• Daniel Pryfogle

This Train

Twelve years ago my daughter Savannah and I boarded a train. There was barely any room. Every seat was taken. So we stood by the doors where strangers squeezed together.


The stiffness of solitary protection, customary in public space, loosened into connection. As the train eased forward, hands held the bars for stability but out of courtesy. Were one to lose his balance, the crowd would hold him up without complaint.

© istock.com/fona2

This was no ordinary train ride. I looked at a fellow passenger a few feet away, holding my glance, hoping we would recognize each other. And we did. We exchanged smiles. Savannah and I, dressed like everyone for the sub-freezing day, felt the warmth circulating through the car while the hubbub of conversation, variations on a common theme, propelled us underground to our destination.


The escalator was broken, but the press of humanity was kind. Consideration prevailed in single file. We, hundreds of young and old of multiple races and ethnicities, climbed from the subway platform slowly, lifted by anticipation of what we would see at street level.


It took several blocks, a detour, and then converging avenues for the magnitude of the scene to come into view: From every direction streams of people, estimated later at 1.8 million, flowed into a great river, a testament of flesh to match the grand scale of our common city. By 11 o'clock that morning, a half million people had journeyed on the Metro.


Tracks for the train; streams to the river: the metaphors have always moved America. On January 20, 2009, we came to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama. Something new pulled into the station that day. Something more broke into the regular timetable. Another way for the nation, another route for the world. We felt a current deeper than disconnection. It swept us up, carrying us into an experience that was no less real for its passing.


Twelve years later Americans stagger with uncertainty. We reel with fear, doubting that structures and people can hold us steady. Anger, it seems, is our only surety.


A mob came to this conclusion and stormed the Capitol. Once inside, some individuals looked around in bewilderment. Ironically, we who watched the videotaped scenes stumbled into a shared experience: All of us are dazed and confused.


Where do we go from here? What's the route out of our multiple pandemics? It's nearly impossible to imagine a way forward because the stories we have been telling about ourselves and each other are critical but not generative. And so, to paraphrase the band U2, we're stuck in a moment and we can't get out of it.

Yet the train will come again, and “right on time,” as the black church tradition testifies. How can it be? Short transports and fragmentary connections throughout history buoy the hope despite delay. Tracks have been laid. Public infrastructure still carries this other experience.


And enough of us remember. Indeed, enough of us may yet recollect. For we know, and we may still trust, that movement which is no less real for being unobserved, underestimated, and underground.


Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara.