From his perch 20 feet up in the bucket truck, Sean had a view of everything going on in the 30th Street Station parking lot below him. He had just finished changing out the low-voltage transformer in the cobra-head light when he spotted her. At first glance she looked like any other college student that came through the station. Drexel University was right across the street and Penn a couple blocks over, so it wasn't unusual to see kids milling about. What made Sean look closer was the dog she had with her. It wasn't one of those little froufrou dogs that a lot of girls liked to carry around. This girl was walking a dog's dog — a big, scruffy, shaggy mutt.
Sean yelled down to his ground man, Pete.
"Comin' down, Pete. Lunchtime."
Pete's job was to ensure no one walked near the truck as the bucket descended. Sean pushed the joystick control to telescope in and the bucket lurched away from the light pole. He pulled back on the joystick to fold and the bucket lowered down to the truck bed. As Sean stepped out of the bucket, he could hear an Amtrak police officer yelling at the girl.
"You can't bring that dog in the station."
The dog started to growl and bark.
"Can I just run in and use the bathroom?" she asked.
Sean and Pete walked up to them.
"You can tie him up here," Sean pointed to a parking meter, "I'll keep an eye on him."
The girl looked at the officer.
"Alright," he said begrudgingly, "but don't be in there long."
The girl smiled at Sean, tied the leash to the meter, and went into the station. Up close, Sean could tell this was no college student. She had a backpack, but it wasn't a schoolbag. There was a small frying pan hooked on to the strap and a fraying sleeping bag tightly rolled and tied to the bottom of the pack. She was one of those people who you could say truly resembled her dog – skinny legs, matted brown hair and eyes as dark as a pint of Guinness.
"Don't get too close to that dog, Sean, probably has fleas," the officer said. "She probably does, too."
Pete laughed and headed in to have lunch under the station in the electricians' shop. Sean didn't laugh. He felt sorry for the kid; she did look like she could use a shower. He knew that the railroaders' code word for a beautiful woman on the train platform, hot-rail!, would never be called out for this girl.
He lit a cigarette and petted the dog.
She came back in a few minutes, looking a little cleaner, like maybe she had scrubbed her face and neck a bit with some paper towels.
"Nice dog," Sean said. "How old's he?"
"He's three." The dog licked Sean's hand.
"You hungry, fella? You know it's lunchtime, don't ya? What's his name?" he asked?.
Sean and the girl spoke in the instant camaraderie of dog lovers.
"Sal looks like he could use a couple hot dogs. C'mon over to the lunch truck, you look like you could use a few, too."
They walked across the parking lot toward the lunch truck on the corner.
"I'm Sean. What's your name?"
She had learned to size people up very quickly and he didn't seem pervy or creepy like some men. He smiled with his eyes, not his teeth.
"I'm Echo," she said.
"Echo," she said again.
She was about to repeat herself but realized he was teasing her.
"I'm just messing with you. That's a cool name. Is it your real name?"
"It is for now," she said.
They stepped up to the lunch cart and the vendor greeted Sean enthusiastically. "Here he comes, the mayor of 30th Street Station! How are ya, Sean? Workin' hard?"
"Hardly workin'," Sean answered and they both laughed, the same way they did the last hundred times they'd said this to one another. "Give me some dogs, Harry, I'll take a half dozen. Couple of water bottles, too."
Sean and the girl sat down on the cement wall in front of the station to eat. The girl unhooked the frying pan from her backpack and filled it with water. Sal lapped it up happily.
"Where you headed??" Sean asked?.
"Right now, I'm looking for the freight yard; after that, who knows."
"The freight yard's down there two blocks," Sean pointed, "but it's no place for a girl. Some sketchy characters down there."
"I can handle myself. Came all the way across from Cali, me and Sal."
"Cali, as in California?" he asked. She nodded yes. As a father, Sean was horrified, but as someone who had himself felt the pull of the rails in his younger years, he understood.
"Are you catching out today?" he asked.
"No, I'm gonna meet up with some friends in the freight yard and stay in their squat tonight. Might catch out tomorrow."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Haven't decided yet," she said and Sean wondered if maybe that wasn't the most fearless thing he'd ever heard.
A passing taxi driver beeped his horn and yelled "Yo, Sean!" out the window. Sean waved back.
"You get along with your parents?" he asked?.
"Pretty much, yeah."
"You runnin' away from someone?"
"No, it's not like that. It's ... I guess it's Kerouac's fault."
"Is that your boyfriend?" Sean asked and she shook her head and giggled.
A van full of workers from the Amtrak track gang stopped at the light. They called out to him from the open windows.
