The Andree Clark Bird Refuge is a local’s secret, a quiet estuary nuzzled up against the backside of the Santa Barbara Zoo, a pocket of artificially modified nature that bends its way toward Montecito. I drop by the delicate ecosystem three times a week, saying hello to the assortment of wobbly ducks and stubby turtles before inserting my earbuds and running off toward the tourist-laden beach. Upon completing my circuit, I like to I walk along the shrub-framed path bordering the pond’s inland edge and watch cautious cottontails, zippy lizards, and blue dragonflies part ways before me. I often end up on a short pier, stretching out while my heartbeat settles among the serene and tranquil pond. Tall reeds bend in the wind. Hungry ducks dip their heads in brackish water. Angry cars and squeaky rental bikes are nowhere near. It’s as zen as it gets.
That’s when the Amtrak roars by and blares its horn.
This happens quite often. The Amtrak. Given the number of Northbounds that coincidentally bound in while I meditate on my pier, you’d think Los Angeles was unloading half its population on lower State Street every hour. In any case, I’ve gotten so used to the interruption that I hardly notice it anymore.
But last Sunday was different. Last Sunday, I noticed the Amtrak. And rather than proving intrusive, annoying, or obnoxious, it actually made my day.
First, know this: The zoo hugging the pond’s western border also possesses a train—a teeny tiny toy train that circumnavigates the park. It chugs along its rails chock full of young couples, parents, and chimpanzees—I mean, children—anxious to see their favorite animals from a different vantage. Given the rather limited scope of its journey, the engineers supplement their monotony by blowing the engine’s whistle whenever the mood strikes them. But unlike the violent blare of the Amtrak, the humble toot of the zoo train is nothing short of charming.
Back to last Sunday. I was on the pier. I was stretching out. I was feeling zen. And then the Amtrak churns through and honks five times. I tried to ignore it, but there was a rhythm to its honks this time that called attention to itself:
“Honk. Honk-honk. Honk. Honk.”
You know where this is going, now, right? You know what followed. That’s right. The zoo train completed the refrain with a toot couplet:
Shave and a haircut, two bits.
Oh my god. Mind blown. The baby train just answered the mamma train. They did the secret door knock, the car horn riff, the call and response. Marco fucking Polo.
I put aside all that zen crap for a moment and reflected: Being alone among nature can be overrated. Hustle-bustle human beings, and all their feats of engineering, are worth appreciating, too.
Two trains full of passengers who would never meet each other reached out to acknowledge their shared plight.
Amtrak: We’re here.
Zoo train: We’re listening.
The human social system is as remarkable, if not as fragile, as the natural ecosystem.
I left the pier that day feeling not only good about the miles I’d logged and the ducks I’d watched, but also about the people I shared the world with. Because at the end of the day, it really doesn’t take much to let someone know you care. Despite all the noise and chaos that we usually find ourselves entangled in, without acknowledging each other, we can still feel so tremendously alone. And not the good kind of alone, the hanging out with the ducks on a pier kind of alone; I’m talking about the nobody cares or loves me kind of alone. Yet all it may take is a phone call, a text message, or a Facebook like to pull someone out of their funk; a friendly hello, a hand on a shoulder, or an honest smile to reconnect. Heck, all it takes is a train toot.
All it takes is two bits.