by Daniel Johnson
The thing about Franklin is that it’s really a railroad town. Back in the nineteenth century, when Horace Mann was first elected to state office, he stretched a corridor of commuter rail thirty miles southwest of Boston, all the way to a station at the border of his (and my) hometown. The Forge Park platform is the first on the outbound Franklin/Purple Line, so named because each silver train car is laterally halved by a strip of regal violet paint. It sits at the base of a cratered parking lot, the platform does, adjacent the Garelick Farms factory with its dairy-white smokestacks and warehouses and steam that billows milky above Franklin's signature jagged pine. Locals call the station The Forge.
Growing up here, I didn’t think much of the Purple Line, or use it at all until my adolescence, when my friends and I occasionally rode it to Sox games so that none of us had to drive and we could pound booze from wadded paper bags. Sometimes it seemed like the town didn’t think much of it, either. No one moved to Franklin for commuting convenience, and most of the people in my neighborhood who worked in the city carpooled together along the Pike. There weren’t even any of the typical trackside shenanigans you’d expect to hear about: no kids who played chicken and lost feet, no fight clubs in the abandoned mill buildings. It was always just sort of there, and in those earlier years I’d more or less forget about it until I had to wait for a train to pass at the Union Street crossing before I could continue on my way to wherever I was going, which was never far. My curfew was unique from those of my friends in that mine placed boundaries on both time and space. I was my parents’ first child.
Some nights, before I had to employ the dull roar of a box fan for sleep-aid in high school, I’d wake up from my early bedtime to the sad, high-pitched bellow of the 11:30pm—the last train home. It called out somewhere past the acres of sleepy homesteads and orange streetlights beyond my bedroom window. It would occasionally invade the strangest of my dreams, the horn would, and disguise itself as other things. I remember one nightmare where it doubled as the song of some predatory and prehistorically large bird that circled above me at the end of my driveway, while I was for some reason on all fours and vomiting in the storm drain there.
It wasn’t until I moved back from college that I started to really notice the rail’s distinct omnipresence. There were always these brown trails of dry earth that kicked up along the downtown tracks and hung squat in the breezeless New England humidity, long after whatever train had gone by. It was only then that I registered the echoes of locomotive churning audible from most central parts of town as a sort of heartbeat that dwarfed the suburban din of little league tournaments, the distorted chimes of ice cream truck jingles, the groans of faraway landscape machinery. I hadn’t before then acknowledged Franklin as the crossroads it really was. The idea of growing up in a place where there was a means of escape—like, a very reliable and regimented means of escape—meant that I wasn’t the prisoner I liked to imagine myself to be.
I worked as a county paperboy for a while after I moved home. I would spend the midnight hours driving around the bones of the town, smoking bowls and drinking RedBull and listening to live Guster albums at inappropriate volumes. I sped a lot, chucked poorly folded County Gazettes onto the dew-laden baronial grasses of all the residential exurbs. It was the type of lonely, purgatorial job I hoped I’d have been beyond by then, but there was a small part of me that enjoyed haunting Franklin's recesses every night. I tended to finish my route anywhere between 4:45-5:15am, and sometimes I’d grab an iced coffee and banana from the Dunkin on 140 and head down to The Forge to watch the 5:07 leave.
Always, a very particular type of older man with elbow patches on his blazer waited in the predawn twilight for that first train out along the yellow platform. Several of them stood beneath the initial chugs of the Garelick Farms steam, which sort of hovered still along the cratered lot’s rim, like smog. I would watch these men keep to themselves, rock on their toes, look to the paling sky, pull out their phones. The blue light from their screens bled into the icy beams from the station awning’s overheads. Their faces were swollen and droopy from having just woken up and I remember it all looked very cold to me, even in the summer.
There were nights, though, when I’d finish my route late and miss the 5:07’s departure out of The Forge. In these cases I’d often catch it en route to Boston at the Union Street crossing on my way home. The railroad bells would knell empty through the yawning thoroughfare of darkened storefronts and townhouses, the warning lights would blink a tired red. Beyond my headlights, the silver and purple streak of that first train would blur on by.
Sometimes I’d be so sleep-deprived or high or some pleasant mixture of both that I’d imagine I could see my reflection in the moving metal, or that I was on that train, dressed all professorially and important like the men at Forge Park, looking to everyone like I had a place to get to and a purpose when I got there. It was like I was in two places at once, in those moments: headed smoothly towards the diamond haze of the city skyline, but still stuck in the driver’s seat of my old Jeep, watching myself go.