Thursday, December 18, 2008

Transport: The Farm is on Board

SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA - Last night I headed into The City--that's San Francisco, for the unfamiliar--to have dinner with an old friend. To get there, I used Caltrain, the commuter rail service that runs frequent service between San Jose and San Francisco. For the first time, I was able to take a "baby bullet," or express train that passes other trains, on the northbound trip, and was impressed that the train averaged 50 mph--including stops--on the run. A typical commuter train in North America averages about half that speed. The "Baby Bullet," cruising through some stations at 70 mph, is a rarity outside of some services in the northeastern US and Chicago.

I had to return on a local train, and remembering the days when two of the four cars in late-night trains would be kept closed and dark, was surprised to find the doors on all five cars of the train open when boarding in The City. This wasn't an oversight; the train would be about half full. A group of three decided to fill the seats around me.

As much as I try not to stereotype all the time, I knew as soon as the group sat down that they were Stanford University students. They weren't wearing any clothing with "Stanford" on it, but I could just tell. Sure, Stanford students are a relatively regular fixture on the Caltrain service returning from The City, but age alone didn't identify them. They could have easily been Santa Clara, or San Jose State students.

No, I could tell by way they looked around the interior of the car that these students had a certain zeal for life and insatiable curiosity about the environment around them that seems to be a hallmark of Stanford students. Any doubts that I had faded as they started their conversation as it covered a wide range of topics, each of which would seem pretty random. They covered everything from what mechanisms sharks use to find their prey to whether and how Stanford names its on-campus restaurants to the oxygen-free dead zones that are forming in bodies of water worldwide including the Gulf of Mexico.

When a male of Asian descent mused about trying to find frozen yogurt after they got off the train, I couldn't resist entering the conversation. "When I went to Stanford," I stated, "People didn't talk about Frozen Yogurt, they talked about FroYo." That prompted a long digression about famous acronyms and contractions in use on campus. I had to admit that "FuMuOnQu" was a rare one in my time on campus, but I had heard it to refer to an event normally known as "Full Moon on the Quad" in which freshmen head for the quad in hopes of being kissed by a senior.

After an hour of additional random conversation about everything from the shipping of plastic bottles overseas for recycling to how some jellyfish become transparent when resting on coral, the group left the train in Palo Alto, leaving me to contemplate all my long walks down Palm Drive in the dark for four years of my life. Someday, one of these students would likely be in my place, and who knows what random thoughts future Stanford students might bring to the conversation--but I bet they will still be recognizable as Stanford students.

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