You Run It
You Run It
An Essay by Bridget Weigel
My mother retired from the railroad after 34 years. She drove trains.
“You don’t drive a train, you run it,” she still corrects me time and time again. She was the first female engineer trained by Metro North.
Someone wrote an article in the newspaper about her the year before I was born, 1990. There was a picture of her young, permed, and smiling. I never thought I looked much like her but this is one of the pictures where I can see it. We are round of face, full-cheeked, and eyes ringed with bruise-dark circles no matter how much we sleep. The picture lacks color, but you can tell her hair is black, though she’ll argue it’s dark brown.
After 34 years they feel they owe her something, and they do. They owe her more than they give her. They owe her the holidays and birthdays she missed. They owe her a wrist that doesn’t hurt when it rains. They owe her the year she couldn’t use her shoulder. They owe her a new knee, to replace this busted one—killed by faulty equipment. Instead, they give her a letter, and plaque, and an interview.
They send a young man, an intern, to interview her. He writes for the paper they leave on the train seats once a month. In my house, we call it the propaganda: so many trains have run on time, no incidents to report, have a great Halloween, 5 tips for enjoying your summer commute, etc, etc, ad nauseum. Aren’t they doing great?
He sits down with her and marvels at the idea of 34 years.
“How has the railroad changed?”
“Well, thirty years ago there were 14 female engineers.”
“How many are there now?”
“Fourteen. So I guess we haven’t come that far.” He shifts in his hard plastic seat. The break room in Grand Central Terminal is quiet this early. There is a pause between the two of them that hangs in the air. He wants something from her she is refusing to give, so he asks another question.
“Why don’t more girls do this?”
“Not girls. Women.” And that’s not really what he is asking, is it? She knows it. He is asking why won’t women do it? Why don’t women try? Why can’t women do it? What makes you so special? Why didn’t you stay home with your kids? Were you a good example for your daughter? Why aren’t you like other girls who play with makeup and don’t wear work boots and jeans? It is a trap. It always is.
After she became an engineer someone wrote her name inside an engine, and underneath it: “short, fat, slut.” She took it to HR because that’s what you are supposed to do.
“And what about this do you find offensive?” The rep asked.
My mother snorted, she laughed, and spit back in his face. “Short. I don’t like being called short.”
“I could have gotten a lot of money,” she told me. “They’d get in trouble now for something like that, back then no one cared.”
Short, fat, slut, but at least she was the first one.
When I was in preschool I told a boy that my mother drove trains. I was proud of her. I had Thomas the Tank Engine toys, Mr. Conductor uncles, and a whistle that blew low and deep like a horn on a steam engine. I played engineer because I had not yet developed a concept of what women can’t do. My mother did everything. I could too.
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Yes, she does.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Yes, she does.”
“Girls can’t drive trains.”
I went home and cried because girls couldn’t drive trains. It was the first time I realized there was something wrong with me because I could wear dresses, even though I didn’t want to, and because I couldn’t pee my name in the snow.
We went on a field trip, the kind you do in preschool to show you the world outside a sandbox, water table, and the hermit crab races in the classroom down the hall. We went on a train. We tottered on and watched the Harlem Valley flash by the window. There was the ice cream shop. The old psychiatric center. The tree place along 22. There was the stop where my dad got on to go to New York City, did you know my dad worked in the city? He’s had his own office and ran the air conditioners. It’s the building where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, I never got to stay up late enough to watch it though.
We all stumbled off the train in Pawling and waited on the tiny platform. The door to the engine swung open, a heavy metal door painted red and blue, METRO NORTH. My mother climbed down. Tiny faces watched her in awe, a few recognized her.
She strode over, she probably walked but in my memory she strides over, tall and confident and hugged me. She looked at that little “girls can’t” boy and smiled at him.
“I drive trains.” He did not respond. She continued “Girls can drive trains. Girls can do whatever boys do.”
The train pulled out of the station. She must have pulled some strings for this stunt. This life lesson. Was this her day off? I can’t remember, but it might have been. She took my hand and we walk off to get cookies, the shortbread ones from the bakery across the street. I didn’t realize how important this was, but my mother knew and I know it now.
She, in that moment, taught me that we don’t let people say no. Not because we are girls, not because we are short, or fat, or pretty, or ugly. She did this job that girls can’t do for 34 years because she is not a girl, she is a woman.
I carry that lesson in my body. I stride through a building in my child size boots, taking steps as big as my legs will allow. I am not required to be dainty or demure. Instead, I try to topple every building I’m in, shaking under the weight of my steps.
“You walk like a truck driver,” my mother tells me sometimes.
“Engineer?” I suggest.
The week of her retirement people show up to meet her trains, to say goodbye.
“Your mother taught me how to drive trains,” a few men say looking down at me smiling like I am carrying a doll or playing with blocks, though they are probably only a few years older.
“Run trains.” I correct.
I am there when they give her the plaque and have a Shop Rite cake with her name on it. We take pictures together. I shake big man-hands. They clap me on the back and then leave. I help my mom pack up the decorations, including a sign that says “The Legend has Retired.” She wasn’t a legend when they thought she was bitchy, or bossy, or wouldn’t take the damn train out of the yard because the brake test didn’t go right. Now that she is leaving she is “the Legend.” There are no more Mondays left.
“What is she going to do now that she is retired?” a friend asks me.
“I think she wants to get her private investigator’s license.” This surprises everyone but me.