Lyonel Feininger, Torturm II, 1925
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

City Trains

I recently discovered a painting of the street I grew up on. You can’t actually see our family’s row house, but it’s only six buildings down from the corner depicted in the painting. The fact that an artist, even a local colorist, would choose to paint this particular corner is quite remarkable, considering I grew up in a small working-class city across the river from Manhattan with no claims to fame other than being the birthplace of baseball, the Tootsie Roll and Frank Sinatra.

No event of literary or political importance occurred on my street. No inventor’s house or point of assassination marks the block, no writer of note lived his first or last days here. There are statelier houses to the east, and more curious buildings, including Romanesque Revival fire stations, to the south. But 11th Street is wide and graced with a grassy, elm-shaded median, and the row houses that line it are brownstones with elegant wrought-iron railings that descend the stoop to wrap around tiny front courtyards. It is among the most beautiful corners in the city, and among its most spacious. It is a park within the city, and the painter has treated it accordingly, in the full flush of summer, a bright midday of empty streets and leafy trees. In the background Park Avenue recedes northward into a blur of brick and green, more village lane than city street.

He has painted it with more color than I remember the city, in broad swatches of warm, vivid reds and oranges and fans of cedar green. Perhaps the city was always this colorful, and time has leached the pigment from memory. My youngest brother says he remembers the city in crisper, more saturated colors than the ones in the painting, but my memories of the city are washed of color. He’s an artist, however, and his visual memory perhaps works differently than mine.

My recollections rarely emerge in brilliant color and when they do I realize how pallid memory ordinarily is. Like the appearance of a parrot or a garden of irises in a dream, the colors of memory astonish me because of their rarity.

I do remember colors, of course, like my mother’s red coat one winter morning when she took me to the park, or the rich hues of the Venus Paradise pencils I colored with. Mostly, though, I have to sit with the recollection for a while and focus before the colors come into view. And then I see the blues of a wading pool or seersucker pajamas.

Nor do colors seem to trigger many memories. Well, not in the way that the quality of light or a song or a buttered slice of Christmas stollen does. But the painter’s palette here does bring me back to that corner and to my youth.

At first I thought his colors were the hues of wildflowers, a fitting choice given the bucolic feel of the scene. I was wrong. They’re not the blues and reds of gentian and amaranth but the plain and vivid colors of Christmas lights and model trains: one rowhouse is the brick-red of a bay-window caboose, another the maroon of a Lehigh Valley freight car, and the trim on the corner café, which wasn’t a café at the time, is the deep dark green of a Pennsylvania boxcar.

The trains. For a month around the Christmas holidays, our front room, where my brothers and I slept, was given over to our trains. There were three sets of them that ran on an equal number of concentric tracks along the perimeter of the parlor.

Each was different. My middle brother and I had a string of boxcars, and freight cars, too, laden with things like logs and aluminum tubes and coal. There were hopper cars and refrigerator cars, and one with latticed panels for livestock. My father acquired them over the years, once he had bought the starter sets and engines. The cars made for a very long train.

My youngest brother, on the other hand, had a train of elegantly ribbed passenger cars instead of freight cars. They were sleek but all the same, and they ran on the innermost, shortest track.

I suppose as the youngest in the family you become accustomed to having the smallest things, and everywhere there are signs of your birth order. Yours is the shortest in the row of snow-boots in the hall and the smallest mittens drying on the radiator, the smallest bike in the garage, the smallest skates.  You get the smallest circle for your train.

If my brother felt disadvantaged by the lack of variety in his train, he never said anything. He wasn’t the kind of boy who complained. He was quiet, though not sullen or withdrawn. His quietude was the attentive stillness of a monk or a writer. I don’t know if he found his inner world much more interesting than us or that observing us provided interesting material for his inner world. But I suspected even then as a boy that there was a great deal going on within him that I’d never be privy to and if I were, might not even understand.

Perhaps he said nothing because he knew that his train had a magic of its own. It was revealed when my father would turn off the lights in the parlor and we would sit on the floor, transfixed by the light that our engines and cabooses cast as they circled the room but mostly by the stream of cream-colored light coming from within the little windows on his passenger cars. His train was all silver and light.

