I sit here, in my apartment in Harlem, at the edge of everything. I just moved in two weeks ago. I've lived in many other apartments here in New York (nine, in fact, if I were to consider NYU dorm rooms apartments, which I will, solely because of the price, which is to begrudgingly admit that I paid a staggering amount of money to share a 10x12 room with two other people). Nowhere else have I heard the whistles from commuter trains. They're not exactly loud, but they're not faint, either; they're just loud enough to recognize, but quiet enough that if I was standing in front of the stove stirring pasta, I couldn't hear them over the boiling water. Which is why I only really hear them against the quiet of the morning, when the only other sounds are from two mourning doves on the patio, or the sound of me clearing my throat, or breathing, or my bare feet on the hardwood floor.
I've taken these trains before. One rainy Saturday months ago, when I was feeling particularly melancholy and confused about a budding relationship, I woke up at dawn and headed to Grand Central. Several weeks before, a friend of mine told me about a train stop on the Harlem line—one way up north, past Westchester—where she always sees swans. Every time the train passes this stop, she sees swans dotting the dark waters of a pond, or alighting on its surface, or maybe even flying away to wherever it is that swans go.
That particular morning, in the cold haze of my confusion and despair, I decided that the clarity I needed could only come from seeing something as glorious and stunning as a group of swans. And so I went. I boarded the train and soared up through Harlem, where I now sit, and continued north past Westchester. The passage included the same sounds I now describe—these muffled, breath-filled whistles. The rest became a symphony of sorts—the clamor of the wheels on the tracks, the conductor's voice fading into the wide open space on the platform, the rain trickling on the windows, and the release of steam when the train settled at a stop for more than a moment.
At first, I thought I missed the swans. I was searching for them on the approach to the stop that my friend mentioned, but all I saw were the dark, still waters of the pond and the lush forest on its shores. I must have misheard her. The train pulled into the stop and I sat back in the seat. I was feeling disappointed, but I decided to enjoy the rest of ride. The beauty of trains is that they carry us, smoothly, from one place to another. That morning, I needed to be carried.
After the train pulled out of the station, it continued along this large pond. And suddenly, like a mirage, the swans appeared. There were dozens of them. Many were swimming in single-file lines. Some were floating in small groups, and others by themselves, motionless near a corner of the pond, staring into the forest or dunking their heads below the water. This experience of seeing the swans lasted no more than five seconds, but the result wasn't just clarity. It was promise. Resolution. Just when I thought that I had misunderstood and lost an opportunity, the swans called me back. On the ride home, I realized that this world has its own way of reaching out to me. This sequence of events is an exquisite production that I cannot foresee or even begin to understand.
If I was so inclined, as I sit here each morning, I could study the frequency of the Harlem train whistles. This would mark some attempt to predict the whistles and determine the schedule of passing trains. I'm tempted, but I resist. It's not important that I ground everything in research and data. After all, if I knew exactly when I would hear the train whistles, it would reduce the atmosphere of the environment to a scheduled and scientific system of noise. This doesn't interest me. I prefer to not know, to immerse myself in a place where I could be busy with something, unaware of the time passing, and with the change of a moment I can be pulled back into life by a train whistle. This is the difference between the world calling out to me, and me setting a timer to be called back into the world.