I’m not done with trains, yet.
I once had a girlfriend…A Jersey girl. In NY, at least for me, Jersey and Jersey girls were exotic…and were easy prey for cool-by-virtue-of-Brooklyn- residence-guys like me. She lived in a a little city called Perth Amboy, a sleepy little town on the Northeast corridor of Jersey, just across the Outerbridge Crossing from Staten Island, and about an hour or so (by train) from Manhattan. It had a station shopping area (駅前) and convenience stores (7-11) just like Japan. We don’t have convenience stores in NY…at least we didn’t until fairly recently (the family owned store, or Bodega -The 7-11 of the Ghetto -ruled in the city.) So, yeah, this was all exotic, strange and wonderful to me. But, aside from you know what, guess what the best part of that relationship was for me (-;?
Yep, you guessed it: It was the train ride.
In NY, the subway services the entire city (except Staten Island…but I’d better check…In a NY minute they might have built a tunnel from Manhattan to SI or- God Forbid- put some tracks on my favorite bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, by now.)
So, there is rarely occasion for a city cat like me to ride a commuter train. Of course, us natives pass through Grand Central Station and Penn Station and see the mobs of people craning up at the train schedule and track assignments and straining to discern announcements on loudspeakers above the voices of thousands of people grumbling as one…and I even see some Red Caps helping the Amtrak travellers with their bags… but all of that is very otherworldly to a native NewYorker. We’ve never had train schedules. And announcements on the Subway are always, Always, ALWAYS bad news, so you really don’t want to hear them at all. So, riding New Jersey Transit was like an adventure.
The inside of a NJT car was not unlike the inside of the Shonan Shinjuku Green Car
(minus the Green Attendant…like a flight attendant for the train.) The seats on NJT are forward facing seats, not benches, and the seats even “flip” so that if your party is 3 or 4 people you can all sit together and face one another. I remember the first time I saw these flip seats (on what was clearly a late model train meaning this had been the kind of thing these commuters were accustomed to seeing for quite a while) this turnstile jumping subway tunnel rat was flabbergasted. My girlfriend just flipped it over like it was nothing…and put her school bag on the overhead rack. A uniformed conductor walked through the car checking and punching holes in tickets, and taking cash from folks who hadn’t bought a ticket for whatever reason before they’d boarded the train. The train left Penn Station, entered a tunnel that ran beneath the Hudson river emerging a minute or two later on the Jersey side. Only 2 minutes from Manhattan and already it had felt like another planet. I sat near the window watching everything, storing things in my memory…taking pictures with my mind’s lens. I loved going to visit my Jersey Girl. She nay never know how much, though. I never told her the train ride was as enjoyable and satisfying as the relationship, if not more sometimes.
There are a couple of more commuter trains that leave NY for Green Acres. There’s the Long Island Railroad and Metro North, going to Long Island as well as Upstate NY and Connecticut respectively.
station is located…a station I have never seen crowded in my entire life and rarely seen used. It stays above the street for a good 7 or 8 blocks, roaring and rattling through but somehow not through but above the ‘hood proper, then dives back into the ground around Ralph Avenue. It was a mystery train for me. All I knew was that it went to some place called Long Island where people live in houses with lawns that need regular mowing and beaches a walking distance from their front doors. When I was a kid I used to hang out by Nostrand Avenue so I could see it emerge like a long silver worm from the planet Arrakis and sometimes I’d hang around Ralph Avenue to watch it plunge back into the ground like it was avoiding a giant incoming bird.
In Japan they have a word for me and people like me (no, not that word (-: ). They call us “てっちゃん” pronounced tecchan. Te is short for tetsudou (鉄道)which means railroad. If you live here in Japan you’ll see these guys all the time. They stand at the very front or very rear of the station platform, with a camera, sometimes even a tripod taking pictures of arriving and departing trains…And they start young, just like I did. From my classroom the JR Line tracks can be seen. On the Negishi Line, periodically, some vintage cars or special trains will go by…these are trains ridden by people like me, and those photographers, and the 13 year old boy after my heart who brought this information to my attention. He knows the schedule of these vintage trains, when they will leave or arrive at Yokohama Station and when they will pass by the point along the track that can be seen from our window (And as I mentioned before, you can set your watch by Japanese scheduling) by heart.
So while I’m teaching he’s watching the tracks and when he sees the special train’s approach, he jumps out of his seat, points and screams and yells excitedly the model number and other esoteric knowledge about the train. The other students laugh but good natured. I know I’m supposed to get the class back on topic: English, but I want to see and learn about the train as well so I’m listening right long with everyone else (though comprehending decidedly much less than everyone else.) Tecchan (Train Freaks) are not rare here. Like those Otaku that hang out in Akihabara, they (we) exist in numbers. Everybody knows at least one, and probably has one in their family. Even now, as I write this post in my office, another teacher glances over my shoulder, sees the above pictures of trains, gets all giddy and we had the following conversation (in Japanese):
Mr. Satou: Aayyyyyy! Where are those trains from? I’ve never seen them!
Me: These are commuter trains in NY.
Mr. Satou: Really? (He says, looking at them but not really impressed…he tries to read my writing but can’t follow it…) What are you writing about?
Me: I’m comparing trains in NY with the trains here.
Mr. Satou: Are you interested in trains?
Me: Yes, I love em!
Mr. Satou: Me Too!!!
Me: Are you a Tecchan?
Mr. Satou: Everybody says so. I have a model train collection at home. I built them myself!
Me: Seriously? That’s great!
Mr. Satou: (runs to his desk, digs through his briefcase and comes back with a book) This is a manual about Digital Command Control Systems (DCC) for model railroads. (He flips through the pages full of geeky engineering stuff and diagrams…it’s about 200 pages long. )
Me: (Now I’m really impressed) WOW!
Mr. Satou: (whips out his cellphone. On the main screen is a photo of an old fashioned train…circa early 1900s) I made this one…it’s made of paper!
Me: Paper??? Unbelievable!
Then he got into some technical stuff and the conversation got a little abstruse because the technical jargon is a little above my Japanese verbal pay grade and his disappointment was unambiguous. But there were no less than 4 other teachers in the office who shared his enthusiasm and once they’d overheard our conversation began chiming in.
Forgotten by Tecchan-tachi, I return to my writing…
The commuter trains in NY are not used by New Yorkers, generally. They are used by people living in the outlying areas, the suburbs, while the commuter lines in Japan such as the main
company, JR, is comprised entirely of commuter trains (though the Yamanote doesn’t leave Tokyo proper) and is used by both suburbanites and inner city folk. Even some of the subways extend into other outlying prefectures like Saitama and Kanagawa. For example, the Hibiya line
ostensibly terminates at Nakameguro Station in Tokyo, but at times goes as far as Kikuna in Kanagawa. The NY subway wouldn’t dream of going to Jersey or even Long Island (which isn’t separated from the city by a river). Shit, it has a hard time getting to certain parts of Brooklyn and Queens. (-: You two-fare zone people (a bus and a train) know what I’m talking about.
The impact on life in Tokyo: a we’re all in this together attitude among Japanese commuters. (-: While the impact of the separation in NY between subway and commuter lines: Us versus Them.
to be continued…