« Attacked By ThugsLille »
05.30.2004

Schrödinger's Car

It used to be that New England was a zippy place to get around by train. White River Junction, now a moribund little town near Dartmouth College on the Connecticut River, saw fifty trains a day headed in all directions - south to Connecticut and New York, southeast to Boston, northwest to Montreal, northeast into the posh hotels of the White Mountains. The railroad here died like it did everywhere else in the fifties and sixties, helped along by bad policy, rising prosperity and the new interstate highway system, so that nowadays White River Junction sees just one train a day; the Vermonter, a state-subsidized Amtrak wreck that takes thirteen hours to creep down to Washington.

There's a second Vermont-New York train further west, running up the Hudson valley past Albany and then turning east on a spur into Rutland (or Crack City, as the ex and I used to call it, in a vain attempt to add excitement). The track here, like all over New England, has been torn up by years of freight traffic and there are few places the train can really stretch out and reach its maximum speed of 60 mph. There is a Krispy Kreme outlet at Penn Station that helps ease some of the sting of covering 220 miles in six hours; as you eat your crullers you can fantasize about the New York -> Boston -> Montreal high speed rail line, maybe even with tilting carriages that will bring the route speed up to 90 or 110 mph. Meanwhile the French have saved up all the money they didn't spend defending freedom to build themselves a real high speed rail system, and they can shuttle around their country at 300 kph, laughing at us, drinking regional wines grown on American root stock from the skulls of American children.

I like trains in principle. You embark at point A, disembark at point B, and are pretty much a helpless bag of bones in between, your decision-making potential left untaxed, so you can zone out and plan major life changes. But I had spent the best part of the last three weeks on trains, trains of all stripes: the London-Sheffield express that looked like it had been hosed down with mud; a salaciously bouncy slow train from Waterloo Station to Dover; various expensive shuttle trains to the several far-flung London airports; a windy box rattler local from Calais to Lille; assorted even more expensive trams and light railways; a smoky but impressively quick Intercity service from Krakow to Poland. All my life decisions were made, all my books had been read, my donuts were eaten; the laptop held no joys for me. I wasn't relishing my return home (the set of reality show called I Live With My Ex!), but on the plus side home meant clean socks, friendly cats, and the possibility of sleep while reclining at more than ten degrees from the vertical.

I had taken off from London almost two days before, seated by a window in a 777 that took off and then flew level at six thousand feet for the best part of an hour. We had skimmed just under the bottoms of row after row of fat cumulus clouds on a gorgeous day, enjoying the most beautiful view I had ever seen. There was all of Kent and the countryside spread out below, with a Holstein pattern of light and dark overlaid on top of the more regular grid of hedgerows. Far on the left I could see London in three-quarters view, spiking out of the Thames delta in its haphazard way, a skyscraper here, Canary Wharf there, a tiny Westminster and then the Millenium Dome, looking just like a pinned-down aspirin tablet. There was not a hint of haze, just the palette of greens that seem only to exist in England, and the endless enormous puff clouds right outside the window.

The plane flew all the way out over Land's End before making a turn onto the great circle route to America, and then there was no sight of land until the descent into some God-awful murky, turbulent miasma that had smothered New York. It was beastly hot in the arrival hall, which was packed with passengers. Only there, standing in thr hour-long queue for customs (welcome to America. Now SWEAT!) did it occur to me how ridiculous it was to attempt a ninety minute connection between an airport and a departing train. I wasn't in Europe anymore.

So several hours later I found myself sitting in Jason Kottke's apartment next to a very orange, very hot cat, watching a documentary about Robert McNamara, deeply grateful to be in a country that had figured out you can make hot and cold water go through the same faucet. The next day, I conveyed myself and my ridiculous profusion of suitcases onto the Rutland train, and now as the train wheezed its way up the Hudson, I began to wonder what chance I had of finding my car.

I had left for Europe in circumstances that may be described as "precipitate", parking by the rail station without a thought for how long I could keep my car there. Now as the train inched along I had plenty of time to agonize over the intimidating signs in each Amtrak lot - you can leave your vehicle for a maximum of TEN DAYS, and then it will be towed away - followed by the larcenous fee schedule for towing and storage. Looking at the matter scientifically, my gold Saturn existed in a quantum superposition of states, partially towed and partially untowed, with the uncertainty in its position increasing daily (being a Saturn, there wasn't much uncertainty about its momentum). Somewhere in the complicated equation describing my car there was even the infinitesimal probability that, in my absence, MTV had come along and pimped my ride.

In an infinity of universes, I showed up on the platform to find my car gone, and in another infinity of universes, I found the car right where I had left it. Thankfully, my own worldline veered into a universe where the car was safe and sound. The real shocker was the discovery that I hadn't lost my keys - I could feel the wavefunction collapse as I reached into my pocket. All that remained to do was to drive home and try to manufacture an interest in computers in time for work the next day, having spent three weeks doing nothing but oil painting.

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