THE RED LINE — We begin in near-darkness. The train makes its steady climb up the slightly-sloped tracks, crawling slowly through the dull gray gloom of the tunnel.
We are bundled up in our bulky jackets and winter hats, packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder, slumped into the glow of our smartphones. The moving parts beneath the floorboards start to clang and clatter until the sound reverberates up through our feet.
And then, suddenly, we are pulled into the light.
The Red Line emerges from the bind of its underground passage and the veil of the tunnel is lifted. Shafts of sunlight cut through the grimy, dirt-speckled windows, splashing rectangular shapes across the floor. The rumbling echo from the train’s underbelly recedes. Our heads snap up. Back Bay and Beacon Hill rise beyond the Longfellow Bridge, encased by the black rubber of the train’s window frames like an oil painting.
There are precious few moments like this one, that can reliably lift us from our daily routines to contemplate something larger; few places that afford a view of Boston’s beauty in a single, satisfying gulp. But this fleeting passage between Kendall Square and Charles/MGH, inside the unlikely setting of the maligned Red Line, can still stir something like reverence.
Every day, the same panorama unfurls before us: reflective skyscrapers; squat brownstones flanked by trees; a river that sparkles beneath the sun.
“I like looking over the city on my way in, contemplating the day, and imagining going into this metropolis and where I fit in it," said Steve Trambert, who, on a recent commute, lifted his eyes from the work on his laptop to gaze at the buildings jutting up and slicing into the blue backdrop of the sky. “It’s the best view in the city."
The brief journey across the bridge becomes a moment of zen before the cogs of city life start to grind and turn. Right then, right there, our heads feels crystalline; our lives are put on hold.
By the MBTA’s estimates, 110,000 of us make this trip every weekday, rattling past distant landmarks like the Mass. Ave. Bridge and the pinhead of the Citgo sign. Usually, it only lasts a few seconds, the train following the gentle curve of the Longfellow’s spine before it berths at its destination. But it’s enough.
Lexi Shy sits front row for this attraction. The 24-year-old commutes from Boston to Cambridge and back again, between home and work. And each time, and in each direction, she makes it her mission to sidle up to the closest door available.
“I think it’s that one part of the city where you’re in nature, as well as the city,” said Shy, who takes photos of the view often. “It’s nice to just have that moment of calm, not being underground, not hearing all the T stuff, not hearing traffic — it’s that moment of calm in the city that you never get, which is nice.”
Whether in the early morning hours, or when the sun eventually vanishes somewhere beyond Cambridge, the sky can become a hypnotic mixture of oranges and reds and blues. At just the right moment, the horizon seems to catch fire, the flames lashing out across the river and reflecting off of glass high-rises.
The view captivates us on misty wet days, too, as the fog settles just below the tops of the buildings, blanketing the river and the emerald green of the Esplanade. In darkness, the windows of the far-off buildings sparkle and gleam.
It’s a seasonal spectacle: Summer with its wavy heat. The crispness of fall. Spring and its lush regrowth.
Even now, in bleakest winter, when the frozen river turns into a tundra stretching from shore to shore, sometimes dusted by snow, the sky at dawn becomes an impressionist canvas — a study in pinks, and purples, and whites.
Once the cold gives way, we will we watch as kayakers and rowers slice cleanly through the water. As the fleet of sailboats do their delicate dance. As the Duckboats chug into view from beneath the bridge. We’re compelled to press our faces near the glass, as if staring into an aquarium tank. We take photos and Tweet them to the world. We capture videos to watch later, when we need a moment of clarity, or a reminder of the allure of the place where we all live.
Concentrate hard enough as the cityscape passes by, and it’s like we’re watching the opening scene of a movie that’s set here, an effect amplified by the music we choose to let pour through our headphones.
“It’s postcard, really,” said Doug Schmidt, 70, after we spilled onto the station platform one morning. The train doors pinged. The cold air blasted off the Charles as we walked away from the train, the magical moment now behind us.
From the platform, we could no longer see the postcard. We were living within it.