“I don’t get it,” a passerby outside Timoleon’s Restaurant in downtown Keene remarked upon seeing me shooting pictures in a sunny alley intersecting Main Street. “What do you see up there?” I was in Keene for a meeting on campus yesterday, and the man caught me on my way to the bank and other errands afterward. “Up there,” I pointed. “The fire escape is casting slanted shadows on the brick, and above that, there are prayer flags.” The man looked where I’d pointed, looked back at me, and shrugged. “Okay,” he said in a nonchalant tone, then walked away.
Apparently he’d expected something more newsworthy: who in their right mind, after all, stops on their way to the bank to photograph shadows? As much as the anonymous passerby was unimpressed by the sight of sun on brick, I was equally undaunted by his dismissal. As many times as I’ve passed this particular alley, I don’t ever recall these fire-escape shadows looking precisely this crisp and neatly demarcated, and I’ve certainly never noticed the prayer flags. Could it be the sight of thin-sliced shadows slanting just so was all it took to make me look up?
The purpose of prayer flags, of course, it to harness the wind so it will pray without ceasing. For Christians, ceaseless prayer is something encouraged in the Pauline epistles: a meditative act that requires both concentration and devotion. For Tibetan Buddhists, praying without ceasing is as simple as stringing a clothesline. The Himalayas are pummeled by wind, so flags printed with prayers will flap their petitions incessantly, prayer-wheels that spin without need for human hands.
Still, ceaseless prayer, like sun-slanted shadows, is hardly a newsworthy event: that nonplussed passerby was right about that. After I’d finished my errands in Keene and drove back to Newton last night, I’d find something much more in line with what I think he was looking for. After I’d settled in with Reggie, my laptop, and an online quiz I was preparing, J came into the room with a concerned look. “Do you hear that?” he asked, and at first I thought he was referring to a Carolina wren singing loudly in the front yard. “The helicopters are circling: there’s been a crash on the green line.”
Checking online, I saw what the commotion was about: soon, we heard sirens along with the roar of news helicopters. Two MBTA two-car trolleys had collided on the green “D” line not far from the stop J and I take whenever we take the T into town. Soon we both were planted in front of the TV watching live coverage from the helicopters buzzing overhead. Although the trolleys hadn’t collided in our own backyard, the accident was close enough that we could recognize the precise spot of the collision, down the tracks from a local landmark we call Varitek Bridge.
Although J and I don’t take the T on a daily basis, we take it every time we go into Boston to explore or attend sporting events. On our way home from San Francisco on Monday, for instance, we’d taken the T from the airport, thanking our conductor when he let us off at “our” stop: a common courtesy. Had we had tickets to last night’s Celtics game, J and I would have been waiting for an inbound train right around the time the two outbound trolleys collided. From our stop, would we have heard the metallic screech of an impending collision down the line, would we have felt the seismic tremor of impact reverberating through the rails, or would we have stood there, wondering at the delay, while T workers hurriedly arranged shuttle-buses for re-routed traffic?
J and I spent much of last night checking live coverage while going about our other tasks, the normal evening routine of getting the dogs settled, preparing and eating dinner, and switching between the Celtics and Red Sox games on TV being accompanied by the incessant sound of helicopters. Initial reports said one of the trolley conductors was seriously injured and trapped in the wreckage; whenever we switched to the news, we watched firefighters trying to pry and cut their way into the crushed and mangled trolley. Around 10:30, after the major networks had returned to their normally scheduled programs, we could still hear helicopters circling. “If that conductor is seriously injured and it’s taking them this long to get her out,” I started to say, and J completed the thought for me. “It doesn’t look good.”
A few months ago, a green line conductor had yelled at J and me for darting in front of her inbound train on our way to board. “Never run in front of the train,” she scolded as if we were rambunctious teenagers. “If either one of you had slipped, I can’t stop the train quickly.” Duly chastened even though, from our perspective, we’d crossed well before the approaching train, we apologized: she was right. It’s never wise to cross in front of a moving train, and ever since we’ve made a conscious point of stopping before oncoming trolleys, making eye contact with the conductor, and gesturing if we want her or him to hold the train while we cross either in front or behind.
“Do you think it was the woman who yelled at us,” I asked J when we learned that the trapped conductor was female. There was no way, then, of knowing, but that statement “I can’t stop the train quickly” seemed particularly ominous. This morning, we learned that MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds, age 24, was not the 40-something woman who’d scolded us; we also learned that Edmonds was probably already dead by the time J and I had remarked last night that things didn’t look good. Still, this morning both J and I looked at pictures of Edmonds and tried to remember if we’d ever ridden with her–do we remember ever thanking her–on the countless times we’ve relied upon the T to get us from here to there.
Past midnight, after both we and the circling helicopters had turned in for the night, I stated the obvious to J: “We could have been on that train.” Although the accident occurred past our stop, it could have occurred anywhere, and although we don’t recall ever riding with the conductor who was killed, it could have been anyone. Last night, presumably inspired by those ceaselessly circling helicopters, I dreamed J and I saw paramedics running down our street with bandaged bodies on stretchers even though most of the crash victims left both trains under their own power, some even walking themselves to a nearby hospital.
Life is short, and even your next moment isn’t guaranteed. Last night as we switched between the Celtics and Red Sox games on TV, the sound of helicopters buzzing incessantly overhead reminded me again and again to pray for everyone on those trains, for the firefighters trying to help them, and for all the fragile, imminently mortal passersby with whom I share this planet. Life is short, and even your next moment isn’t guaranteed. Never cross in front of trains, always thank your conductor, and never pass up an opportunity to pray.