Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

April 10, 2002:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Dinky
(With apologies to Wallace Stevens)

By Hugh O'Bleary

As a media darling: The Dinky is a celebrity. This little gleaming single-car train that links the campus to Princeton Junction — and thence to the Northeast Corridor rail line, and thence to New York, Philadelphia, and the world — was the subject of a more-than-full-page feature in a recent edition of the Sunday New York Times (all right, it was the New Jersey section, but still...). The writer, J.D. Reed, recounted the history, lore, and glamor of the line once known as the PJ&B and declared the Dinky to be "as necessary as morning coffee" to Princeton commuters. Amen to that.

As one train that will never inspire a country song.
Oh, that honky-tonk angel brought me nothin’ but pain
She punched my ticket on that Dinky train…

As a rolling "Where’s Waldo?" (Or Toni? Or John? Or Joyce?) Princeton is, of course, virtually choked with celebrities — academic, literary, scientific; you can’t swing a cat without hitting a schizophrenic Nobelist — and most of them at one time or another ride the Dinky. Reed termed it a "green room for the ultimate talk show."

As a rolling village square: Famous or not, the people in this car are truly your most intimate neighbors; you see them every morning and every evening, year in and year out. You may not even know each other’s names, but you exchange good-morning nods and good-night grunts, maybe even a word or two about the weather or last night’s basketball game. Race, class (as in social standing as well as year of graduation), even politics mean nothing. You are all fellow travellers, citizens of the Dinky Nation.

As an amusement park ride: Keep your hands and feet inside the Dinky at all times! It is not uncommon to see a mother, or perhaps a mother and a father, taking a young child for a ride on the Dinky. Just over to the Junction and back. No rat-race slog into the city for the little guy, just a taste of the romance of the rails, the clackety-clack, the whistle as the old train pulls into the station. Maybe there’s time to duck out onto the platform at the Junction and watch the Acela swoop past, but then it’s back onto the Dinky, face pressed to the glass, for the thrill of the ride back to town.

As a time machine. Just think — you’re having essentially the same experience that F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 and, in a wonderful bending of the space-time continuum, Albert Einstein, had.

As the tide. Out in the morning. In in the evening.

As a lovers’ chariot. Nothing is quite so enchanting as the sight of a handsome young couple — Princeton students, no doubt, all flowing hair, soft murmurs and laughter — slouched together and cannoodling on a double seat among the commuters. Of course, nothing is quite so insufferable either.

As a large and sometimes fearsome beast. Arrive early for one of the weekend morning Dinkies. The train is parked there at the platform, doors open. The car is empty, the conductor and engineer nowhere to be seen. You take a seat, maybe rummage through your bag for something to read. The train is alive. It hums and quivers and sighs, like a great sleeping dragon. Just sitting there once, a dozen years ago, it almost killed a young man who made the mistake of climbing on its back. And then it moves, roaring into life, gathering to a great galloping speed. If you were foolish — or unlucky — enough to stall your car on the tracks where they cross Faculty Road, the Dinky would bite, sure enough, and drive you, wrapped in a couple of tons of steel, all the way to Route One. There is nothing rinky about this Dinky.

As a faithful — though not completely faithful — friend. Step from the New York or Philly train, Amtrak, or NJ Transit, your body bowed with the weight of a day’s work, and he is waiting; open, cheerful, inviting, ready to bear you back to the leafy, lovely campus. Unless, of course, your train was, say, ONE MINUTE behind schedule, in which case Mr. Dinky will have split without so much as a backward glance. You will wait — or take a cab.

As the unlikely target of a terrorist attack or highjacking. At least I hope so.

As a faintly embarrassing part of your life. "Well," you tell friends who inquire about your commute. "I just take the train to Princeton Junction and then transfer to the Dinky."
"To the WHAT?"

As the perfect link between Princeton and the real world. Ticket, please!

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu