Here in Three Oaks, very few things remind one of the regular schedule of time. At noon, the warning siren sounds, and a couple of times a day the high-speed train whizzes through town, though it no longer stops here at the Depot. Still, my resolution to welcome the random variety of the days here is fraught with my preoccupation with time. The Victorians are to blame for our modern reliance on schedules and time — time in a standardized form, time that shifts with changing geographical zones, time that throws me off my game when I am commuting between the eastern and central time zones, each one symbolizing a visceral shift in the pace of life. When we come to Michigan for the weekends, I keep my watch on Chicago time, but now that we are here for the summer, I switched all of the clocks to Michigan time. Switching time zones, like code switching, means a mental shift — a departure from dependence on the clock, and a return to reliance upon the natural rhythm of seasons, weather, sunrise and sunset.
The Victorians brought us time tables and trains, and they also brought us clocks, in all shapes and sizes. My house in Three Oaks is packed with clocks, clocks that work and clocks that no longer keep time, but instead remind us that time, once spent, does stand still, if only in our memory. It seems out of synch for the Michigan house, the one that is a refuge from the busy urban world, to contain so many clocks. Big clocks, small clocks, clocks that no longer tell time. All here as reminders of the ferocious pace of modern life.
Even though the train station in town is no longer in use as a station, having shut its doors some time ago, the town’s own library clock seems a relic and reminder of a busier time, even here. Despite the dysfunction of the depot, I often imagine a Sister Carrie-like figure leaving Three Oaks headed for Chicago, like her Wisconsin-born virtual twin, aboard the train, seeking a new life of adventure and opportunity. In this town of forgotten emblems, the modern pace intrudes only briefly upon our sense of time and its passing. The whizzing of the train three times a day and the jangle of the siren at noon, the only reminders that somewhere, someone lives on a schedule.
Despite the reliance on the organization of time into discrete segments, trains do hold some romance, some vision of possibility. Sister Carrie and Richard Wright, both heroic and tragic, arrive in Chicago on trains, disembark into stations crowded with people, bustling with life and its possibilities. Trains made Chicago — and they continue to offer a kind of connection between geographic location, people, and their dreams that cannot be envisioned by, say, airplane travel.
I think of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” when I think of trains.
In a Station of the Metro
By Ezra Pound (from Poetry Magazine)
Pound’s use of spacing conjures the image of individual cars, with the space created between cars, zooming by on the tracks. He literally makes it seem as though we are watching the train at a slow-moving picture show. These faces are the petals — symbols of the beauty of difference — that hold an urban environment together. The ghost-like quality of the other passengers remind us of the fleeting connection one creates during travel. They also remind us of our own demise — a sure connection to the movement of time. I can feel the train clicking by when I read this poem, feel the rhythm of the movement. Maybe that is what gives trains and their attendant time schedules their romance; the beat, the rhythm and pace, so regular and comforting, yet exhilarating and adventurous, call us to be lulled by the modern as we open ourselves to the adventure ’round the bend.