Saturday, September 10, 2016
Yellow plastic flowers.
A woman was hit by a train and killed a block from my house Thursday evening. The idea that something had happened presented itself in the form of police lights, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, to the left, as I sat in the van at Walters and First Street, waiting to turn left about 4:25 p.m.. So I turned right instead, to get away from the commotion.
"Probably a broken crossing gate," I explained to my passenger, as we proceeded on our way. But there was that helicopter, which suggested something more dire. Later my wife, who heard the news from neighbors, who find out these things instantly, told me a few details: a woman had been hit by the train and killed.
The first question I had was not whether she was old or young, whether she was somebody I knew or not—odds are she wasn't, as I don't know many people. The first question I had was whether it was an accident or suicide.
Why that question? What doest it matter, to me, a stranger? I suppose as somebody who rides the train regularly, who almost daily crosses the tracks, walking the dog, doing errands, and watches how careless people are around the trains, surging around the lowered gates, blundering along with their eyes locked on their cell phones, I was looking for a data point to use to bolster my conviction that people don't understand the peril that the trains represent. A cold reaction.
I never -- I realize only now, writing this -- thought, "Oh the poor woman!" Someone being killed horribly, pulverized by a train, a couple hundred feet or so from my front door. Is that a lack of sympathy on my part? A hundred and seventy-five thousand people die every day in the world; you can't ache for them all, and why does a death localized to my neighborhood elevate it to realm of something to be cared about?
On Friday, getting off the train after arriving back mid-day from the city, I noticed this little bouquet of plastic flowers, to the right, and walked over. A cross of votive candles, a small ceramic cross. This must be the spot. Not where people usually wait. Evidence of suicide; a person would come here, a little away from where people wait on the platform, to do the awful deed.
An old, Biblical notion, of spots being cursed or blessed. I stood there, and tried to feel whether grim death clung around this spot. It didn't. I wondered whether the loss of life—the night before—somehow changed or sanctified it. It really didn't, in my eyes. The shrine might grow, but knowing Metra they would sweep it away in good time, and that would be that. Walking the block home, I speculated on the details of the woman. How old? Forties? No. Thirty-seven, I decided, based on the Marianne Faithful song, "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," about a woman who kills herself. "At the age of 37, she realized she'd never ride through Paris, in a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair."
Is that a reason to kill yourself? Is anything? What the world would be like if every spot where someone had died? Permanently marked, a landscape dotted with pots of plastic yellow flowers, sitting on curbs and night tables. We would get used to it, I suppose. Death is after all a part of life, the end that awaits us all. A thought that weighs lightly when the latest to join the rolls of the vanished is someone you do not know. This time.
The Tribune reported that a 39-year-old Northbrook resident had stepped in front of the train deliberately, according to witnesses, about 4 p.m. Thursday.