I could imagine the men and women on his train as they rode home from the city, and boys like me, too, travelling to see their grandparents down the shore. I sat and watched our trains make their way around the room, again and again without ever growing bored. The hum of the transformer dissolved into the murmur of conversation I could imagine being shared in these cars. My boxcars were empty; his cars held stories. My train delivered chickens and girders; his took people to places they had never been.

We grew up and lost interest in the trains, and when we next remembered them, they were gone. My father sold them shortly after he sold the summer house. I was already in college at the time.

I can forgive him more easily for selling the house than for getting rid of the trains. He was never good at looking after things, and the house came with significant demands on his time and skills. Shingles would need to be replaced, the lawn cut and edged, the ivy trimmed, the fruit trees sprayed, hedges pruned. It was better that he got rid of the house before it fell victim to his negligence.

But the trains are a different matter. They took up some storage space, but once we moved to the suburbs we had more than we needed. I can’t even figure out how he sold them. Did he place an ad in the newspaper? Give them to a colleague at work? Why would he think that his sons would not want to keep them for their own children?

My father was like that, imprudent and impractical, though not out of extravagance or impulsiveness. He didn’t seem to bother himself about the future much. There was a certain unworldliness to him, as if he thought that someone else would take care of the more practical things looming in the future, or that not thinking about it would make it go away. But he certainly knew how to provide for Christmas, and I am forever grateful to him for that.

I can picture him in the toy store, the proud young father now with a third son, buying the tracks he’d set up for this little boy, and debating about the train he’d buy him. He’d already given him a special name, one that he and his wife, having discharged their obligations to their respective fathers with the baptism of their first two sons, had chosen, and that no one else in the extended family had. I like to imagine my father thinking, a special train, then, for a special boy. A passenger train!

And though my father could not have known it at the time, it was the perfect train for my little brother, with an elegance of line and grace in motion, and an enchanting inner beauty that shines most brilliantly in the dark of night.

-/-

The image in the post (Lyonel Feininger, Torturm II, 1925)  is not, of course, the painting of the street I grew up on (that was done by Frank Hanavan for a commission of the Hoboken Historical Museum and can be viewed here), but the colors are similar enough and just as reminiscent of the trains.

Discussion

61 responses to ‘City Trains

  1. What an evocative and beautiful post; thank you for such a special read. Trains have been big in our lives, both for my husband as a boy, and then for our two boys (one has already outgrown playing with them, but the youngest still has great games). Having lived in Europe, where trains are a common mode of transport for more people, I have many special memories of actual journeys on trains, which I’m thankful for, as I now live in Canada again and almost never have the opportunity to be anywhere near a train. The rails running through our small town were torn up last summer, which was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

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    • Thanks for sharing this. Your comment about the rails being torn up — sad, indeed — made me wonder which is the greater mark of loss: the presence of tracks on which the trains no longer run, or their absence on a strip of land that is slowly given over to grass and weeds.

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  2. that piece of art has triggered something in your memory, hence, you relived the moment that seemed fleeting but relentlessly left a mark somewhere in you. It happens to me every now and then, the small things that I didn’t really notice at first have made their way to imprint in my already chaotic mind – oh and a touch of nostalgia with a glint of homesick love too. Nice.

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  3. Touching and at times familiar. My parents bought my brother a Lionel silver passenger train when I wanted the steam locomotive. I also remember the silhouettes of bored commuters traveling in never ending circles around the linoleum floor. My father sold all our toys with the house. I understand the vintage toy auction brought quite a large sum of money for the new property owner. Unfortunately, I also wanted mine back, but lost out. As an adult I spent a lot of time riding in the cabs of of real steam locomotives so I guess my dream worked out eventually. Thanks for the wonderful memoir. 🙂

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    • Lucky you! I imagine that riding in those cabs made for intriguing stories of their own. And thanks for the kind words about the post.

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  4. Finally a post that is worth reading on freshly pressed. You have a talent for writing of which I am jealous of 😉 Childhood memories are a beautiful part of our being. It would be nice to see the actual painting of your childhood street. Do you have a link to it perhaps?

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  5. I could feel the colour of this story. Amazing how colours bring so much joy and memory. My life is surrounded by colouring homes for people and colouring canvases when possible, and you have captured the way colour just wills itself into the imagining. Loved the story of the home and trains and, yes I am the youngest of a large family and am aware of the way you needed to take your place in line. Great story thank you.

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