CalTrain, which runs from San Jose to San Francisco, zooms by the corner of East Meadow and Alma, about five blocks from our house, numerous times a day. It stops about two miles north and three miles south of that corner. When I go to work at my office in San Francisco, I bike the two miles to University Avenue, to take the bullet train. I love every aspect of the commute. The train represents the best of civilization – a common good that benefits the earth, society, and its individuals, and runs with efficiency, speed, and trust. My time on the train is sacred – conducive to writing poetry, connecting over the phone with friends and family, getting work done, or, simply, staring out the window, lost in the motion of thought.
My daughters love the train, too. We often have to cross the busy intersection at Alma and East Meadow, either in the car, on the way to school or music class, or in the double-stroller, me on roller-blades, on the way to the “sprinkler park,” a popular spot in the summer heat. My three-year-old is always on the lookout for trains, which she can hear coming by its bellows and whistles, and the cling-cling-cling of the red and white arms, which lower to prevent cars and pedestrians from approaching the tracks. Whenever we see a train, she shouts: “It’s my lucky day!” and we sing the “choo-choo” train song. Late at night, when it’s quiet, we sometimes hear the train from our bedroom; I have always found it to be a soothing, joyous sound.
This week, work took me to Los Angeles for the day. Driving home from the airport, where I had parked the car, I signaled my right blinker, planning to make the turn from Alma to East Meadow, so close to home! Flashing blue and red police lights jarred me into the realization that the intersection was closed, and that, no, I hadn’t imagined it, and had in fact just passed a train, which stood silent, frozen, ablaze from within, a hiding behemoth on the tracks. Fire-trucks and police cars blocked the intersection, where, because of an interminable red light, I was forced to sit and wait. I looked. A dark shape, covered, lay on the street, a few feet from the tracks. It was strangely silent. Nothing was in motion. The light turned green and I drove on, out of my way, to cross the tracks at the next block, and then circle back home.
That night, a 17-year old teenage girl had committed suicide by stepping onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. She was the second teen suicide, a student at nearby Gunn High School, to die in that spot in a month. Last night, a mother successfully talked her son out of stepping in front of a train in the same spot, while an emergency meeting for parents was taking place on at a local community center.
The past few days I have been trying to block out the sound of the train. When I close my eyes, I see its bright lights, and feel its enormous weight, its unstoppable power. The battles I have been having with my daughter about whether or not she can take her favorite toys to school feel frighteningly insignificant, and I shudder when my babysitter laughs when I recount them, sighing – “little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” And when I pick up my daughter from school, I quietly hope that we won’t see a train, lest we stop by the tracks, lest I have to answer her questions about the flowers and bears and signs placed by their side, lest I hear her cheerful voice, gleefully shouting, “It’s my lucky day!”