Train I Ride, Five Coaches Long

Image by Josh Nezon.

The crowd at the station near Burlington, Vermont was about average for a summer day. Forty-some folks gathered in the shade near the small depot only recently re-opened since COVID shut down so much of the world. Grandparents heading to the suburbs of New York to visit the kids, travelers coming in from a hike on the Long Trail and going to the next destination on their trek. College students going to Amherst and its plethora of schools. The Winooski River runs along the track for much of the first thirty or so miles of the trip south. Its banks were visible, but its depth was fair; no drought yet in Vermont. Verdant as an emerald, the pastures, cornfields and mountains overwhelm the senses in a manner that will be relished as the concrete and asphalt replace what nature intended.

The change in the landscape is subtle as one travels from Burlington to the New York suburbs. The woods and fields of Vermont are occasionally interrupted by small and smaller towns along the track, Indeed, it isn’t until one is south of Greenfield, Massachusetts that industrial structures and houses began to dominate the scenery. Even then, there are still enough woods on both sides of the train a passenger can ignore the impending aesthetic dissonance that describes the dystopian reality of the eastern seaboard. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the passengers boarding at each stop. The styles become more urban. Fades in the haircuts, a brutal razor’s edge taken to the skull in an attempt to reflect or blend in to an urban architecture defined by angles or just an attempt to blend in with a fad I’m unaware of, I’m not certain. Conversations become louder and one cannot help but hear personal issues they might rather not. It’s almost like riding a city bus where neighbors play out their disputes and their affairs, teenagers their loves and nonsense, and people complain about the weather no matter what it is. By the time the train is in the tunnel that leads into Manhattan’s Penn Station, the ride is more like a ride on the D Train heading north from West 4th than an interstate train collecting and dispersing its human cargo up and down the coast.

Certain towns along the way take one back to how it used to be. Bellows Falls, VT is one such place. The waters of the Connecticut River slowed by the walls that fence it in through the town, one can almost hear the water wheels turning crushing grain or powering looms. The industrial revolution that moved New Englanders off the farms and out of the shacks to fill the pockets of the bankers down river with more money then the workers would ever see in a dozen lifetimes of wage slavery. It turned the towns upside down, fed the tavern owners, freed the children from the structures of home and church and replaced them with the oppression of capitalism and its measly rewards the bosses call a payday—a ritual they begrudgingly go along with despite the greed capitalism encourages.

I don’t want to mislead the reader. The trip through Vermont and that parts of Massachusetts before Greenfield certainly have a good share of nature’s beauty. But, as is the case anywhere humans have set up community, there’s a fair amount of denatured ugliness, too. Gravel quarries and landfills hidden from the civilized outposts that demand these blights. Junked cars, junk food joints and junkyards, smokestacks beyond the corn. Corn that gets taller the further south one travels; corn that represents our societal addiction to sugar and beef. Corn syrup and silage is what the pilgrims wrought. Maybe the Pequot knew what they were doing when they let the Puritans take their corn. John Winthrop sent his repressed militia of to massacre the Pequot while the murdered have their revenge on the white folks that followed. I’m reminded of a routine titled “Temporarily Humboldt County” by the psychedelic comedy group Firesign Theater which goes like this.

By now the train is full. Every single seat has a body in it. The scheduled stops at the university towns in Massachusetts saw a few folks get on, but it’s in New Haven, where a monolith of a police station stands across from the train station, it’s brick walls a foreboding presence, that it reaches capacity. The police station’s windows are virtually non-existent, just a few rectangles of bulletproof glass. It is the occupiers’ defense against the proletariat and its completely reasonable antagonism towards the powerful elements the police protect—Yale University, defense industry affiliates and everything else that comes with the university-industrial complex.

Then the bourgeois environs of Stamford, Connecticut. John Cheever redux without the hidden pathos or the novelty. Their boats in the marinas and their BMWs zooming down the highway. Nothing affects them except for maybe a dip in the stock market or an attorney’s bill for their adult child’s fuckups. The adolescents take the train into the city, some to shop and some to get high; some to take classes and some to hang with the gutter punks where ever they hang these days. The cool kids dress the part and the rest look like the twenty-first century version of the cast of The Breakfast Club. Their parents look like a graying version of the same. I can’t help but hope the kids reject the lifestyle their parents embraced and go rogue. They don’t need to commit class suicide and join some revolution, but even telling their parents they don’t want that 70,000 dollar car means something, I suppose. We all know the planet’s burning. The question is will we throw more fuel into the fire.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: