One temperate, late-summer August evening, I began my journey home to Philadelphia from the rural stronghold of “Pennsyltucky.” I had taken a three-day respite from my newfound life as an urbanite – as one of those PBR-drinking, city-dwelling, quarter-life-crisis Millennials I’d read about, but until halfway through my freshman year of being homesick, failed to realize I had become. I’d retreated to my hometown in search of a distraction and a much-needed pick-me-up: the familiar smell of manure in the air and the nostalgia of seeing backwoods goons with no future in sight (think: “People of Wal-Mart”) gave me a sense of, well, comfort.
But my hometown hadn’t always felt so comforting, and after three days on my mini-vacay, I’d remembered why.
Through adolescence, rural life had become the husband I’d long ago lost my spark with, and the prospect of city life eventually manifested as the charming, sultry mistress I imagined pushing me against a wall and offering me a new life of fireworks and adventure. It was new. It was exciting. Best of all, it wasn’t small-town Pennsylvania. Still, by the time my freshman year had ended and my lips had become worn from the insatiable appetite of my new urban playground, I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure when – or why — those flames of lust had been blown from my eyes, but they had, and I was hardly sure I wanted them reignited at all.
The fireworks had run out, and I was now thrown into a frightening position of returning to my boring old husband or continuing with my overwhelming, needy chatelaine.
Boarding my Amtrak Keystone train in Harrisburg that night, one thing remained abundantly clear: I had retained my case of the Millennial blues.
There I sat, tapping my foot anxiously and waiting to hear the toot of the horn and procurement of tickets by the conductor. “Tickets!” he would scream as he came through the aisle, looking up as if his passengers were perched atop the train and not sitting patiently just beneath him.
I was already facing an identity crisis, and the grating sound of his voice only exacerbated my foul mood. My solution — as is the solution for any young man eager to silence the world — was to reach for my headphones in the overloaded backpack I had earlier tossed onto the seat cushion next to me. (I know, shame on me – “Save the seat or buy the seat,” blah, blah, blah.) But to my dismay – to my horror, even – I had forgotten my headphones, leaving me moodier than ever and forced alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the dozen or so other passengers who, through the nature of the blue ticket-spitting machine in the lobby of the train station, I was also stuck with.
Grappling with my exaggerated 19-year-old existential crisis and trying to find peace with the pseudo-purgatory that was my train ride, I was startled when the lights above me began to flash and flicker, eventually settling into a dim glow and putting the brakes on my racing thoughts. I spent a fraction of a second being worried, until I found contentment with the idea of finally being able to rest better in the darkness.
Sadly, that slice of optimism was squashed as the train came to an abrupt stop and began to lean leftward with a surreal sensation of being tipped over, eliciting that ominous feeling of approaching a sharp sideways turn on a roller coaster, but coming to a stop before any stomach-churning could commence.
Instinctively, I assumed the worst: This was it.
Just as my melodrama rose into consciousness, I noticed I was not alone in my soap-opera-inspired reaction. The cabin, on this particular trip, was relatively bare. My co-passengers, seated just far apart from one another to make socializing a bit of a hassle, all appeared to be fellow urbanites, with the majority also looking to be Millennials close to my age. Examining the facial expressions of those within sight, I could clearly see the shapes of stupefied question marks floating above their heads like cloud bubbles drawn into corny newspaper comics.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only neurotic, Millennial urbanite who had boarded the train on this summer night.
Swept away with panic, they began to bond like cattle stuck in the same cage, waiting to be picked off one by one. Perhaps it was the hopelessness of the room as a result of our valiant conductor’s oh-so-reassuring declaration that staff members were working to “fix the solution,” or perhaps it was the three continuous hours of sitting in darkness inside a tipping train car.
I may never know.
Nonetheless, I quietly observed as three impatient New Yorkers bonded over their love of Central Park and disdain for some of its inhabitants – “Ugh, I can’t stand those hordes of cyclists!”; as two people who had moved to seats closer to mine came to the realization that they were related and lived near each other; and as Temple students behind me, as you might expect, whipped out a 1500 ml bottle of Smirnoff to pass the time. Meanwhile, I kept to myself, but made sure to speak every so often to ensure they’d remember me if one of them happened to survive and write a New York Times best-selling book about the tragedy one day.
But minutes later (albeit, minutes that felt like hours), the train was brought to life once more, as the communal feel of the cabin dissipated with the speed of a light switch. Bizarrely, these same people, who had minutes ago been living in fear and spending valuable moments together, were now made strangers once more by a moving train and now-functional electronics. The collective sound of panic and life-story sharing had been replaced by the sound of music blaring from headphones and by frantic pecking away at keyboards as the social media-savvy tweeted about their alarming experience. Even the vodka bottle – for reasons I’ll never understand — was neatly packed away.
And there I sat, sans laptop or headphones, observing it all.
In a three-hour “flash before my eyes,” the eyebrow-raising dynamics of the train cabin clicked with me: In truth, how different was a train cabin full of Millennials from a sandbox city full of them? Those three hours were more than a could-have-been tragedy; they were a symbol of why urban life is more than just an adulterous fling. It’s a tight-knit relationship built on human capital — built on an experience of closeness and bonding unique to those who share Central Park, Rittenhouse Square or the urban-jungle neighborhoods we Millennials thrive on exploring.
Even if I was a crazy, aberrant country-boy-turned-urbanite, I could take solace in knowing that I wasn’t alone. When my urban Gen Y comrades know to shut off their iPods and laptops, it’s a lifestyle of unity that translates into something far more meaningful and substantial than I could ever capture in a rural life, where distance between people is both literal and figurative. There’s a reason Millennials are excited about moving to cities, and it’s nothing to be blue about.
And suddenly, as my Amtrak train realigned on its tracks, I could feel my life do the same.
Brandon Baker is a junior journalism major and copy editor at The Temple News. Brandon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.