The Ghosts Who Wave at Trains

From 2003 to 2007, I regularly rode the Amtrak commuter train, the Pacific Surfliner, from Santa Barbara to San Diego.  It did it so often that I knew all the landmarks along the way, from the graffiti in the drainage wash near Union Station in Los Angeles to the bizarre alien spaceship facade of a Fry’s Electronics south of LA.  From the railroad tracks, one can see the backside of America.  While stores, apartment buildings, and even warehouses try to present their best image to the roads and the freeways, the view from the train windows is not so pretty.  Rust, mold, broken windows, and other unsightly artifacts of aging are all visible from the rear.  Graffiti always seems to collect near railroad tracks, as do scrap yards with piles of rusted metal, and repossession lots crammed full of beat-up cars that will clearly never drive again.  It almost seems like nobody cares about trains.

Most people, it seems, prefer to drive even moderate distances rather than take the train, in part because it’s easier to get to their final destinations when they can drive straight into the garage rather than doing a bus transfer or walking the remaining stretch between the train station and home.  Certainly I preferred it.  It took over an hour and a half longer to take the Surfliner between Santa Barbara and San Diego than it did to drive.  Time is precious in Western culture, and I am an impatient person.  Furthermore, it costs more to take Amtrak from San Diego to Florida than it does to fly the same route.  The only benefit to taking the train in that case is that you get a better view.  As far as land transportation goes, it would be better to drive, because it’s possible to stop when I want to and where I want to, in a (preferably nice) motel where I can sleep on a real bed.  The food is better too, fast food though it may be.

Taking the train in America is unpopular for a reason.  It’s slow, expensive, and inconvenient, especially when plane tickets are relatively cheap and driving allows more options.  It’s no wonder the railroad tracks get a rear view of the country, and it’s no wonder that I see many abandoned tracks when I ride.  After all, it can easily be assumed that nobody takes the train in this country.

But there is an interesting phenomenon I noticed on my regular rides through urban Southern California:  People wave at trains whenever they go by.  They make a greeting, a nearly personal connection, to a passing vehicle that it seems nobody cares about.  I had seen people waving before I ever rode Amtrak, but it only occurred to me once I took the train just how strange the action of waving at a train is.  It isn’t the same as the childhood practice of trying to get trucks to honk their horns as the kids ride by–inevitably surprising their parents.  The train blows its horn anyway.  It’s required by law in many places.  I saw children making the “blow the horn!” hand signal from time to time (a downward fist pump, signifying pulling the cord for the whistle).  However, it wasn’t as common as the simple wave.

And I wondered:  Why are they waving?  Why would people wave at a passing train when nobody they know is on board?  Why would they offer a greeting to people they can’t see and will almost certainly never meet?  What is the purpose in communicating across such a distance, even in such a shallow way?

It was difficult for me to understand at the time, and in some ways it still is.  The train windows are blank.  They’re tinted, so unless it’s night and the train is lit from inside, it’s impossible to see in.  And at night, when they can see in, the riders can’t see out.  There’s no possible way to even make eye contact.  It’s not even possible to judge a person’s appearance.  From the outside, the riders are invisible.  And from the inside, everyone is too  busy reading or on their laptops or chatting to pay attention to the people waving outside.  So what does the hand motion hope to accomplish?  It’s not even akin to graffiti, a message that screams “I exist and own this place!” to whoever manages to decipher the muddle of letters.

What I realized, personally, as I watched the people wave at my train every time I rode it, is that those people weren’t even real to me.  As I said, they were people who I would never see or meet, who I couldn’t make eye contact with, whose features I couldn’t recognize, and who I quite possibly wouldn’t be interested in talking to even if I had the opportunity to get off the train and interview them about their weird habit of waving at the vehicle I was in.  Were they waving at me, or the idea of me?  Were they waving at the engineer?  Why did I care?

