Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Toy trains at South Station

I wish I had a photo to accompany this post, but my camera is broken, so I'll try to paint a picture.

Today is a very cold day, the kind where you organize your schedule for the smallest expenditure of energy and minimal exposure of skin to wind. I went to South Station downtown to pick up a salad at Cosi for lunch. On my way out, I noticed an enormous toy train exhibit in the center of the station. About twenty feet long and twenty feet wide, it featured a large, round mountain, with tiny toy trains chugging around its circumference. The snow glittered with holographic sparkles; the waterfalls were made from silver streamers. Lights shone from the windows of the houses, each story the size of a shoebox. It was as charming as any other train display I've seen, and perhaps the largest.

The display reminded me of a Russian doll, a train system inside the station of a larger train system, one of the few in America. Just feet away, outside the sliding doors, the big-boy trains leaned against the platforms, waiting for their grownup passengers. These trains of the new century are not quite as chic as the toy trains: no black top-hat smokestacks, no mink stole of smoke, no stylish red cabooses. They are long steel colored tubes, all muscle, all utility. But I love riding in these trains, any trains; it is one of the best ways to travel, hands free of a wheel, mind free from maps, departures free of searching and stripping, eyes free to wander strange countrysides.

What charmed me the most, however, was the sight of several grown men, standing around the display, some wrapped up in scarves, others leaning weary on their suitcases, some with heads cocked nonchalantly to one side, holding a cellphone and looking very busy and important. However, all eyes were on the tiny trains, snaking their way through the tunnels, making their endless circles.

Soon, these men would depart for their various destinations: to a meeting in New York, perhaps, or home to their houses in the suburbs of Boston. Tonight, adult concerns will overwhelm them: impending in-law visits for Christmas, stuffy office parties, errands at Best Buy, children with the sniffles. But during this grey noontime, in the kind of flat light that makes turning inward easier than looking outward, many seemed to be remembering, perhaps listening to the murmuring of their own personal Ghosts of Christmas past: the plastic set Santa left under the tree, the wooden choo-choo whistle tucked into a stocking, the tiny train set Grandma and Grandpa brought down every year from the attic. It became possible to see the children these men once were.

I don't have many theories on art, but if I had to articulate one, I would say: the evocation of memory is one of the highest purposes of art. Monet's best paintings have it; the very best children's books possess it always; the recent work of Jan Van Holleben (see his amazing "Dreams of Flying" photoessay) astounded me with its perfect depiction of childlike imagination, and this train exhibit, while not the best of its kind, served this worthy purpose today. Brightening the days and illuminating the best memories of Boston's weary commuters: a winning argument for more public art if there ever was one.


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