We listened to the trains from our bed. Always your body next to mine, as the sound of that long shadow moved through its corridor of blackness, crossing the city. The trains cut through bedrooms and back yards, through heat and snow, sleep and sleeplessness. Often we were already awake and imagined the number of boxcars, and what they carried - as the months went by, ever more exotic cargo. We imagined all the towns brought into boom by the laying of the rails, all those that gradually vanished because the rails passed them by.
On summer nights we lay in your dark garden, limbs still hot in the impossibly cold grass, as the whistle found its way to us, through the sound of the leaves, through moonlight. Weaving through the summer night neighbourhood noises of air conditioners and barking dogs, shouting games and night tag, and the metal lids of trashcans circling the sidewalk as raccoons cast them aside with one swipe of a paw. Every night the trains came, passing straight through that particular empty station of the heart, where some part of us longs to follow and is left behind.
There is a man, perhaps he is your father too, born in the earliest years of this century, who no longer remembers his family, or how he earned his living, or where he lives...but still he remembers the moment he stepped from the train - via the great port cities of Gdansk, Le Havre, and Montreal - and entered the vastness of Union Station.
He was young and utterly abandoned, the kind of loneliness that is never quite erased, not even by fifty years of marriage. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the story of his emigration and imagined his desolation and the magnitude of his responsibilities which seemed to fill the cavernous space of the station, but I was very young when his loneliness first entered me.
All great train stations are monuments to the most personal rites of passage and huge historic events – every form of leavetaking and arrival. Mass human displacements, waves of immigration, war, forced migration. Exile, dispossession, exodus, deportation. And for the fortunate, the Station was a place of extraordinary, impossible reunions.
We may be one of the last generations with memories run through by trains.
During the Second World War, Union station was the central terminal for soldiers being sent overseas. Through the 200 foot concourse, under the magnificent 88 foot vaulted ceiling of Italian - Guastavino - tile, past walls of densely fossilized Minnesota Zumbro stone, over floors and stairways of Tennessee marble, in light flooding from four-storey arched windows, past the 22 pillars, each 40 feet high, each 75 tons...thousands embraced for the last time on this earth. For so many, Union Station is the place where fathers, brothers, sons, husbands were last alive. And among all the partings, it is said, were lovers who had no place else to go, who came simply to join the anonymity of the crowd, so they could kiss with inconspicuous passion among the throngs crowding the platforms and the great hall, their public display swallowed up by the intense emotion all around them.
RT-US2.jpgOn autumn night rambles, leaving our bed so we could return to it, restless, we trespassed over sagging fences to stand by the tracks, the whole night alive with our holding. I was as fearless as you except for that moment, always sudden, of eerie silent wind and tearing light, those suspended seconds before the massive shape bore down, and suddenly darkness again. It terrified me every time, that a train, so huge and hurtling could approach this way, silent as fate, cracking the night into before and after, like a terrible consciousness bearing down on us.
How dangerous it was to love this way, with nothing left. No one else could tear open the night like you – or leave behind such chilling space.
Meanwhile, as we walked home broken and grateful, the trains passed on and arrived at Union Station. All the sleepy children who woke disoriented in the bright lights of the platform. All the travelers who were greeted. All those with no one waiting.
They all converged at Union Station, child evacuees with notes pinned to their chests, sent from London to escape the Blitz; soldiers with the draft letter in their pockets; ambulance trains crammed with the wounded. From Union Station, German soldiers were shipped to POW camps in northern Ontario; reinforcements were sent overseas. All on journeys in which there is no arrival.
So much grief and hope rushed into the immense station, and passed through that gateway into the city.
All great train stations, with their immaculately proportioned, immense inner spaces, their impossible combination of heaviness and light, serve both as an assertion of the greatness of the city one is about to enter, and as a final reminder of the greatness of the city one is about to depart. Gare D’Orsay, Grand Central, Victoria, Milan.
Union Station’s magnitude and scale, the choice of materials – declare a splendid civic pride, the confidence of a city big enough in every way to live up to such a gateway. It was built with the self-assurance that the world would come to us. And for many years, the world continued to arrive through those gates. Even the humble CNR lunch counter made a kind of history, with its menu in nine languages.
The great railway stations persist in remembering us - the palatial great halls of memory and the shunting-yards of history.
Now these stations are gateways to different places. That rail use has diminished is the very reason these stations must be preserved.
Much later I spent many hours waiting in a train station in a Europe I barely knew.
I dreamed for weeks of your arrival in a station with a glass roof, and waited for you there, imagining the moment your face would emerge from the small crowd of passengers disembarking. How your face would be changed by all those hours of travelling towards me.
Your battered and bulging leather case, your sweater I can smell and feel on my own bare arms even now. With us on the platform were sometimes many others, sometimes only a few, but always we found each other with the same brief intensity: every reunion a miracle, a restoration. The gasp of home. You carried a local delicacy each time in your bag, some small, chosen gift, a stone, an apple, flowers, a photograph, transposed hundreds of miles, as if you would bring a bit of your earth to me each meeting, as if, over the months, you would bring your place to mine, one handful at a time.
Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness – as if that is what love is: arrival after arrival. And the same dark truth: the solitary place we arrive from each time.