The Little Engine That Could

The story of the red line train in Boston that took off without its conductor and held fifty commuters hostage for five miles was big news this week. The Boston Globe served up play-by-play coverage. Apparently, the conductor tied off the accelerator to hold it in place while he stepped out of the cab. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing they teach you in conductor school. Actually, if he stepped out to have a smoke, it would make a good Seinfeld episode, except this wasn’t funny. Just a day earlier a woman was struck by a train on the red line and killed. Four days prior to that, a man was injured by another red line train.

You have to wonder what is going on with the red line. Some people might be tempted to wax eloquent about how a lapse in judgment can ruin your life, or how we no longer have a sense of moral responsibility and work ethic. Those may be true, but I refuse to go there. People have been cutting corners ever since corners were invented. In fact, cutting corners was what brought Columbus to the New World.

I’d rather talk about things that run away. For example, cars, buses, horses, rapids, brides, lyrics, juries, fugitives, children, and inflation. In fact, Runaway could be a Jeopardy! category.

I remember the time my younger brother got into the family car and put it in gear. We lived at the top of a hill, and the car coasted down the hill, picking up speed until it mauled the hedges in the front yard of a house at the bottom. The woman who lived there had just taken in her toddler, who had been playing on the other side of the hedges. There was also the time that same brother put the car into gear when my father stepped out to buy milk. My father had to run alongside the car in traffic until my brother figured out how to unlock the door to let him in. There seems to be a lot of stepping out in these runaway stories.

Train 2

Some runaways are accidental, as in the case of the train conductor and my brother. Others are intentional, as with fugitives, children, and brides. According to the National Runaway Safeline, one in five teens runs away from home, usually to cities, which creates a tremendous population of homeless youth. Talk about moral responsibility. And we all know about runaway brides. They can leave you at the altar or wait forty years to do it. Grooms, too. And you don’t have to be married to feel the pain of abandonment.

Whether adjective or noun, unintentional or intentional, runaway is a problem. So, what do we do about it?

The answer must come from inner work, not passing more laws or having more policy debates. Stiffer fines or penalties would not have stopped the conductor from stepping out of the cab, whatever his reason. By “inner work,” I mean the recognition and acknowledgement that we all want to run away, that we all want to call it a day. In the end, we are not running away from home but toward it. We want to go home. It’s painful to know that we are not there yet, so we run away in other ways. Could be eating ourselves to death, destroying relationships, sabotaging our careers. You name it.

That doesn’t excuse the conductor, of course. The guy rigged the accelerator and stepped out of the cab. You can’t change those facts. The next part of the story will focus on legal proceedings and the word “negligence.” It’s inevitable. But this other story about a big, red, runaway train is too good to pass up.

This was an accidental runaway. You might even say a reluctant runaway. But what if it had been intentional? Then what?

It happened once with a bus, but that’s another story.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Check out Laura Fedora and The Gringo. Note to self: 64° in Central Park–seriously? Whither winter? The Mister Softee ice cream trucks are cruising again like sand sharks. This abomination must be stopped! For top photo, see New York Times; middle, The Boston Globe.

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