“One thing about trains: it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.”
—Conductor in The Polar Express, beloved by my dad come Christmastime
There’s this park near my house. At least, the residents of Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets call it a park, affectionately if a little generously. It’s really just a moderately sized rectangle of unremarkable grass, bisected by a patchwork of cracking concrete paths, circumscribed by busy city streets. Right in the middle of the park, gutting it, sit these train tracks—you can’t miss them. They’re these old, rusty things, and every now and then an old, rusty train comes along, hauling its coal or its scrap metal or whatever. It rattles its way along the tracks, an awful, cacophonous screech booming up from the rails, making it really hard to focus on your walk.
I used to love the trains. My dad and I would jaunt down to the park often, ostensibly to play catch, carrying our mitts and a baseball. We’d cross the street (holding hands, look right, left, right again), take a few steps onto the grass, and there they were. Those tracks, maybe fifteen feet down, cavernous and waiting. A sad attempt at a fence signaled that it would be best not to fall—short, corroded, and with plenty of gaps through which I could stick my tiny arms, dropping fistfuls of pebbles into the chasm. My dad and I would toss the ball back and forth for a while: you didn’t need to worry about missing the train. You’d know it was coming long before you could see it. That piercing metal yelp, maybe a whistle if you were lucky. Then the earth would shake under you, and you’d drop the ball, and only after you’d bent over and picked it up would you be greeted, finally, with the ghastly countenance of the decades-old steel behemoth, chugging, chugging. There was a little curved stone bridge over the tracks. I’d scramble onto it as fast as I could so that I could feel the air rumble as the train passed below me while I counted its cars. Over the years, I got pretty good at the whole maneuver: I could time it perfectly, so that I’d reach the apex of the bridge right as the train reached me. My dad, a patient man, would stand and watch me. Sometimes he’d shout things, probably stuff like, “Be careful!” “Did you see that graffiti?” “Look at the caboose!” Rarely could I hear him over the sounds of the train. I think he knew that.
As I grew older, I stopped going to the park. It was a few blocks away, and I guess I had things to be doing. I did make the pilgrimage once before I left for campus in January, just to see. I waited for the train; it came. I couldn’t run to the bridge—it collapsed a few years ago—but I didn’t particularly want to anyway. Why bother? I’d experienced it all before.
I listened to the screech. It was loud and gave me a slight headache. My dad hasn’t touched a baseball in years.
In the summer of 2019, I took an art history course at the University of Pittsburgh. I didn’t know anything about art, nor did I especially want to at the time, but it was the only class whose professor was certified to teach minors. I ended up liking it, in particular the section on Impressionism. “Section” is perhaps an overstatement: it was a survey course, designed to cram our heads with as many facts about Terra Cotta Warriors and Spiral Jetties as was feasible in six weeks, so the Impressionists got a quick and dirty hour-long lecture. (It occurs to me that this sketched approach was not unlike their method—maybe they would have appreciated the brevity?).
About ten minutes of that hour was dedicated to one entry in Claude Monet’s 1877 Gare Saint-Lazare series, the subject of which was the prominent namesake train station in Paris. The piece bears many of the hallmarks of the style Monet cemented three years earlier with the exhibition of Impression, Sunrise: serial, quotidian focus, wide brushstrokes, fat dollops of paint, en plein air. I remembered this painting because I thought it was pretty, but returning to it now, I realize that this particular Gare Saint-Lazare, now housed at National Gallery in London, is an outsider among its peers, destabilizing certain Impressionist conventions. Whereas perspective is flattened throughout the rest of the suite, here the trains extend into the distance. Their detail fades into abstraction as the eye moves from right to left so that the dark semicircle near the corner of the canvas is a mere suggestion: another arrival pulling up to the gate, an arch in the bridge, or something else? The triangular roof, rendered in thick, bold strokes, does not budge for the smoke rising up to meet it; in other versions, the smoke is layered atop the rafters, overwhelming them. And here the exhaust is virtually indistinguishable from the hazy clouds beyond it, blurring the distinction between manmade and natural—and everything is contained by the iron canopy, which pierces the top of the frame. Perhaps most striking is the palette. Absent are the vibrant reds and cheerful blues of the painting’s counterparts; instead, the industrial features and even the figures lining the walkways of this Saint-Lazare border on black, a color explicitly rejected by Monet and his contemporaries. This is cool, subdued. Muted.
