Train In Vain

I grew up on Long Island, and lived there the better part of my life. In order to come into Manhattan, either to work or to get more cultural stimulation than was to be found at the shopping mall multiplex, I had to take the Long Island Railroad. My family home was only a mile or so from the track, and if weather conditions were just right I could hear the wail of its horn (LIRR trains don’t really have whistles) and its rumble as it barreled along the tracks. My every action was dictated by the train schedule I had to live by. Day after day, day after year, I braved crowds of surly commuters and drunken sports fans in order to do anything other than vegetate at home. I spent a significant fraction of my lifespan – possibly months, when it’s all tallied up – standing on platforms, cursing the ineptitude of the MTA as trains were consistently announced as late, waiting for trains that never seemed to come. Every moment of this felt like a defeat, a failure – for has any artist ever composed their masterpiece while dealing with the miseries of the Huntington line? When I finally moved into the city proper, my chiefest source of delight was the thought that I’d never have to deal with the LIRR again.

This past weekend, I played the lead in a low-budget short film. I don’t normally play leading roles, and was delighted to have this opportunity, no matter how modest the circumstances. And the production was indeed modest – a skeleton crew filming in the director’s Kew Gardens apartment. This is by no means unheard of – New York is filled with resourceful aspiring filmmakers, putting their projects together on borrowed time with borrowed equipment, turning their homes into makeshift studios in order to cut down on costs. And the director’s apartment was ideal – spacious, with enough variety in its rooms and layout for us to get all of the shots we’d need.

The one drawback? The apartment building was right next to the Kew Gardens LIRR station, directly overlooking the train tracks.

We began shooting the first scene on the day, featuring my longest monologue. I found a good groove with it, felt my performance working – then heard the cry of “hold, please.” Followed immediately by the sound of a commuter train barreling along, rattling the walls and spoiling any audio being recorded at that moment. And then another commuter train pulling into the station, squealing to a halt, and then barreling along. And on and on it went – we shot on Friday and Saturday, and at the height of Friday rush hour we could just manage a thirty second take between the roaring, howling, hateful trains.

After all this time, the Long Island Railroad trains were still dictating my life, still thwarting me, still frustrating my hopes and aspirations. Would I never be rid of them? Were they to be a permanent, metallic, smelly albatross about my neck? I seethed in frustration – but did not let it throw my focus. I’d spent many long years dealing with these trains – I could practically guess their routes by the different sounds they made – and all the mental discipline I’d acquired along the way was brought to bear at this moment. I kept the scenes going, kept up the rapport with my fellow performers, kept getting my director usable footage to work with. And ultimately, we managed to complete the film without hassle, in less time than we’d scheduled. (I’d say “on time and under budget,” but that implies that we had a budget.)

So the answer to my question – could any artist produce a masterpiece while dealing with the miseries of the Huntington line? – may well be answered in a few months. It’s all up to post-production now.

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