Trainspotting

Commentary: In Exile

I’m on an Amtrak train heading north from New York City to Boston, and normally I’d feel guilty about spending the extra money for an expensive train ticket when a perfectly good $15 Chinatown bus is available, but because riding Amtrak feels like a moral obligation for any good anti-Republican these days, I’m sitting in a reasonably comfortable reclining seat with a bar car about 22 seconds away.

The Bronx. Every terrace on these poured-concrete towers seems to be used for the storage of no less than six bicycles. Here the train runs on elevated tracks, as if Amtrak was afraid that at street level we might be hijacked. During game two of the 1977 World Series, Howard Cosell took note of the smoke rising around Yankee Stadium and announced casually over the ABC airways, ”Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” Today, there are hipsters converting those same burnt out shells into lofts.

Bridgeport. We’re headed to Provincetown for a few days. Last week the publication we work for put out a double issue, which means that we have the next 10 days off for the first time in recent memory. Because it’s gay pride week in New York, Provincetown will most likely be quiet. The NYPD has lined Manhattan’s broad avenues with barricades to hold back the hysterically shrieking gay hoards from the parade that will pass through on Sunday. Here in Bridgeport, Conn., the world couldn’t seem less gay. It’s amazing how bland some cities can manage to appear to those passing through. This city appears to consist entirely of a Courtyard by Marriott, several glass office buildings, and a commuter rail station. Every time I leave New York City I feel immediately relaxed, but it’s never long before I start to feel anxious to get back. The longer I’m away, the more anxious I become, and pulling into Penn Station upon return always brings a strange sense of relief.

New Haven. It’s gotten to the point where I couldn’t care less about gay pride week. I wonder if some day, when gays are basically accepted as equals, gay pride week will become as overlooked as Black History Month, with no one really caring about it besides high school civics teachers and the mayor’s ”official proclamation” coordinator, though I suppose the Bud Light and ID Lube people will do their best to keep it going, like Hallmark with Mother’s Day.

Here in New Haven, people still have big aluminum TV antennae on the roofs of their houses, sort of like the suburban anachronistic equivalent of New York’s cylindrical wooden rooftop water tanks, most of which, I learned recently, are actually still used. Last night we ended up at this rooftop party on the Lower East Side. Everyone was sort of decked out, and I realized that straight men who style themselves even mildly fashionably get way too much credit for it.

There was this straight guy there who’d just come back from Iraq. He’d somehow gotten out of the army and was now taking design classes at Parsons. After two years of doing things most of us would cut off our trigger fingers to avoid doing, he was easily the rock star of a party peopled entirely by magazine journalists who think of themselves as hot shit because they have Vince Vaughn’s cell phone number from an interview they did around the time Swingers came out on DVD.

Hartford. This was once the insurance capital of the world. I have no idea how that sort of thing happens. I suppose Blue Cross sees State Farm doing pretty well and thinks to themselves, ”Maybe it has something to do with the magic of Hartford.” But then apparently, several years ago, all the big insurance companies up and moved out of Hartford just as quick as they had arrived, and now the city is a shell of its former self. Totally random, irrational herd mentality decimates an entire city.

When everyone moved out of New York in the late 1970s, they had very good reason. Just taking the subway to work meant literally risking your life. There was hardly even garbage collection. Of course, not everyone left. Some stuck it out through sheer stubbornness or inability to leave. The New York Jets moved to New Jersey, but kept the name ”New York Jets,” and now that things are better, they want to come back.

Hartford doesn’t look like the New York of 1977. That New York looked chaotic and frightening. (Wes Craven actually set part of his first scary movie, Last House on the Left, in downtown Manhattan — it was that scary). Hartford looks more like it’s been sitting in a corduroy armchair for three days, smoking Kools and reading the classifieds. The freeway is continuously clogged and quiet, as if no one really cares if they get where they’re going.

Providence. Thirty minutes to Boston, thank God. This train seemed so comfy and delightful when we first got on, but two wines and a giant coffee later and I’m antsy and itching to get off. We’ve got an hour and a half ahead of us on the high-speed ferry, but that should be okay, with the sun and open air and whatnot. I’ll have to pick up some Dramamine so I don’t spend the entire voyage vomiting over the vessel’s starboard side.

Providence seems to be doing okay. It’s been a while since Willy Loman stood here and said, ”Fine city you’ve got, mayor.” All these times I’ve sped through here on the train and never once have I set foot on the ground. I guess I’m pretty quick to make snarky comments about other people’s cities having never even visited them myself. Like the way ”blue states” make fun of ”fly-over country.” I’m even already a little anxious to get back to New York.

Will Doig writes from his self-imposed exile in New York City. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.