I’ve felt a certain way for a while now. Or, maybe more accurately, I haven’t felt a certain way for a while now. I’ve been struggling to come up with a name for it, this non-feeling I have, but it’s a bit like those gray clouds of steam billowing from Monet’s locomotives: floating, aimless, diffuse. I (and the friends who patiently listen to me as I try to explain this state of mine) have settled on “passivity” as, if nothing else, a shortcut, a metonym. Basically, I feel that I exert very little control over my life. I lack agency.
Okay, that sounds bad. It’s not that I’m not happy—I am, I think—it’s just that my happiness feels largely divorced from anything that goes on in my day-to-day existence. I almost never initiate social interactions. If someone asks me to get dinner, I always say yes, and I have a nice time, generally speaking, but I’m also relatively sure that I could derive the exact same feeling of fulfillment from sitting in my room and reading. Or going for a walk. Or anything, really. In this sense, am I really fulfilled? Doesn’t fulfillment imply desire, activity, payoff?
I could take a blind assortment of classes and find them all just as interesting as the ones I spent hours painstakingly selecting in December. When people ask me what my hobbies are, I have no response. I just do whatever’s next on my calendar because that’s what’s next on my calendar, which is really the same as doing nothing at all; when there’s nothing on my calendar, I kill time until there is. I don’t stop to reflect: this essay is the first time I’ve committed thoughts about my passivity to writing, a faint effort to wrest control of myself from its clutches, and even now I feel detached from the words as soon as they appear on my laptop screen—dear editor, tell me to delete everything and I’ll feel no remorse. The wall of my room at home is covered in postcards; I was short one when I first stuck them up, so I left the space empty for two years and counting, long after I got more. My feet move, my mouth talks, my fingers type—my body produces and produces and moves on, timed to circadian perfection, and I don’t have the know-how to interrupt it.
Of course, decisions unstring me. Take my daily confrontation with the shirt drawer. I watch my hands open that thing up, then I watch them hesitate. There’s the blue long-sleeve, but there’s also the gray long-sleeve—literally identical, bar the color. It’s paralysis by analysis, except instead of being overwhelmed by a litany of pros and cons, I just can’t bring myself to care either way. But I want to care, so I also can’t just grab one and go. I usually spend a full two or three minutes trying to come up with some reason to wear one instead of the other before picking more or less at random. I don’t know how I got this way.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining. Being unable to choose a shirt is an incredibly minor problem to have, if it even qualifies as a problem, and I’d be perfectly fine consenting to those few hundred seconds of apathetic indecision every day for the next six or seven decades (if I’m lucky). But I think the shirt drawer is a microcosm of something larger, and that something makes me a bit uneasy. I’ve made this joke a few times in conversations over the past months (though each time I make it I think I’m joking slightly less): I’m probably headed for a midlife crisis.
I read The Prince for class recently. Machiavelli has this thing about Fortune being a river (he also says Fortune is a woman to be beaten into submission—I don’t endorse him, but I think his metaphor is illustrative):
“And I compare her to one of these destructive rivers that, when they are raging, flood the plains, demolish trees and buildings, taking up earth from this side and putting it down on the other; everyone flees before them, everyone yields to their onslaught without being able to oppose them in any way. And although this is how they are, it does not follow that when the weather is calm, men cannot make provisions against them with dikes and embankments, so that when they rise again, either they would be channeled off, or their impetus would not be so disorderly or so destructive.”
I don’t feel the need to oppose the river: I feel that I’m floating along on it, inert, through flood and stagnation. But if I ever decide that I want to get off—say, twenty-five years from now when I realize that nothing in my life is of my own doing—I’m not sure I’ll remember how to swim. And, if things continue along their current trajectory, I certainly won’t have built any dikes. No embankments, either, I’m guessing. Passivity gives way to complacency.
I learned in that art history class that Monet was familiar with Saint-Lazare from his childhood. I wonder if he ever went there with his dad. The station is so much busier than those little, rusty tracks—it probably doesn’t lend itself to a game of catch. In any event, by the time we’re meeting him, Monet is no longer a part of the scene. He’s not boarding a train; he has no plans after this—in a liminal space, he is still. He watches. He probably sees a thousand faces, a thousand pairs of feet walking with direction, with purpose. They blur before him, reduced to vague lines of oily pigment.