Down by the Tracks

I live down by the tracks. I’ve never counted how many freight trains each day make their rumbling, rattling way past out neighborhood. It doesn’t take long to get so accustomed to the sound that you don’t notice it any longer; even the deep wail of the horn is seldom heard within one’s conscious. I suppose it’s the same for those who live in houses a couple of blocks to the east, those in which the big picture windows visibly bend and shake as the cars grind by.

At a traffic light this week I sat and waited as I have so often for a length of train cars to pass. You can learn what’s in those cars, if you care to, by studying the symbols on the sides. Chlorine… Sulfuric Acid… Vinyl Chloride… I sometimes wonder how fast I could get my family to safety in the event of an accident and derailment. I usually decide not fast enough, and move my thoughts to other matters. For instance, on this day I sat and stared as I have before at the canvases of graffiti on the rail cars lumbering through my vision from left to right. A lot of the graffiti is the basic, run of the mill, letters and numbers hastily applied by single strokes of a spray can. But once in a while, there is some good stuff. I mean, some really, really impressive artwork deftly applied. It must take years, and a whole lot of practice, to be able to produce what some people can create with a palette of spray cans and a canvas of weather-worn metal. Wow, I’ll sometimes mutter to myself, That’s really good

And yet I always end up feeling as though there should be some twinge of guilt within me, a bad feeling in response to the fact that I’m impressed by something that, according to most people, is an illegal act and, by definition, is committed by criminals. If I extrapolate, I suppose that in their view, I might as well praise the “art” of those who commit grand thefts from art galleries, or from banks once thought to be beyond robbery. Admittedly, there is arguably some truth to this charge, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about one’s point of view. I’ve been sitting here thinking as I type, that the issues start small and grow quickly to the biggest questions of all, covering topics far and wide—from vandalism to grand theft to war and nations and to what it means to be alive and to be human. At the end of the thinking, it comes down to indeterminability, to relativism, and to “morality” — the elusive adhesive that strives to rightly bind and bound humanity, and keep things from falling apart in the face of it all.

I have to say it anyway: I think it’s a shame to glance at a rail car that has been made into a display of art, and to be so preoccupied with ethics and morality that one can’t, at least for a few moments, ascertain and value an image of creative beauty for what it is. I think in this simplest of cases, we should learn that sometimes we sacrifice what is most human and inspiring, trading them instead for a set of rules, and that it is not always best that those rules become our first thoughts—making things like grace and beauty impossible. Even a proper adhesive is a terribly, terribly difficult thing to apply well when it is not used sparingly. It spills over to destroy all it touches, left to collect a useless and ugly grime that is too often impossible to remove.

But on the other hand, an appreciation for human brilliance should never trump the necessarily prime value of a shared and communal human goodness. Morality in our thinking and in our actions is something we cannot afford to ignore, for we cannot together live well nor long without it. Those who dilute morality to ineffectiveness will find nothing left amongst us to hold together anything of true and lasting goodness. We will all drift apart, and forever remain alone. In our prideful, greedy and pleasure-filled pursuits we will trample others asunder, and in so doing we will declare humanity to be worthless. We will make the epic struggle of our entire human history pointless.

We must each and all strive for morality, but in precisely the proper measure, and in precisely the proper places. This is the conscience-rending line to walk within ourselves—and the only path we can long travel together.

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