and clamber back up. Or not clamber back up and suffer an unlikely demise, delaying commutes for hours on end. The rats that scurried along the rusted rails resembled footballs with tails. Mentally challenged people frequently stood along the platform singing and talking to themselves, and I always stayed clear of them in the event some murderous thought suddenly came over them. Many future stories presented themselves in this oddly eccentric situations.
From there I would go upstairs and catch the Green Line. College students predominated on this level. Boston College students took the B line to Chestnut Hill. BU students took the same line but got off at one of the earlier BU stops. Located on Commonwealth Avenue, a student could get off at any number of stops along the way, depending on where their class was located on Commonwealth Ave. I took the E line to Northeastern, which was the first stop on Huntington Avenue after emerging from the tunnel. The campus was located right cross the street and within easy walking distance. I purchased my coffee from the food truck, which was poured in one of those iconic blue cups with the Greek letters scrawled over it, then made my way to class.
Of course that was when I wasn’t taking the Red Line to Cambridge. I used to love coming out of that station and arriving onto the busy Harvard Square, where punks, drunks and roundabouts of all kind used to hang around. There was a great German deli called the Wursthaus on the corner, but it’s long gone. Oh, and there was the best outdoor newsstand anywhere, back when newspapers were required reading. And let’s not forget Steve’s Ice Cream and the unforgettable Border Cafe, where many a night was spent sipping cervezas and wolfing down tacos after viewing some artsy foreign film.
For awhile there I could take the Cleveland Circle Line and get off at St. Paul’s. Again, it was the first stop after coming out of the subway tunnel. But then my brother moved away and that line dried up to me. Except when I was going to the Coolidge Corner theater to catch BLUE VELVET in 70mm. The Blue Line was the line I used the least, if at all. Apart from Santarpio’s pizza, why even go to East Boston?
Riding the T was, and still is, a rich source of entertainment. Throughout the years, the skyline have changed just as much as Boston has. Yet I can still see the red brick, Mary Ellen McCormack housing projects in South Boston where my mother grew up, which was also in the same building as Whitey Bulger. I can still see the JFK Library and the harbor off in the distance. And the painted oil tanks with Ho Chi Minh’s profile hidden in blue paint. Oh, and the old Boston Globe plant on Morrissey Boulevard.
Thankfully, I don’t have to take the T every day like I once did because I live in Maine and we don’t have a subway system. Besides, public transportation does have its considerable downsides. There were the constant delays and breakdowns. The thefts and violent crime, panhandlers and overcrowded trains. Many days I had to wait long periods of time for the next train to arrive. In Japan they hire people to push people into the train so the doors could close. In the summer the stench inside these trains was often unbearable, especially when crammed with hundreds of other cantankerous and overheated commuters. Then there were the days of waiting on the platform in sub zero temperatures, frostbite nipping at the heels. Seats were a luxury, few and far between, and I frequently stood for the entire ride home. And if there was an open seat it usually went to the old lady named Dottie from Dorchester. When I was sixteen, me and a bunch of other kids got hired by the T to shovel out all the tracks after the Blizzard of 78 buried everything.
I still think about my days riding the T. If you’ve ever lived in Boston, riding the T was at some point an integral part of your life, some days good, some days not so much. There was nothing like riding the T to Kenmore Square before an important Red Sox game. Or heading toward it after the Sox had won. There was nothing like taking the train to the elevated station alongside the old Boston Garden for a Bruins or Celtics games. Conversely, getting in a late night train with a bunch of drunken, sore Boston Bruins fans from Southie presented a unique challenge.
There’s a scene in the TV show, HOUSE OF CARDS, where Frank Underwood pushes journalist Zoe Barnes into on oncoming train. Riding the T all those years, an untimely ending like that was my worst nightmare. Thankfully, it never happened. Of course you obviously know that because here I am writing this. But the mere thought of such a gory demise planted a lot of sinister ideas in this author’s mind.
With that said, Merry Christmas.
See you on the T.