Saturday, February 4, 2012

Encounter and participation: its advantages and its problems

After a period of rest from writing on this blog, I’m back. During the interim I took a rest from commuting on the bike for a while (darkness, ice, some sore knees from assuming I am younger than I really am and trying to do things in too high a gear…), then eased back into it. The gradual increase in daylight, coupled with a run of very nice (though still chilly) weather coaxed me back, as did my much less stressed knees.

Very recently I experienced one of the curious aspects of cycling: its greater “immersion” in the world through which one passes, with complex consequences.

On that day, I came over the pedestrian bridge in the photo’s far distance, meeting the promenade that runs alongside the railway passing through town. As I did, I heard the horn of train. At that same moment, I saw a man standing on the promenade, leaning on the fence. He was looking intensely down the tracks, towards the oncoming train. He had a darkened countenance, almost rubber-mask like in its grimness. I almost blurted out: “don’t do it.” It seemed like he was contemplating something rash. Whatever was going on, it didn’t feel right. He stared at me for a moment, then pulled away from the railing and began to walk over the bridge, away from the tracks. I continued on my way, listening to the horn of the train as it drew nearer to passing by me. I glanced over my shoulder and could see its lights as well as feel the diesel engine’s throbbing rumble: soon the crossing gates would drop—and I would have a passport to an easy journey through town as the train formed a moving wall, protecting me from traffic. Except, it didn’t.

After I went about a block, I realized that no bells were ringing, no gates dropping. The train had stopped short of where I had been when I saw the man peering down the tracks. For a moment, I had a sickening feeling. I turned back and went to the stopped train. There was no apparent reason for its sudden halt. As I looked along the right-of-way, I saw figures in the distance, moving about in a place one normally sees nothing but brush. Something had happened, but what I could not say. I offered a few quick prayers. Sirens sounded, going to someplace hidden by the train’s immense bulk. After a while, it seemed that there was nothing to do but head on home. Later in the evening I read that the train had struck a man walking beside the tracks with a glancing blow. He was treated at the hospital, but apparently not seriously injured. Who was this person? Did the man I saw on the promenade see the accident as it happened? I doubt I’ll ever know the answers to these questions, now coupled indissolubly with that spot in town.

Years ago, I used to live near the sight of this event. At that time, there was no promenade, with its cleverly (and attractively) designed fencing. Many impaired, drunk, or careless people were injured or killed there. I grew to know the peculiar sound of the train’s horn when it had struck someone. Another loss, another painful story of a victim… but that was not all. Having had a relative in the rail industry, I knew it deeply affects the train crew when such things happen.

Now this long series of grade crossings right in the middle of town is much more effectively fenced off. This thoughtful project also made it possible for pedestrians and cyclists (in places, very slow-moving local car traffic, too) to progress safely through town on a North-South axis. It is often a preferred route of mine. Along the way, one encounters office workers, pan-handlers, college students, homeless people, neighborhood denizens… and the train. It is a cheek-by-jowl place, one in which the cyclist is right in the midst of it all.

When I travel this way, as well as through a number of other sections of town, I am reminded how much the automobile acts as a screen from encounter and participation in daily life. Our environmental seclusion in a car is such that we often don’t have time or safe opportunity to register the world around us. When traveling by car, I simply don’t notice much… and that is part of the “message” of the car: speed, yes—but detachment, too. The auto has contributed mightily to the culture of disconnection that marks much of our American life today.

I take great delight in cycling through town in part because of the changing seasons, and in part because of the encounters with people I know along the way (this was the case just today). It humanizes transportation as well as grounding it in nature, in reality. But just as one fellow I used to pass and wave to in a trailer park turned out to be the man who, off his medication, held his family at gunpoint and caused the police to lock down an entire neighborhood for much of one day, so this experience on the promenade made me realize how fragile life is, how real participation in anything—however slight—means sharing in the complexity and ambiguity of real life. Potentially costly, but worth it, I think.

No comments:

Post a Comment