"Big Sean!" and "What's up, Sean!" and "Yo, brother," and he stood up and pointed at them, smiling, like a politician from the stage of a rally. After the light changed, he sat next to her again.
"Did you finish high school?"
"Yes," she laughed. "I finished high school. Last year." She fed the rest of her hot dog to Sal. "You're not, like, an undercover, are you? Cause Sal usually can sniff out a cop, but he likes you."
"Nah, I'm not a cop. I'm just curious about kids like you, hobo kids."
She kicked dirt off of her worn Doc Martins. "We prefer traveler."
"OK, sorry, traveler. You want a soda?" She shook her head no, but he came back from the cart with two Cokes and handed her one.
Three women in Amtrak janitor uniforms walked past.
"Hi, Sean," they greeted him cheerfully.
The girl laughed. "Are you really the mayor of 30th Street Station? Seems like maybe you are."
"Nah," Sean said, which was the first untrue thing he had said to her. He ran the place. If Sean didn't like a labor contract, it was voted down. If a scab outfit showed up to do work in the station, Sean made sure they were booted off the property. If an argument was about to come to blows, Sean could diffuse it. "I've just been here a long time. How long you plan on freight hoppin'?"
"Until I'm not dying to see what's around the next curve. Do you know that feeling?"
Sean hesitated. "I used to," he said quietly. He never wanted to be anyone's buzzkill, especially an adventurous kid like her. He didn't tell her he had already seen what's around the next curve. "Just be careful. Stay off the loaded flat cars, OK? That load can shift and crush you."
"I know," she said.
"Oh, and never, ever, crawl under a train in the freight yard. It can move suddenly and take your leg ... "
"I know," she laughed, "and never hop a moving train, I know."
"OK," he said.
He finished his soda and tossed it into the trash. Pete, his ground man, walked toward him.
"Pete," Sean said, "meet Echo."
"What?" Pete asked, tilting his head and bending his ear with his hand.
Echo feigned indignation at the joke. "You guys are all the same!" she said, and for that, she was thankful.
"Alright, time to go back to work," Sean said. He put his hand out to shake her hers. "It was nice to meet you, Echo. Be careful out there, there's a lotta knuckleheads in this world."
"I'll be OK," she said confidently, "I believe you meet the people you're supposed to."
Sean petted Sal's head one last time and walked across the lot to the truck. Pete drove it to the next light-pole transformer and Sean climbed into the bucket. He pressed the joystick to lift and, as he rose two stories high, he could see her and Sal walking down the block toward the freight yard. He realized he wanted to tell her one more important thing, to beware of the coupler that connected the train cars, that you could get pinned between them, but she was too far to hear him, even if he shouted.
The following day was a Saturday, normally Sean's day off, but a film crew was scheduled to shoot in the station and they needed a temporary electrical panel setup.
"Is it for one of those weather girls?" he had asked his foreman. "I'll turn down the OT if it's for one of those prima donnas." In Sean's experience, the world's most rude women were local TV weather reporters. "They're more demanding than the Secret Service with a VIP."
"No, they're shooting some PBS documentary," the foreman looked at his paperwork. "It's called The Art of America's Train Stations."
"OK, I'm in," Sean said.
He pulled into the employee lot at 6 a.m. and walked down the sidewalk to the station entrance. There was a bus idling at the curb and he saw a group of women waiting to board. The younger ones were dressed like they were going to a nightclub; the older ones looked like they were going to church. It was the Prison Society bus, Sean realized, that took the girlfriends and wives and mothers of the incarcerated out to the state prison on the first Saturday of the month.
He scanned the crowd for her face, but she saw him first.
"Good morning, Sean," she called out and left her place in the bus line to greet him.
"Good to see you, Miss Esther," he said and let out an admiring whistle, "nice hat." She was wearing one of those hats with netting around it, the kind you see in thrift shops or old movies.
Miss Esther had been riding the prison bus as long as Sean had been on the railroad, 30 years now. Her son must have killed someone, Sean figured, he must be a lifer, but he had never asked her. She had told him once that "My boy is doing a long stretch," and Sean left it at that.
"How are all your kids, Sean?"
"They're big and bad, Miss Esther, just like their dad," and they both laughed.
The last of the women had boarded the bus and the driver beeped the horn. Sean walked her to the bus and gave her a boost up the high first step.
"Bye, baby," she said, squeezing his hand. "You stay safe."
