If you are fortunate, you have never seen it.
No one in polite government acknowledges its existence. It arrives at night, cloaked in its own fog. Thick, sound absorbing, it rolls in a hour before the train arrives.
No health agency officiates its movements, no news agency writes on it. No reporters acknowledge they have been aboard it. Healthcare workers deny working on it, chefs deny cooking there, social workers deny helping its passengers adjust to new lives.
People know about it only in rumor. The staff is faceless; fearless; selfless.
It moves from city to city, never officially scheduled but strangely welcome. Every major metropolis expects it, sooner or later, and though there is never an official word, it arrives in the middle of the night, leaving some, but taking many.
People who have used it, never speak on it. Never write books about it. What is known even by the people who service it, is told in hushed whispers.
What we do know is this:
It is always full, never overly so, but the people are generous and sharing.
No one eats well, but no one goes hungry either.
It stops for only four hours.
Food, supplies, stores are made available. Food kitchens, churches, and yes even city officials see that it has whatever it needs as long as it is gone in four hours.
Everyone is patient. They wait for their turn. People get off first. They have been given a map, lists of resources, and a tiny stipend for work done on their passage. These first unload the Dead. Those who were too sick, too far gone, too old to survive the journey.
For some, they got on this train knowing they would not walk away from it.
Unspeaking city workers take away the dead, many unnamed to be cremated as per the arrangement with the Night Train's operators.
The Staying finish moving the Dead and with a quick prayer, vanish into the night, knowing what they have will probably not be enough. But they hope a new place, new faces will bring opportunity the last places they were, did not.
As they pass the New Passengers who wait patiently, some smile, others pass bags to them, filled with things they might need. Blessings are exchanged and the night swallows them up.
Strangely enough, most never return to the Night Train.
Food is next. It is already sorted, boxed, and made ready for easy access. Along with food, recyclable materials are moved off the train and a waste management vehicle handles the human effluvia.
This is a smooth operation, practiced. Everyone knows their job and how to do it.
The only words written on the outside of the train is the Latin phrase, "Motus Vita." Mobility is life. Our ancient ancestors knew this. They moved from place to place, learning the lay of the land and finding opportunity or moving on.
The Night Train crew recognizes this, so they sacrifice, never sitting still; always moving in order to give hope to the hopeless, mobility to the trapped, dreams to the impoverished, respite to the weary, food to the bellies of those unable to care for themselves.
Lastly, the New Passengers board. Many are tired, carrying only their meager possessions, they are ushered onboard by those who will be leaving on the next stop. They are cared for, cleaned up, fitted with new clothing, their hair combed, their health checked, their teeth cared for.
They are fed, assessed and by the next stop, they will have had more care than most will have seen in a decade. Social workers who reveal no secrets, help them to decide what can be done for them and calls are made along the route.
The Night Train has only one agenda, to help people keep moving on with their lives. As they pull away from the station, city officials grimace knowing they are paying for a service they need but are ashamed to have to take advantage of.
The existence of this Black train is a blessing to those served and a reminder of the failure of those in charge. They would love to stop providing service. But then they would have to explain so many other things. They go back to their offices and work a little bit harder.
If you are unfortunate enough to ride this train, you may experience shame for having to be there. Don't. This is not the end of the line. For some, this is a chance at a new life. Accept the help.
If you do it right, you will only need it once.
The Night Train pulls away from its latest station and blows its horn, a sad, sonorous sound. People in the distance, pretending they don't know that sound, lying nestled in their homes shudder gratefully.
Others who have just left it, smile, grateful for the chance to start again.
Of the Night Train's crew, no one knows what they think. They turn their collars up against the wind.
Motus Vita © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
In 1996 eight people died on the summit of Everest in 24 hours. Although deaths on everest do occur this event was notable, not only for the number of people who died, but because it seemed inexplicable. The weather conditions were normal and there were no sudden avalanches. Three teams of climbers were attempting to reach the summit, 34 climbers in all. For various reasons on that day, at a point known as Hillary's Step there was, essentially, a traffic jam.
When attempting to reach the summit of Everest, timing is crucial. There's a window of time, know as 'turnaround time' where if the climbers haven't reached the summit by this point they should call off the attempt and turn back.
Yet on that day in May 1996, as the teams were confronted with the traffic jam at Hillary's step, they ignored their turnaround times and pushed on. Some of the climbers were caught in an intense blizzard as darkness fell and never made it back down the mountain. The general consensus is that nobody really knows why this happened.
Psychologist Christopher Kayes has a theory. He thinks the climbers were too focused on their goal. The more they focused on the goal, the more it became a part of their identities and therefore it became difficult to sacrifice that goal.
I don’t know exactly when I started referring to the subway as The Cattle Cars in my head, a characterization that evolved in spite of myself and against my will, since all my previous associations with people and cattle cars have genocidal overtones. It was sometime after I stopped going into mosh pits because they felt too much like crowded trains. After I moved to Brooklyn and started spending upwards of two hours a day on the trains, pressed against people who were pretending I wasn’t there. Or, a couple times, people who were far too aware that I was there, and that I have desirable body parts. You tell yourself you’ll never put up with that shit if it happens to you. And then it happens, and the train’s so crowded you can’t tell who it is, and you’re already late to work, and you don’t want to be the crazy weirdness that all the New Yorkers watch without watching. So you shut up. Your stop is only three away. Deal with it. Ignore. Evacuate.
Late at night in Union Square station. On the upper level, a busker is playing bagpipes, an instrument not designed with low ceilings and tiled walls in mind. Every time he finishes a song, the air fills with angry shouts from the homeless men who are trying to sleep.
Even one level down, at the other end of the platform, with my music turned all the way up, I can still hear them.
In a city of eight million people, I’m the most alone I’ve ever been. I don’t really know anybody here, I don’t have any roommates, and at the mixers and get-to-know-yous and bar hours that my school’s student life organizers put together, I mill around on the edges for an hour or so before leaving without successfully talking to anyone. Sometimes it feels like days go by without me saying anything, without speaking at all. I start to listen to more Fresh Air and This American Life than is strictly necessary for anybody. Ira Glass is the closest thing I have to company. I realize that if something happens to me, it could be days, maybe weeks, before anyone at home really got worried. I start to wonder if the people on the subway aren’t just ignoring me. Maybe I really am invisible. Maybe I’m not really here.