#SEPTAResidency, Or: Writing the Market Frankford Line

What I learned from riding a loop of SEPTA on an unofficial, self-funded writer's residency that I made up.

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I am in the last El car on the way to Upper Darby. I am in the last seat, too, watching the Philadelphia skyline disappear behind me on a clear March day. I’m sitting on the blue fabric upholstery SEPTA’s itching to replace. There are no other amenities. I don’t even have advertisements in front of me. I read West Philly’s Love Letter murals as the train continues. Open your eyes, I see the sunrise; If you were here, I’d be home. I am content.

I am only here for the stunt. As soon as I get to 69th Street, I will board the Norristown High Speed Line to continue my loop through SEPTA rail options. I am here to write: I owe this trip to Jessica Gross, who inspired Amtrak to start a writers’ residency program with a tweet referencing an Alexander Chee interview. Amtrak has now spun her trip into a full-fledged program with a social-media friendly name, #AmtrakResidency.

Her Paris Review article on her Amtrak residency test run, which these first two paragraphs have been a loose parody of, featured a comment from Alan Scally: “You spoiled bras are in sleeper cars on Amtrak. Ride coach overnight or 2 days from Chicago to Portland and you will hate Amtrak…. You writers are pampered little wimps afraid to ride coach.” Looking for a way to put a different spin on a story that’s been written a thousand times already, I figured I’d do Scally better than Amtrak coach: I’d start my own, self-funded #SEPTAResidency.

Writers love trains. Gross finds several who attest to their love of riding and the rails and getting work done on the journey. Thousands more want in. Five thousand people have applied for the residency so far — signing away the rights to their applications in the process. That’s hundreds of thousands of free words Amtrak has. If only we could build new rail lines with them!

“Some of the appeal of Amtrak’s scheme undoubtedly resides in the magic of the railroad,” Evan Kindley writes at n+1, “which was once a symbol of capitalist rapacity but is now a picturesque reminder of an older, quainter America.” It’s also a forward-looking scheme: Amtrak ridership is up; people are turning to trains as an alternative to gauche automobiles. “What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern,” the late Tony Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2011. Yes, yes: Taking Amtrak train rides for the love of the rails is the kind of bullshit upper-middle class Americans who went to good colleges do. Guess the background of a lot of writers.

Still, I love upper-middle class American bullshit. The idea’s appealing. But I don’t know if I have time to sign over the rights to several thousand words — two statements, a “sample” that can be up to 24 MB — for the chance at a $900 train ticket. “If value is less than $900, Award recipient will not receive the difference in cash,” the rules helpfully state. Hence my SEPTA plan. I’d have to pay my own way, but I’d only be out a couple hours — and, since my editor liked the idea, I’d be guaranteed money for it.

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My #SEPTAResidency was unofficial, unapproved and self-funded. Since I live near the middle of two subway lines, I couldn’t do an out and back. Instead, I came up with a loop. (This is hard, on SEPTA!) I figured I could ride on five different trains: I’d go from the Subway-Surface trolley to the El to the Norristown High Speed Line to the Norristown/Manayunk regional rail train to the Broad Street Subway, and I’d try to get some work done while I rode. Since this was a lower-key trip than the Amtrak one, there was no need to bring a laptop along. I could work on my phone. The total cost of my journey: $3.60 for two tokens, $2.75 for the High Speed Line and $4 for the regional rail. Since I didn’t have change and paid a full $3 for the Norristown trip, I ended up spending $10.60. Hey, $889.40 cheaper!

Most of the train foamers — as in, trains make them foam at the mouth — Gross writes about are foaming for heavy-rail Amtrak trains, or the great lines of America’s past. Any nostalgia for more utilitarian lines is usually left to fans of the New York City subway — obviously — like Emily St. John Mandel, who worked on a novel during her hourlong commute on the MTA. But I don’t ride Amtrak much, and I’m from Philadelphia. All of my nostalgia is for SEPTA trains.

Really! There are times when riding SEPTA has produced fantastic memories: Riding north on a Broad Street Line train full of drunk, boisterous Eagles fans after playoff wins. The old El cars that used to go dark at least once a ride. Being 15 and riding the El from Bridge Street into town, feeling independent and cocksure with my whole life ahead of me. Heck, laughing with friends about the How Stella Got Her Groove Back poster still at Bridge Street two years after the movie came out. Riding the train to Trenton on a trip to NYC to visit a girlfriend. I have odd glimpses of riding the SEPTA regional rail to Levittown with my father to visit my grandmother once. I’m not necessarily that nostalgic for any of this, but any attachment I have to trains is an attachment to SEPTA — dirty, smelly, unreliable SEPTA.

I rode in the middle of the day. And writing was easy! I didn’t quite finish a whole sci-fi novel like Peter Brett did on the F train in New York, but I got a lot done: I sent pitch emails, I jotted down notes for blog posts, I researched the Big East basketball tournament. All for stories!

While I had ridden the other four trains before, what I really enjoyed was the novelty of the Norristown High Speed Line (formerly Route 100). I was not sure what to think of it, hopping on to the one-car train at 69th Street in Upper Darby. It had seats like the regional rail, buttons to request a stop like the trolley and was packed like the El. (“The Norristown High Speed Line is unique in its combination of transportation technologies,” the NHSL’s Wikipedia page reads.) I did not pay when I got on. Turns out, at least heading to Norristown, you pay the $2.75 fare when you exit. The Norristown High Speed Line is, literally, cash on delivery. I didn’t know people did that still!

The trip was interesting because I saw so much out the window when I wasn’t writing: I rode through subterranean Center City, out through the once-gorgeous houses of West Philadelphia to the Northeast Philly-style homes of Upper Darby. I rode through the Main Line and past Villanova University and over the Schuylkill River. I went by Conshohocken — honestly, I thought this town was just a traffic interchange — and saw the kids’ party houses in Manayunk. I got a look at the still-impressive North Broad station and overheard hilarious teenager conversations on the Broad Street Line. I see the appeal of riding the rails — even the SEPTA rails — it really does make you want to wax poetic for a thousand words or so. I guess that was obvious.

I got a lot done on the train, but I could have just as easily accomplished it at a coffee shop or in my bathroom — my favorite secret writing place I’ve just revealed to you foolishly. I don’t think I’ll make a habit of riding the subway to get work done, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I need it — only a token away.

Next, to try to get some work done riding the bus.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.