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Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tri-Rail

The station is about two miles from where I live, which takes only a few minutes on my 9-year-old, steel-framed road bike. I'm a bit of a cycling freak, so packing a couple of panniers with work clothes and the morning paper next to an air pump, several tubes, and enough tools to make minor repairs is about as normal to me as brushing my teeth.

Same railcar, same door, same place every morning. A few straps of Velcro and my machine is secure for the trip. Since the train is making only its second stop after its origin in Mangonia Park, it's usually not too difficult to find a seat. (Just two stops later, it's another story. At the Boynton Beach station, the train is often full.) As the train pulls away, a few folks will be wrestling their bags into place for the trip down to the airport. The rest are a mix as varied as South Florida: Latino and African-American workers on their way to blue-collar and service jobs, Haitian women dressed in colorful dresses and speaking Creole, a few stiff office types of various hues tapping away at their laptops, the obligatory frightened retired white couple on their way to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, taking their first Tri-Rail trip and wondering what they've gotten themselves into.

And the life of the ride, a chatty group of RTA employees. While the rest of us bury our noses in the morning paper or dog-eared novels or simply stare into space the way you do when you want to avoid eye contact, the usual clatch of chummy Tri-Rail office workers laugh and gab to their destination, the railway headquarters at the Pompano Beach stop, which the P611 train conductor always announces with an exaggerated "Pom-PIN-NOOO Beach! Watch your step! Check your belongings! Pom-PIN-NOOOO!"

On the way, the "train to nowhere," as it's often been derisively called, takes riders through a South Florida landscape that doesn't make the travel brochures. The rail corridor cuts through industrial parks and warehouse farms. If you look out the west-facing windows, you get glimpses inside the back bay doors of machine shops and other manufacturing plants. It's an ugly if honest view of South Florida's harder industries, where no business would waste the money to put up a pretty façade to face a railway.

Equipment yards go by, parking lots, bridges, canals, lots piled up with gravel and sand and other building materials, and easements overgrown with vegetation, some hiding squalid tent camps.

A small state prison facility goes by just south of the Cypress Creek station. It's a work release facility, the Pompano Transit Center, home to a little more than a hundred men considered low-risk prisoners. Their exercise yard, ringed by high chainlink fencing, abuts the tracks. On mornings when it isn't raining, a couple of dozen men mill around on a volleyball court or sit on benches. Sometimes they wave.

The buildings and storage tanks and apartment buildings and office parks are punctuated by streets filled with lines of vehicles waiting at crossing gates as well as the occasional thwap as a passing train goes by in the opposite direction and the shock of air pressure smacks the windows. It always startles a few folks out of the drowsiness the rocking motion of the 70 mph train induces.

People keep to themselves. But the exceptions can be entertaining. There was the stoic woman and her disheveled son who embarked one morning in July, for example. She was toting a large suitcase and looked to be on her way to catch a flight, but her 30-ish son was carrying, apparently for luggage, a black trash bag that he put on the luggage rack only after pulling out a Bud Ice and cracking it open. Even though it was 8 a.m., this was clearly not his first beer of the day. Or even his fifth. While Mom tried to shush him, son loudly explained in accented English for the benefit of the rest of us that the woman (apparently his wife) who had dropped them off at the station he considered a whore, and a woman named Elia in El Salvador was his only true love. "Ellllia... she's the woman who should have had my children. She's the only woman I ever loved. Why can't I get back to El Salvador to Elia, instead of this shitty country where you can't even get a job," he moaned, with Mom tut-tutting all the way.

Still, he didn't seem nearly as screwed up as the woman who had mysteriously been dumped on a northbound train one afternoon after being released from a hospital. She was still wearing her hospital wristband (which showed that her name was Christine), and her belongings were in plastic bags. She woozed her way into consciousness every few seconds and muttered things half to herself and half to anyone who would listen about her recent heart surgery. She kept trying to pass around a coffee can with some belongings in it, and other passengers told me they couldn't believe a hospital would release her in that kind of shape. After she changed her story several times about what stop she was looking for, she settled on Deerfield Beach and we helped her off there, making sure she took with her a purse filled with prescription bottles that she seemed determined to leave behind. We couldn't see anyone waiting for her at the station when the train pulled away.

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