The Universal Notebook: Backward(s) to Boston

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Is it “backward” or “backwards?”

“Backward” is the adjective, but both “backwards” and “backward” can be adverbs. Americans prefer “backward.” The British prefer “backwards.” So I guess I rode backward all the way to Boston last month.

Between 1972 and 1974 I drove my pulsating, Saturn-yellow Volkswagen Beetle to Boston and back one day a week while simultaneously working at Portland Public Library and pursuing a graduate degree at Simmons College.

Boston is a confusing, colonial city designed for horses. No one enjoys driving there. So, in need of doing some research at the Boston Public Library in August, I resolved instead to ride Amtrak’s Downeaster the 145 miles from Brunswick to Boston.

Arriving sleepy (or is it sleepily?) at the sleepy train station at 7 a.m., I joined a score of other passengers, boarded the train and took a seat. We were crawling through backyard Brunswick before I realized that half the seats on the car faced forward (forwards?) and half backward (backwards?). I was sitting backward.

You don’t see the best side of a city from a train. Rolling along backward (and slightly nauseous because of it), I watched familiar places pass from a strange new vantage – Nordica Theater, L.L. Bean’s Desert Road distribution center, Hewitt’s Body Shop, my old house in Yarmouth. But mostly what you see from the Downeaster, whether seated forward or backward, is a green blur of trees and leafy backyards littered with all the stuff we once thought we needed and didn’t.

As we pulled into Portland, the train reversed direction on a siding and apparently backed into the station. For a brief, shining moment I thought I might face forward the rest of the way, but, alas, no. Despite the fact that the conductor had tucked my seat check into the overhead luggage rack, I could probably have just changed seats, but, being a stubborn and contrary individual, I chose to ride it out – backward to Boston.

The Downeaster provides a front-row seat for graffiti-covered bridge abutments and battered buildings all the way from Brunswick to Bean Town. The rail route is a landscape designed for vagrants, varmints and vandals. From what was once Portland’s hobo jungle (and is now the fortress-like Cumberland County Jail) we rolled through Old Orchard Beach, Wells, Dover, Durham, Exeter, Haverhill and Woburn, the scenery becoming more urban and distressed as we went.

The high-backed seats isolate a train rider such that few fellow passengers are visible, which is just as well, since most are plugged into tablets, laptops and smartphones, working and wasting time electronically. No one talks – except for the old folks seated just behind me on either side of the aisle.

Alone and unplugged, I could not help overhearing a lively conversation that established that a group of widowed friends and a couple from central Maine were headed to Boston on cultural and medical errands. There was chitchat about how Boston hospitals were superior to Maine hospitals and where everyone was from and how they had come to know one another, but I didn’t really start to pay attention until my fellow passengers started talking politics.

The two points that these Second District fellow travelers made repeatedly were that “young people today” were lazy and didn’t know what was going on in the country and that they could never again vote for Sen. Susan Collins because she had voted against the repeal of Obamacare.

“She doesn’t care about Maine people,” said one eldress. “She just wants to be governor.”

Ladies, Susan Collins voted against repeal because it would have disproportionately hurt older rural Mainers, meaning you. If anyone doesn’t know what’s going on in this country it’s you, you old fools.

That’s what I wanted to say, but I kept my big mouth shut. Good thing I did.

As we were rocking and rolling into North Station, the traffic overhead on I-93’s Bunker Hill Bridge bumper-to-bumper and barely moving, I asked an Amtrak employee where to get the Green Line to Copley Square. The couple behind me immediately offered to help.

“It’s out the door and across the street, but you can just follow us,” said Mrs. Central Maine. “We’re going that way, too.”

And so, with misguided but well-meaning Mainers as my guides, I made my way from North Station to the T. The nice couple waited until I got on the right subway car before heading off on a mission of their own.

I am often guilty of demonizing those with whom I disagree. I really shouldn’t do that. I tend to dislike people in the collective anonymous abstract, though not in the particular person.

Though it is hard for me to admit, not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is backward (or is it backwards?).

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.