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On Roads and Rails

The automobile is a revered part of American culture. We sing songs and tell stories about our cars, our road trips, our adventures over asphalt. Think On the Road and Thunder Road, Thelma and Louise and National Lampoon’s Vacation. If Mark Twain had written Huckleberry Finn in the last century it would have taken place on Route 66, not the Mississippi River. It would be unthinkable for most Americans, especially for those outside the major cities, to be without a car. For me, the big change was getting one.

I’ve always been a public transportation guy. I grew up in Japan, where trains are as ubiquitous as ramen noodles, chopsticks, and tiny cell phones. When I went to the United States for college, I expected to be introduced to car culture: drive-thrus, parking tickets, spinning rims. But I ended up in Boston, home to the nation’s first subway.

I credit the T, Boston’s affectionate nickname for its train, for my relationship with the city. The T is a hybrid: part underground subway, part above-ground trolley. When I lived in Boston, it was free to take the train outbound, as long as you got on at an above-ground stop. So after spending the day downtown I would walk to Fenway Park, the closest station from which I could catch a free ride back home. It didn’t matter how far I had to walk or how cold it was, the free ride was always worth it. In this way I got to know the city intimately, the streets and shortcuts, the corner stores and coffee shops.

After college I moved to San Francisco. San Francisco is home to America’s scariest subway. Every morning I sat in silent terror as the train rumbled under the bay from Berkeley, where I lived, to San Francisco, where I worked. I couldn’t help thinking: the worst place to be during an earthquake must be in the ground, under a large body of water.

A year later I ended up in New York City, home to America’s liveliest, and probably dirtiest, subway. I once saw a man let loose a live dove in a crowded train, terrifying a group of young girls. He’s one of the few subway performers I’ve given money to. I’ve also seen men let loose other things on the subway, validating New York’s unseemly reputation.

At this point I’d pretty much spent my entire adulthood in the United States without needing a car. Then I moved to Guam.

Guam is a tiny U.S. territory in between Japan and Australia. I’d gotten a new job, and I was looking forward to a new move. But I was anxious about the trip. Not only was I going so far away, but I’d finally have to get behind the wheel. The closest thing to public transportation on the island is the back of a pickup truck. But, I thought, this was my chance for freedom and adventure, the kind they talk about in the stories and songs. It was my chance to travel unconstrained by schedules and rails.

My first day on Guam I met my new boss, who immediately brought me to a car rental place. After all those years walking, busing, and cramming into trains, my driving skills had deteriorated. It had been two years since I’d driven— and that was in my parents’ car in Japan, where they drive on the left side of the road. I got into the rental and tailed my boss nervously to the office parking lot. Surprised at the lack of incident so far, I confidently swung into a tight spot. Too confidently, it turned out. I scraped the side of my shiny blue Hyundai on a parking garage barrier with a sickening screech. My boss ended up parking the car for me. So much for first impressions.

In desperate need of crash course in driving and without a teacher, I turned to my most trusted resource: the internet. Turns out I could get free driving lessons on YouTube. (Other skills I’ve picked up on YouTube: how to crush garlic, how to play the guitar, and how to kill time with a light bulb and a microwave). After the online advice and a couple hours in a parking lot, I was able to brush up enough to save my rental from anything worse than that scratch on the passenger door.

Soon after, I bought my first car– a creaky, decade-old white Toyota Corolla with windows so tinted I could be mistaken for an FBI agent, or drug dealer. The passenger side door handle in the back seat snapped off, the tires needed to be replaced, and there was a disturbing grinding noise every time I hit a bump in the road. I loved my car.

I’ve gotten used to car culture. I love driving fast, listening to loud music, and feeling the wind sweep against my arm perched on the window. But there’s something I miss about trains. Maybe it’s the cheap fare, or the time to read and daydream. Maybe it’s the people and performers. Maybe it’s the cities that the trains are in.

It’s true that we sing songs and tell stories about cars. But most of my adventures, I realize, haven’t come from driving a car— they’ve come from riding a train. And that’s fine. There are songs and stories about trains too.

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