My house is located less than a hundred feet from the Main Line, the principal passenger-rail artery out of Philadelphia to the west – Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and ultimately Chicago and points west. Two dozen times a day passenger trains come bucketing by, but they’re barely a murmur through the dense secondary-growth woods between my back fence and the railroad right-of-way.
The loud ones are the night trains, the big heavy freights they route through when all the passenger cars are put to bed. They come through here rumbling like muted thunder in the still dark, long blasts of airhorns falling away like the mournful cries of vast creatures in a rusty ocean. Some people would find the noise intrusive, but I don’t; it comforts me.
My house is full of clock displays that tick off electronically perfect time – computers, cellphones, electric wall and table clocks. But there’s only one clock in the house I really cherish, and comparatively speaking it’s a pain in the butt because it has to be wound every week. It’s an 80-year-old antique, a regulator clock with a pendulum, and while it keeps inexact time by any modern standard it has two overriding virtues: it ticks, and it sounds the hours with mellow brass chimes that no computer speaker will ever emulate quite correctly. I find those sounds comforting, too.
Like many programmers, I do a lot of work and writing while people on more normal schedules are asleep. The night is quiet and aids concentration, but it can get lonely and produce a kind of disassociation, too. In the small hours of morning, when words and symbols on a screen are beginning to seem flat and unreal, the sound of night trains speaks to me of humanity – of vast rivers of commerce and movement, of crowds and built things and bustle, of dreams crafted into hurtling steel, of a world out there vastly larger than myself. I feel more connected to that outside world when I hear it.
Then the steady tick of the regulator clock speaks of small things. It says: this is your place and things are ordered as they should be. The chimes remind me that time passes and after night will come dawn; there will be talk and breakfasts and sun in the windows and little ordinary pleasures.
This is my first house so near a railroad track, but I think I will always prefer that now. And I expect I’ll always keep at least one balky antique clock where I can hear it sound. The well-lived life may be full of large ideas and emotions and struggles to build something that will last, but the little details also matter.