He watched from the sidewalk as she slowly made her way down the aisle to a seat. She was one of the few people he had ever truly opened up to about the incident – not the Amtrak-appointed psychiatrist, not his foreman, not even his wife. One Saturday, not long after it had happened, when Miss Esther was about the same age he was now, she had sat with him on the bench by the bus stop. Sean could tell she understood he was doing a long stretch, too.
By the time Sean was 28, he had 10 years on the railroad. His father had gotten him in right out of high-school, as had his father before that. He did a few years in the track gang, repairing and replacing rails and ties, before there was an opening for a trainee engineer. Aside from the births of his four kids, the proudest accomplishment of his life was driving that train. The first day he climbed into the engine cab, he was home.
He started out serving his time on the Keystone line, Philadelphia to Harrisburg, one of the shorter routes. After two years he had moved up to the Northeast Regional and had driven it from D.C. to Boston. Soon, he thought, he would get the opportunity to drive the train of his dreams, The City of New Orleans – Chicago to the Big Easy. If someone had asked him what the appeal of that particular rail line was, he would have said it was Arlo Guthrie's fault, but he never got the opportunity.
His last night as an engineer was the New Year's Eve just before his 29th birthday. That evening he had walked through the station a little less confident than usual. Maybe, he thought, he was just anxious to get home to his wife and their newest baby. He passed the departure board that hung in the middle of the station's main concourse, one of the older boards that still made the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled with each departure.
As one of the younger engineers, he had drawn the short straw with this shift. Nobody wanted it. New Year's Eve was the biggest suicide night on the railroad and Sean knew the odds. Most engineers, in the span of their careers, got three DBTs – death by train. He hadn't had his first.
As he accelerated out of Philadelphia he noticed his hand on the throttle felt sweaty and he wiped it on his Carhartt. The conductor radioed up to him.
"Sean, we got a bunch of rowdies in the café car. They look too drunk to make it to Times Square."
"Let me know," Sean radioed back. "I'll put them off at the next stop. Give Trenton Station police a heads-up they're coming."
The conductor might have replied, but Sean never heard it.
The beam from the front of the train caught the woman a quarter mile up the track. He frantically pressed and pressed the button for the horn. He applied the emergency brakes, but knew it would take a half mile to stop.
"Jesus Christ," he whispered.
The investigation stated she was struck seven seconds later, but in the thousands of times he replayed the scene, it was never that quick. He remembered being locked in a staring match with his suicide, and some nights it went on for hours.
Other engineers told him it was easier to hit a suicide than a kid who was playing on the tracks or someone whose car had gotten stuck. "Give it some time, Sean," they said, "you'll be back," but he never climbed into an engine cab again. Not long after, Sean bid out for an electrician apprentice position.
The documentary film crew was setting up for their shoot in the station's main concourse. Sean and Pete rolled the temporary electrical panel across the marble floor. "Where do you want to set up?" Sean asked the director.
"We want to focus on this sculpture," he replied, and pointed at the four-story high bronze statue of an angel holding up a fallen railroader. "It's spectacular."
"It's called The Angel of the Resurrection," Sean said proudly, as if he owned it.
The film crew positioned their cameras, lights and extension cords and Sean plugged the lines into the panel.
"Alright," the director said, "give me some power." A small crowd of commuters and station employees had gathered around, like a family on the front lawn waiting for dad to flip the switch on the Christmas light display. Sean fired it up and the crowd applauded as the massive figures in the sculpture, the angel and the fallen railroader, seemed to come alive in the light.
Later that year, Sean and his wife headed south for a long weekend. Taking advantage of the free travel perk, they traveled in true busman's-holiday style – by train. They took the Silver Meteor out of Philadelphia and headed to Savannah. Luckily, or maybe because the conductor knew Sean was the mayor of 30th Street Station, they were able to get upgraded to a room in the sleeping car. They were delighted with the accommodations – a private bathroom, a sofa that converted to a double bed, and a picture window to enjoy the view.
A few miles out of Savannah, Sean felt the train pull on to a side track. He knew that in the South, passenger trains had to give way to freight. He took the opportunity to close his eyes for a few minutes, but his wife touched him on the arm.
"Look, Sean, look at that dog!"
Sean looked out the picture window. The freight train was moving slowly as it passed the Silver Meteor, doing about 15 miles per hour, he estimated. Just in front of him, sitting in an open CSX boxcar, were two familiar figures. Echo sat cross-legged on the floor, with her arm around Sal's neck and her head tilted back to the sun.
"I know that kid!" he said and banged on the window and waved his arms but she did not see him. He watched as her train kept moving, headed South, hopefully, he thought, all the way to New Orleans.
Judge's Comments: Loved the Philly detail and the emotional punch. —Duane Swierczynski