For the first time in my life, I commute by train. Some of you, knowing that I have spent more than a decade living in Japan, are going to call bullshit on this statement, but it’s true. I do admit to riding the occasional train, of course, but at no point did I use Japan’s famously efficient rail network as a part of my commute. And let’s not even talk about the bus – that shit’s a non-starter. No, believe it or not, most days, my ass was in the driver’s seat.
The switch away from driving my own car has required some adjustment. In the past, the moment I clocked out and slipped behind the wheel, the concerns of the work day fell away. There, in my familiar space and surrounded by my kind of music, and in an environment has hot or cool as I chose, I felt immediately at home and fully in control of my own destiny. And although the place I went always ended up being home, and as quickly as I could get there I might add, there was always the possibility of adventure, the possibility of mayhem and the possibility that I might, just once, go somewhere else. Now those possibilities are gone.
Without a vehicle, my many possibilities have been reigned-in by steel rails, iron-clad timetables and the shocking inability of my own two feet to carry my flabby body beyond a certain distance. I board the train at a set location and exit at another. There is no variation in the routine and the only possibility I am left with is the one where the damn train breaks down and leaves me stranded. I’m locked in, trapped, and I can’t get loose.
Trains, I think, work well for the Japanese because their culture plays down individuality and honors conformity. People go where they are supposed to go, do what they are supposed to do and play the role they are supposed to play. Schedules and routes feed into the desire to conform and while you and I might chafe at the boundaries they form, the average Japanese person feels entirely comfortable living their lives between them. Over there, the train is simply an accepted part of the natural order. So why, after living so much of my life so closely with the Japanese, don’t I feel the same? Might I be wired differently?
Our country had trains too, once. In fact, at the turn of the last century our society was largely dependent upon them. But the story goes that, in the 1920s and ’30s, the auto and oil companies conspired to tear up our public transportation networks and force people into private auto ownership. I have no doubt that this is true, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person after all, but I think that the average American was a willing partner in the destruction of that way of life. Trains and freedom simply cannot coexist.
Now the conspiracy is headed the other way and we are being forced by taxes, tolls and fees out of our cars and back onto the trains. And while they are reliable, quiet and efficient I don’t like it. It’s a distasteful compromise that hurts my red-white-and-blue heart. Instead of surrendering liberty for safety, I have been forced to surrender life’s many possibilities for cost and convenience. And even if I never go anywhere but home, I mourn the loss of all those possibilities I will never use.