J. Alex Lang

North Bessemer Afternoon

North Bessemer Afternoon

Dec. 10, 2011

I am feeling a bit conflicted lately. With two kids, a busy job, chores around the house, and aspirations of freelance independence, I have led myself to believe that every hour has to count. Over the years, this urge to matter – to mean something – has serveed me well in some ways: My photos are well-organized, I’ve had lots publishedm wrote some articles, and have a great time taking photographs for Norfolk Southern.  But all of this seriousness has led me to an interesting conlcution. Always pressing myself to “ship” (using Seth Godin’s language to “produce”), has taken my Fun and replaced it with Work at a time in my life where Work is plentiful and Fun is scarce.  So rare that I’m writing about it, which is most unusual for me.

So, with this notion – this realization that I’ve driven the Fun out of it, I’ve decided to drive to a spot where I can sit in the car and think, with only a small hope of seeing an actual train.  A long cut of hoppers sits silently awaiting an eventual pick-up, and a cool breeze blows through my car, where I listen to passing trucks and hope to hear the distant rumbling of an approaching train.

I recently realized that I haven’t been trackside in about two months – a duration that is ever more common for me since I took this new position last January.  Good for my career, I’m certain – but I still haven’t tallied the impact it will have taken on my soul.

In October, I spent a week with friends – nearly all of my best railfan friends, all together in one place.  Exploring new locales, new equipment, new paint schemes. And yet, I think four days passed before I could allow myself to simply enjoy it.  I silently bemoaned my friends’ serious attitudes regarding “getting the shot”, yet I was equally intent on my own goals.  In hindsight, i justified this inequity via the notion that I was scratching some deeper emotional itch than they were.

Two months later I realize that may have been true.  Any spare moment I had, I would consider whether or not I should continue to Work on trains: uploading photos, starting a website, writing an article. “Would I go take photos?” No, it seemed – I wouldn’t go unless it was a “sure thing” that I’d bring home results.

In this digital age, it is so much easier to ensure that your time won’t be wasted, like shooting fish in a barrel.  A “heads up” about a train here, a text message there, and off I go – a brief detour away, a quick return to life as it was before that train passed through town.

In all this, I apparently lost the ability to enjoy being idle. So many years of sitting trackside with a good friend, waiting for the next train, dreaming of the future, and enjoying the moment.  As it was then, and still now, it isn’t always about the train itself – it’s the idea of the train. This intrigue about what’s happening – out there – in this vast expanse of a country.  The beckoning beam of a clear signal, implying the eventual arrival of some – any – train… the crackling of the scanner reveals a distant crew’s radio transmission, vaguely sounding like it could be approaching your location.  The distant echo of a – “wait, was that a horn?” Ah yes, it is (we think)… Intently listening for the throbbing of the prime mover, the whine of dynamic brakes, the squealing of long intermodal flatcars and autorack cars.  All of this potential activity is what I find exciting. Imaging these same trains, leaving their home terminals in North Jersey or Chicago or Binghamton or Harrisburg… anywhere, really.

The unknown left room for undefined future possibilities.