On my way through Emeryville, I see the freeway beside the train, maybe 50 yards away. I am looking at the overpass I usually drive under and feel like I’m sideways in the universe for a moment.
The businesses along the track have placed signs for train passersby to see, but it seems they’ve forgotten they hung them there in the back. A sign that reads “Power Tool Repair: Factory Authorized” flaps listless over the gravel between their backdoor and the tracks. The intervening space is littered with castoffs, detritus—clothes that have been flung and scattered, fast food containers, a disassembled couch, a car’s backseat placed where day laborers can sit and get high while waiting for an offer of work.
I pass graffiti-covered walls, the flavor of the day artistic graffiti-style with bright fresh colors, but in the middle of the mural’s chaos there’s a moment of painted quiet that speaks loudest: a black man’s face and his expression is at the cross roads of open, angry, hopeful and defensive.
Along the bay it’s a thick grey morning, but I can see across the water to a hill that is illuminated by the only spot of sun in any direction. We keep moving north from the bay into the delta.
It’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning, but there are random people at the water’s edge. A photographer in a bright yellow and red jacket is looking from the woman he will photograph, who is dressed in shades of gray that match the water and sky to the silver gray train behind her. He smiles. A mile or several miles later, a man with a stick balances on tires that are half-exposed in low tide. He picks each step, moving further out, poking into the water with his stick.
A fishing boat that looks like the ill-fated one in Jaws rests on its side in low waters, rusted and rusting. There are posts all around it that used to hold up a system of docks, a watery ghost town in miniature.
A ship named Empire State is docked near the Carquinez Bridge, not far from a restaurant called The Nantucket. Just past the restaurant is C & H Sugar, a complex of brick buildings that are old and older attached to rusting steel buildings that are connected to new, boldly painted, tough as nails buildings. The history of the company tells itself by the evolution of its buildings.
The water in the river-like delta looks completely flat until a small fishing skiff bounces past, riding across the large, low waves. The bouncing is rhythmic, like a horse at trot on flat ground and I imagine the bumping whine of the engine as it hits, hits, hits each wave.
A train going in the opposite direction passes on the parallel track, inches away. It’s a sickening feeling as car after car passes, the press of air between the trains, the motion-sick opposite sway. They are rounded silver fuel cars and I sing inside my head to the rhythm of the trains, “go safely, go lightly, go safely, go lightly” and I think about the village in Quebec.
Train bathrooms are exercises in brilliant, efficient minimalism. Everything has a label and each label is done in three languages: English, Braille, and pictorial symbolism. The button on the wall beside the toilet is described, “Flush.” There is a clear plastic container with thick fluid that is mounted to the sink. The label behind it has a picture of cartoon bubbles, “Soap.” The only unmarked thing in the room is the least obvious thing—a rectangle of metal is flush against the wall by the door. I poke it and the top extends out—a maximum strength hook to hold my computer bag.
Returning to my seat, I see a lush green field that extends from the tracks across to the distant freeway. The train blasts its whistle and from nowhere scores of snowy egrets rise in alarm and return to the waterways hidden below the grass-covered surface, a world hidden from view.
We pass a crossroad where a line of cars waits for us to speed by and I remember an afternoon on the train ride home when we made an unexpected stop and sat on the tracks for 20 minutes. The conductor came over the loudspeaker to explain that there had been a family in their car that had been stopped on the tracks. He said that the train had stopped within eighteen inches of hitting it. A collective gasp and applause erupted as the train lurched onward.
In the distance there is a white, full-size dinosaur. It’s on the other side of the highway, beside a red barn. Behind the barn, there’s an orchard with invisible fruit, but its secret is told by the regular rows of the same tree, growing again and again.
Five windmills slowly turn outside of Suisun. The train stop in town is flanked by an It’s It Ice Cream factory outlet store and my mouth waters in memory of the days when their calorie count wasn’t a deal breaker and when I couldn’t understand how my jeans got so tight.
We pass fields of thigh-high sunflowers. I remember my first drive through California, coming down from Washington State. It was this same time of the year and the flowers were almost full grown. It was amazing to drive by miles of fields full of the towering flowers. My amazement was complicated by the miles I was putting between myself and my unspoken-yet-now-officially ex-lover in Seattle, and by my knowledge that my three-month-long cross-country trip from east to west was concluding at the end of that very day. I drove while lamenting with my hopeful bewilderment dripping from me like sweat down my ribs.