Stealing from the Time Thief  |  Jeff McMahon


Driving a car is just the same as driving a nail or driving a screw. We compress the middle as we press toward some end. Just as the screw compresses wood, the car compresses time, but the effect is not, as it seems like it might be, to save time. Time becomes small and tight until it vanishes. Like the shank of the nail or the thread of the screw, time disappears inside a purpose, but in the case of driving, a mock purpose. We bide whole lives in lost moments while feet leap from gas to brake, going and halting in concert with the screwdriver in front of us and the screwdriver behind. Driving a car is just the same as driving a coffin nail.


Out in the burbs, out in the broken promised land, out where the monotonous houses go mile on mile along monotonous streets out to the prairies, screwdriven lives vanish by the million. Lost go whole years, squeezed between seat and dash, crushed between bumper and bumper, vanished between home and office and vanished again between office and home, left off somewhere on a gray dustscape of sooty banks and weedy wastes, distilled into bitter vapor that hovers brownly above the rush. What did we do during those lost lonely hours?


Even when we get where we're going, we live compressed between the last drive and the next; we spend each moment on credit, borrowing it from some future reckoning with the restless automobile. There is always some next place we must be at some next time, while the car waits with engine tapping like an impatient foot. While the toll taker waits to take the final toll.


Not so on the train. On the train the iron wheels beat time on the iron rails and every moment stretches long like the ribbons of sunlight on those rails. Didn't Einstein prove that time goes slower on a moving train?


On the train we possess no illusion of control. The train goes where it goes and it gets there when it gets there, and no goading foot nor shaking fist nor bellowing mouth can hasten it. It forces us to surrender to uncertainty, which is, when you look it up, the definition of adventure. What tricks of fate brought together for these moments in this singular hurtling car all these faces alive with wishes and flush with dreams? We must wonder. We must let the future arrive of its own accord and experience the present while the city flies past. We may yet become frustrated with waits, with stops, with pauses at switches and crawls past workers on the tracks ahead, but we know a pointlessness underlies these frustrations. We know we must surrender.


So it is that on the train we do rare, impractical things, like reading. If anyone reads anything anymore in America it is these straphangers to success on the El, on the Metra, on the Amtrak, bowed heads over cracked books or folded papers in the elevator hush with the iron wheels beating time against the iron rails. There are the loud talkers with the fascinating lives and the students of humanity with the roving eyes, and then there are those who do not talk and dare not eye, but who wander off into worlds of words. Banishing the sharp fear of every author that nobody wears a book on their knees anymore.


(If you are reading this essay right now you are on the train, even if it is only a metaphoric train. You're going somewhere with someone, and you've bravely ceded control).


When the train arrives and we disembark, we spend our moments like gold coin, deciding what to purchase with each. Those coins have a different cast when no car waits to steal them again, when all that lies on the unmet horizon is another chance encounter with an irregular interval. Even when we try to rush, when we say "I've got a train to catch," we know many silver fish swim in that silver stream. For as the El conductors say to the rush-hour throngs crowding the crowded platforms - "There's another train behind this one."


It's true. There always is.


Driving a car is just the same as driving a screw, only we're the screws getting driven. Taking the train is taking our time, taking it back and making it ours again.