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Train Connections

As a child, there was nothing more I loved than trains and looked forward to the major holidays of Thanksgiving and New Year, which entailed taking the Korea Train eXpress to my grandparents. When my family immigrated to America in 1989, I was so happy to be able to live in the city with the best train system in the world; I was enthralled by Chicago’s railroad system, Chicago Union Station, and the Chicago “L” system.

Shortly after moving to Chicago, my father opened a convenience store in the South Side neighbourhood of Bronzeville, and I was more than happy to help out whenever I could, so long as I could take the trains there. Getting on the Green Line after the Blue Line was magical, with the “L” trains seemingly slicing through the sky with my stop at 43rd arriving too early. Getting off at 47th would have been faster, but I enjoyed cutting through Buckthorn Park to play. All of these detours went without incident except for one particular Sunday.

That early November Sunday morning was magnificently clear, and I was in my usual spot at the very front of the nearly empty train, following the track path with a Lionel toy train in my hand, making sound effects and all. I disembarked at 43rd Station and was stopped short by a blast of cold air as I quickly descended the stairs, my toy train still held aloft. When I got to the park, I stood by the slide and let my train roll down it several times before taking a seat on the swings. Since leaving my house, I was engrossed in a constant dialogue with myself, the contents of which are now lost to me, except to say that I have retained this habit into adulthood. So absorbed by the narrative playing out in my mind, which probably had me acting as the engineer of the train I was intently staring at, I did not notice four kids approaching until they had reached the perimeter of the playground. I looked up at them, briefly stopping my dialogue before resuming my narrative.

“You alone, but who you talking to?” one kid said.

“He be trippin,” another said.

“Fool, we talking to you,” the first one said.

The four black boys began laughing. They were about my age, but the two who had talked to me were a bit bigger.

“You a baby, still playing with toys.”

The smallest kid walked up to me and pointed to my train. “Let me see it.”


“Chill. I ain’t gonna jack it.”

The magic of the day began to dissipate. I handed it over and he started to walk away. When I protested, one of the bigger boys pushed me to the ground and asked what I was going to do about it. I got back up and tried to get my train back, but several of them hit me and when I fell, they started kicking me. The kid who had stolen my train told them to stop and they walked away. Dejectedly, I walked to my father’s store and when I told him what happened, he told me to go find the boy and get my train back or else I would get a beating. I ambled back to an empty park, scanned it, turned around, and walked back toward the “L” train. Before I reached the stop, I spotted the kid who had taken my train down the street, alone, holding my train aloft in his hands swooshing it through the air, and I ran over to him.

“Yo! Give my train back.”

He handed it over. I inspected it.

“I should wup your ass,” I said.

“Like to see you try. Anyways, sorry for the beats.”

“Pssh. My dad wup me harder than you wusses.”

“Mine too. You like trains?”

“More than Nintendo,” I said.

“Come with me,” he said.

“Where to?”

He didn’t say and I followed him to a house and up the front steps. He told me he lived here, and before entering, he said his name was Anthony; I told him I was John. In the living room was one of the bigger boys who had beat me up, watching TV. He looked up and tipped his head in greeting, but I averted my gaze down, and followed Anthony through the hall into the basement. When we reached the bottom, my mouth dropped in amazement. There was a toy train set on elevated rails around a miniature section of a city.

“That’s dope. Green line?” I said.

“Yup. Me and my bro, Chris, built all this ourselves.”

Miniature buildings, trees, and stations along the Green Line lit up when Anthony flipped a switch, and the train came to life. We watched it in silence go round the tracks. Mesmerized, I didn’t catch what Anthony said.


“I said, we want to build Chicago’s old Grand Central Station, and run the tracks with Lionel trains like yours,” he said.

I gasped. “Can I help?”


For every weekend from grades six to eight, I practically lived at Anthony’s, heading over there before and after work, until I told my dad I was too busy to work on the weekends. Slowly, a miniature Chicago around Grand Central Station arose, and we pooled our money to buy tracks, setting our sights on Lionel’s Chicago Cubs Berkshire Steam Set. Before that day arrived, however, I received a letter that informed me I had been accepted to a boarding school in Boston; I would be leaving Chicago in mid-August. It felt like a punch in the stomach.

“You can’t be leaving, man. We ain’t done,” Anthony said.

“You think I wanna go. The school’s a slammer, uniforms, curfews and all. I’ll be back breaks, help y’all,” I said.

“Don’t come back here sporting no Red Sox gear.”

Anthony, Chris, and I were in their basement, just watching the trains circling a prescribed perimeter, mesmerised by the rhythmic cadence of an endless loop until it was time for me to go. Handshake hugs all around, and I was bounding down their front steps, the same ones I so hesitantly climbed up a lifetime ago, oblivious to the fact that the next time I would stand in front of this house would be three years later for Anthony’s funeral. Anthony’s class was going to the Museum of Contemporary Art on a field trip when a truck swerved into their school bus, killing the bus driver and the two students sitting right behind him. After the funeral, Chris and I sat in the basement, watching the unfazed trains of the Green Line run relentlessly. Grand Central Station was complete, but still no Chicago Cubs Berkshire Steam Set trains to run the tracks. After that, despite meaning to drop in, I didn’t see Chris until 2020, my most recent return to Chicago when it erupted.

I immediately called my father and he assured me everything was alright, but late in the evening of May 31, 2020, my mother called me to tell me his store had been looted and destroyed. She was crying, but I could hear my father telling her to stop her histrionics; I told her I would be there as soon as possible. My father came on the line to tell me not to bother, that everything was fine, but I could detect a hint of trepidation in his voice, and I was on the first flight to O’Hare. After ensuring that everything was in order, I called Chris.

“Chris, John here. Long time no see. How’ve you been”

“John. It’s good to hear from you. I’m fine. How’re you doing? I heard about your dad’s business. I’m sorry.”

“I’m good. No, no. It could be a blessing in disguise. My mom has wanted dad to retire forever, and now’s a good time as any. How’re your folks?”

“They’re doing well. I actually ran into your dad about a week ago. He was so happy to see me. The streets are crazy, man.”

“Tell me about it. We should get together. Do you have time tomorrow evening?”

“Remember this train?”

Chris started laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“I beat your ass so Anthony could get that, remember?”

“Fondly. Not the beating.”

“I got something to show you as well. Been waiting for you so we could open it together.”

We went to the basement where a large package awaited.

“Go on, open it,” Chris said.

Inside was a Lionel Chicago Cubs Berkshire Steam Set.

“Ah shit man, Anthony would have loved this,” I said.

We put the trains on the tracks and Chris switched them on. We sat there for hours in silence, just watching the trains circling a prescribed perimeter, mesmerised by the rhythmic cadence of an endless loop circling our Grand Central Station. There was something to the order, predictability, and sense of permanence to the toy trains, unfazed, running relentlessly around the tracks that was soothing and comforting. I felt certain Anthony was there with us that night, as he has always been since his passing.


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