Light rail in the Triangle is a messy subject, as evidenced by this publication's stories and comments section on a fairly regular basis. The debates about its $2.5 billion price tag and the planned seventeen-mile route, from Durham to Chapel Hill, are fractals of conflict. But taking the Carolinian from Durham to Raleigh on a weekday morning was such an aggressively pleasant experience that it made me want to start breaking ground on a rail project with my own bare hands.
If you buy a one-way, reserved coach seat more than a day ahead of time, it'll cost you a flat $7. A $14 roundtrip for a regular commute seems ludicrous, but for the convenience of one day of not having to sit in traffic or pay for parking, it may be worthwhile. Cruising peacefully and letting my mind wander while I gazed out the window from a cushy seat certainly beat the hell out of hurtling down I-40 through a gauntlet of menacing tailgaters, left-lane slowpokes, and turn-signal avoiders.
Raleigh's gleaming new Union Station opened the day before I made my trip, and everything had that oddly specific chemical smell of new stuff: the punch of fresh paint, of course, but also the cool, sterile smell of unblemished brushed-metal fixtures and the mellow, clean scent of hard plastic that hasn't yet met a thousand asses. The station's interior is a familiar warehouse-chic style—crisp, modern fixtures amid exposed beams. We're trying, we really are, it all seemed to ooze.
A "staycation" in a city I already visit all the time was a challenge I didn't expect. I didn't have a chance to find a way to the art museum before grabbing coffee with a friend, leaving the history and science museums as my main options for free daytime entertainment. Having grown up in Cary, I've visited these institutions approximately one thousand times. I wandered through the science museum feeling like a patient ghost taking inventory. There's the dinosaur heart, there are the fake plastic woods, there's the escape-artist sloth. The gang's all here.
A friend and I met up for coffee at Morning Times, a reliable standard, and made our way to Capital Club 16 to meet up with a larger group of friends who were enjoying the England vs. Croatia World Cup soccer match. I sat near a wall in a puddle of sunlight, halfway paying attention to the game between sips from a half-liter of Croatian beer.
The game ended with a Croatian victory, and I parted ways with the group to meet yet another friend for dinner. We'd hoped to eat at Mecca, the almost-ancient mainstay on Martin Street that hits the trifecta of being cheap, convenient, and delicious. Although the day's lunch menu was posted in the window, the patio furniture was out, and a table was littered with half-filled water glasses and a vinegar bottle, the restaurant was closed with no sign of reopening for dinner service.
Again, I thought of ghosts.
So we got a burger at Chuck's, and after, I found myself solo again. I ambled around town partaking of other decadent delights: a scoop of Maple View ice cream from Treat, a shocking blue alcoholic slushy at Fox Liquor Bar, a full hour of pinball and Galaga at Boxcar Arcade. It all felt like a strange marriage of childhood and adulthood, a food-and-beverage Neverland where I could enjoy the substances and settings of being grown up while pretending I hadn't.
My big day out ended with a concert at Neptunes Parlour, where the music offered a soothing coda to a long day of relative luxury. As a silly conclusion, I took a $25 Uber home, because the last train to Durham leaves Raleigh at 5:16 p.m. (With a little more planning, I probably could've gotten a hotel for the night, but that felt like a bit much.)
Will the Triangle get a light rail? We'll find out next year. If all goes to plan, it'll begin running in a decade—right around the time Wake County's planned thirty-seven-mile commuter rail line begins connecting Raleigh to RTP to Duke University.
But for about fifteen bucks—and if you're willing to call it an early evening—you can pretend the future's already here.