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CHAPTER THREE – DOWNTOWN
We lived on a hill in Madison and at the bottom of the hill was our town. I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike downtown, but since I turned twelve Mom and Dad let me walk there if I had a friend with me, or if Tommy came along. They knew in the fall I would be walking down the hill to the Junior School anyway, so they decided it would be good for me to get used to the walk. Mom was kind of funny about saying I could go, but Dad told me, “Emily, it will be great to have that kind of freedom. You are responsible enough to take a walk to town without Mom or me.” And Dad was right. It did feel great to just go out of the house and head downtown with some money in my pocket. I always had a good reason to take advantage of my new freedom. Some ice cream, a new record, a poster to buy.
Before she let me go the first time, Mom said to me, “Emily, there are a couple rules you have to follow.”
Then she sat me down at the kitchen table and she took a seat across from me and said, “First, you go straight down Prospect and cross under the railroad bridge to Lincoln. Then walk along Lincoln to Waverly and follow that to Main Street. No going through the train station, do you understand? And pay attention to the lights. Cross only when they are green.”
I was only half-listening. In my head I was thinking about the ice cream Tommy and I were going to buy. But I stopped daydreaming when I heard her talk about the train station. I didn’t know that was going to be off limits. Tommy and I had already planned to check it out and I thought it would be fun to walk through the train station tunnel on our way to town.
“Train stations are dangerous places,” she continued. I don’t want you that close to the tracks without an adult and besides that, it’s dark in the tunnel. All kinds of people pass through that station. Not just people from Madison. It’s not safe so stay away, okay?”
I recognized this moment with Mom as one that would probably be many in which I was awkwardly caught between my acknowledgement of the rules set down in front of me and the understanding that I would no doubt be choosing which rules I would break and which I would follow. What danger could there be in walking through the train station tunnel to get to town? It was shorter than walking around and it wasn’t that dark. I almost always did what Mom and Dad told me to do, but sometimes the rules didn’t make sense to me. I wondered whether, if Mom and Dad were my age, they would agree with the very rules they were setting for me. Or would they too be deciding which rules were okay to bend or break?
“And while we’re talking about it…” Mom went on. I could tell this was going to be more than a casual discussion of downtown Madison streets and I braced myself for a safety lecture.
“Never, ever, and I mean ever, try to take a short cut and cross the railroad tracks, there or anywhere else where the tracks run. I don’t care if you’re with your friends and everyone else is doing it. You are never permitted to cross the tracks. Trains are very dangerous and they take a long time to stop. If you’re caught on the tracks when a train is coming, the engineer might not see you or be able to stop in time. It can take a train a whole mile to stop. I’ve already talked to Tommy about this and I want to make sure you understand me on this. Am I being clear?”
I wanted to go through the train station and cross through the tunnel under the tracks, but I hadn’t even thought about crossing over the tracks. I guessed that Mom had been talking to other mothers who had warned her that kids do this. She had it all worked out in her mind what my friends and I might do someday, but I knew she didn’t have to worry about me crossing them. I did not like danger and moving trains scared me.
I said, “Mom, I wouldn’t cross the tracks or even go on them. I’d be afraid of doing that anyway and none of my friends have ever suggested we do that.” I was telling the truth and it felt good to be honest when I was pretty sure I would be changing the rules on some other things. Then I smiled, “You don’t need to worry, okay?” Mom looked relieved and said, “Well I do worry about you, especially now that you’re getting older and you have more freedom, that’s all. So remember, no crossing the tracks, okay?”
“No problem, Mom,” I said. No crossing the tracks. Got it.”
Just before we left, Mom called out to Tommy and me to remind us to stay away from the train station and the tracks. Tommy gave me a look and I could see that his eyebrows were up high under the hair that covered his forehead. I hadn’t decided yet what to do about the train station and was thinking about it as we headed down the hill. Then Tommy said, “Em, I wanted to cut through the train station because Chuckie told me he scratched his name on the wall leading out to the street by the movie theater and I told him I would scratch my initials under his name.”
I looked down at the uneven sidewalk as we walked and said, “I know. I wanted to go through there too. I don’t really know why. I just thought it would be fun. Besides, I’m hot and it’s nice and cool walking through there.”
“So…should we?” Tommy asked.
I decided to break Mom’s first rule like I knew I would. It was, after all, the lesser of the two. “Well…I guess it wouldn’t hurt. Just this time. But we’d better make sure we tell her the same thing, that we went under the bridge and crossed over to Lincoln and went up Waverly. And Tommy, are you sure you want to put your initials on that wall? If Mom or Dad ever sees them, how are you going to explain how they got there?”
Tommy smiled. “Emily, what are the chances that anyone besides Chuckie will notice my initials on the wall?” Then he paused and thought about it. “But I know! I’ll put them up backwards – K. T., then even if they do see them, they won’t know they’re mine, right?”
I had to hand it to Tommy. For ten years old, he had a calculating mind. He was the tricky one and way ahead of me. “Okay, Tommy. That sounds like it will work.”
“Okay then. Let’s go find Chuckie’s name.”
We walked through the station and down through the tunnel that led under the tracks. Tommy found Chuckie’s name on the wall and when he did, he pulled out a sharp rock he had been carrying in his pocket and scratched “K. T.” right below Chuckie’s name. I kept a look-out for people coming through who might tell Tommy to stop. We didn’t meet a single dangerous person at the station, and in fact, not one person came through that tunnel while we there and I thought I was smart to pick the right rule to break.
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