Humanity, brought to you in a single train

A random video taken during a nursing student’s commute shows humanity in all its joy and mundanity.

Maxine McCrann
A Small Good Thing

Everything is collapsing. The senators are insider trading. The algorithm is relentlessly selling the most tepid, flavorless version of your life back to you. The last remaining industries are meal delivery apps, “cloud software,” and threadbare money laundering schemes. Your account has been deducted a fee and you’re just now hearing about it for the first time. We fluctuate between rage and limp nihilism and back again, and while this column won’t fix that, it will provide you with a small good thing to appreciate, a recognition of something weird and valuable and beautiful, despite it all.

For three weeks I’ve been thinking about this 44-second video of a train riding through England. The black skeletons of passing trees and the creep of nighttime, but in every window the interrogating wattage of public transit lighting.

And then, look at them all in there: All kinds of haircuts. Every shape of guy. The groggy assembling of coats and bags and the rearranging of stubborn undershirts. Women having animated conversations with men who are just barely paying attention. Men with their torsos bent in cartoonish geometry, trying to find one decent angle to sleep on chairs that do not recline. Someone making small talk with a person they just met about how their boss speaks like a search engine optimizer. Everyone’s neck rolling around across the headrest in a way that says either pre- or post-anesthesia. Middle-aged men wiping their eyes in dough-kneading smears, trying to come alive. The benign Dude Hijinks, some kid in a yellow wig, a possible bachelor party. Single-serving everything. Old men, young men, bald men, men with aspirationally hip eyeglass frames, men in quarter-zip wool-blend pullovers.

The video was taken by Aisha Khann, a 20-year-old nursing student, on the hour and a half train ride home to Peterborough from college in London. The clip almost looks like it could have been staged, the exact train mix of overtired rambunctiousness and spaced-out meditation, but she told me it wasn’t. I asked if the sequence was trimmed from dozens of other minutes she’d filmed that same evening and she said no, that this was the only video she took during the whole ride.

Knowing that all of it exists by chance, that a scene approximately like this is happening all the time, on this train or another, was very valuable to me and something like a repudiation. While the infrastructure geniuses and pedantic little lunatics who delight in nothing but pulling the cuticles off the last microscopically sacred things in your life tell you trains are miserable, inefficient, the dull fascination of nerds and plebians, here was proof that they are wrong, that something vital and honest is going on in there – someone drinking a beer, thinking probably too long about a conversation they had six years ago.

Calling it therapeutic wouldn’t be quite right, but it is often a delivery to some low-grade catharsis.

If you type “cab view” or some slight variation into YouTube there are hundreds of suggested videos of trains riding their routes all over the world. Northern Japan through landscapes that look like the Windows XP wallpaper, framed by cherry blossoms. On the 7 train in Manhattan weaving around the newest glimmering monstrosity in some commercial real estate conglomerate’s portfolio as the conductor shouts over failing intercom speakers NEXT STOP THURDY FAWTH STREET. People on cross-country Amtraks, drinking room temperature bottles of Vitamin Water and staring at the crispy looking orange grass on the New Mexico horizon. Freight trains in Norway gliding through the night past frozen lakes. These accounts are incredibly popular.

I think partly it is the hypnotic screensaver effect of looking out the window of a moving vehicle, something ASMR-adjacent; partly the allure of trains as both engineering marvels and design curiosities. But I believe the heart of it is that watching them, both subways and long-distance railways, roughly simulates the distinct sensation of being on them. The way every train idea feels somehow both half-baked and revelatory, a moment with your headphones on where you are both the protagonist of all the known universe but also totally anonymous. On the verge of some crucial personal discovery, all of it muffled by the screech of iron, the surprising acceleration from stops and tug around curves, a horde of teenagers piling on shouting and play-hitting each other, smelling like too much cologne and talking exactly loud enough to make everyone an audience for their jokes. The moments on the express train whipping past platforms, past people waiting and clueless and a little disappointed, this train isn’t for you man this is my train.

Calling it therapeutic wouldn’t be quite right, but it is often a delivery to some low-grade catharsis, a brief departure as the rest of your days are otherwise chewed between the molars of the pedantic lunatics and the grotesque institutions that have allowed them to make a career out of behaving the way they do. Trains are a faint and dependable rhythm that fills empty spaces; what you do there is your choice.

In 2006, the London electronic musician Burial released his self-titled debut album. On it was a song called “Night Bus.” The song has no lyrics, only steady rain and what sounds like far-away sirens and slowed down, distorted horns from cars or trains. The song is dreamlike if slightly paranoid in moments. Describing his music in an interview some years after, Burial said, “It's about being on a night bus, or with your mates, walking home across your city on your own late at night, or being in a situation with your girlfriend or boyfriend, or coming back from a club, or putting tunes on and falling asleep.”

In the summer of 2010 the message board Hipinion, inspired by the Burial song, conceived of “Night Bus” as its own genre of music, floating ambient stuff and brooding hip-hop instrumentals, songs that had the same emotional temperature as riding a bus alone. Then quickly Night Bus came to represent any time or place that felt this way, buses or late nights walking, the backs of cabs. “Night Bus” was a spiritual zone with hard to define boundaries but unmistakable when you’re in it — tired but restless, contemplative but not feeling the crunch of regret either, hair messed and restyled with its own sweat into a hilarious new shape. Adrift but not aching for arrival. It was about the semi-boredom of travel but more broadly about when, via exhaustion or hunger or some calamitous romantic event or the approaching tidal wave of a hangover, you have been delivered to a place of vulnerability and raw desire previously inaccessible to the wound-tight conscious mind. Doing the shelf-life math on the leftovers waiting in the fridge, in your 20s when your identity is six different ill-conceived personas and a sewer of overdraft fees and romantic misadventures, trying to figure out an exit from all of it and feeling for a moment like if you squint you can make out the shape of a door.

One night during the summer when I was 25 my train broke down about 200 feet after leaving the Woodlawn Metro North station in the Bronx. We waited on the tracks for half an hour sitting in the car, then they decided nothing could be done, this was a Defeated Train, and they told us to get off and walk back to the platform we came from and wait for a rescue train. All of us emptied out, there in the street lights walking across the stones and the grass with our bags, everyone sharing this micro crisis, the jolt of excitement, like a fire alarm going off in high school and everyone making their way out to the football field, everyone fucking around for a minute and no one really being able to reprimand you.

Night Bus could be a Hall and Oates song playing over the Walgreens intercom while you carefully deliberate between frozen pizzas, it could be August, The Month. It also very frequently could be a train home, across a city or a country, just like the one Khann was on and that you have been on, pressing your face to the cold window panes, letting your vision blur until the telephone wires become a bouncing EKG wave and it’s starting to get dark, all of it infinitely recycling, car after car, everyone together but not really.