I cared because people intrigue me.  I often reach out over great distances to touch minds and hearts, through personal conversation, which enriches both my life and the lives of the people I meet, and through writing.  My writing can be read by people I will never meet.  Essentially, I too am waving at passing trains.  And as I said, the people waving at me were not real to me.  They were ghosts, really, ghosts waving at trains.  In some ways, the only difference between waving at my train and reading my writing is that writing communicates some of who I am.  I once wrote for a web magazine, and there really was no good way for my readers to contact me if they had questions for me.  There was a picture of me on the website, but it didn’t mean much.  Essentially, I was writing to ghosts, people I had no intention of communicating with.  I didn’t really even care about the subject I was writing on, and I was very cynical about its followers.  In short, I had no interest in meeting my readers.

My current writing is less directed at ghosts because I actually care about it.  The effect, however, is still the same.  Anyone can read my writing online, where I post it, and I would never know the difference.  My writing matters to me, and I welcome people to read it.  It makes me feel validated.  I’m sharing a piece of myself and my art, and I get approval for it.  In a way, I’m not waving at a passing train, where I couldn’t hope to gain anything, but it’s nearly the same.  The vast majority of my readers will never write a comment on my blog, and those whom I email my writings to rarely reply with comments.  I’m not offended.  It’s the life of a writer.

But my readers are still fake, to some extent.  When I saw people waving at my train, I wondered if they actually existed.  I don’t mean that in a solipsistic way, as if to say that those people I fail to interact with are not actual people.  I simply mean that they might as well not exist to me, because they’ll never be a part of my reality.  It’s hard for me to grasp statistics like the death toll of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia that killed 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean, or Cyclone Nargis, which also killed about 200,000 people in Myanmar.  I failed to comprehend the scope of the 9/11 attacks, which “only” killed roughly 3,000 people.  For that matter, the death of a famous celebrity means very little to me.  I’m ashamed to say that when my Great Grandma died, I barely even cried.  And it’s not just death that I do not feel.  I can’t comprehend the daily birthrate worldwide, or the sheer number of people living in the People’s Republic of China.  The numbers are too big, and more importantly, I may never meet any of them.

Is it selfish to deny reality to people I will never meet?  I actually think it may be the only possible and sane option.  I don’t mean to deny them the right to a good life.  All I mean is that I can’t handle the concept of six billion people carrying out their lives without ever crossing my path.  I can barely take on the smaller fraction of people I consider friends, much less the strangers I meet on a day-to-day basis.  The people who wave at trains are aliens to me, and always will be.

Would the people keep waving even if they knew the train was full of people like me who were only bemused or even didn’t care?  I expect they would.  Waving at trains is partly reflex, and partly politeness.  It’s appropriate to acknowledge that other people exist, as indeed I have here in this bit of writing.  I have acknowledged both my readers and the six billion people I share this planet with.  They exist, and they matter.  They just don’t exist to me.

People deserve a hello and a smile when I pass by them.  A wave is a bit different, because it demands attention.  If I waved at a passing car, the driver would wonder what I was trying to communicate.  Did he leave his coffee mug on the roof of his car when he left for work?  Did he know me?  Who knows–keep driving, and forget very quickly that I waved.  But the hello and the smile at passing strangers function much like waving at a passing train.  It tells us that we are human.

Why wave at trains?  I’m not completely sure, and I doubt the people who do it know why either.  But it reminds me that there are people out there who I don’t know.  They may not exist to me, but they matter anyway, and so through that brief and fleeting act of communication, I learn that though they don’t exist, they matter.  They breathe, they move, they think, love, hate, have children, grow up, get old, stay young, live and die … they have being, and they’re worth it.  They’re still in my mind, years after I saw them, serving, though unintentionally, as a reminder that the world is big and I am not.

Why wave at trains?  Because there are people on them, invisible people, but still people.  Go ahead and try it.  There’s nothing to lose in the action.  Throwing a greeting out into the void to never be returned is simply part of being human.  Put up an open hand and see if anyone notices.  Prove that you care about trains and the people who ride them.

Say hello.  The ghosts are waiting.


About Joel Wilcox

I'm a writer, photographer, visual artist, and world traveler who is also currently an academic slave (read: Graduate student). I put the (de) in the fine lines.
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