Vibrator People

The Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland slowed to a hissing stop alongside a BNSF freight train somewhere in open country south of Olympia, Washington. Through my rain-streaked window I saw this message painted on the side of the adjacent rail car.

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I couldn’t help laughing.  So many questions started popping like champagne bubbles in my head.

Why would anyone want to “apply” a vibrator to the body of a rail car? What kind of vibrator would you use? What’s so dangerous about it that you have to use specially mounted vibrator brackets? And why is it done so frequently that they have specially mounted vibrator brackets in the first place? What would happen if you didn’t vibrate using said brackets? Would the car explode, or shatter, or just tear itself to pieces? Why only loaded cars? Is vibrating an unloaded car especially hazardous?

Who are these mysterious vibrator people anyway? Are they so careless about applying their vibrators that they need to be admonished to use the proper brackets? After all, if they’re in such a habit of vibrating – for whatever reason or purpose – shouldn’t they already know they’re supposed to use the brackets? I mean, come on, people!

Oh I get it! It’s one of those warnings that’s not posted to inform the reader but to protect the writer. It’s a liability thing. Have people been killed vibrating rail cars improperly? Or injured? Or has the cargo been damaged? Have the railways ever been sued for failing to adequately notify their workers about the perils of off-bracket vibrating?

When they go home to their families at night, do their hands shake and tremble with residual vibration?

You can tell I might have been a little bored on that train.

Still, how often do you see signs like this that look so important, so urgent and yet are so utterly incomprehensible that they might as well be written in another language? It’s really not much different than the graffiti you see painted on the very same rail cars. A language written by and for people we never see and whom we know nothing about.

Here’s another example from about ten years ago when my family took a ferry ride to reach remote campground on the British Columbia coast. Attached to wall of the ferry was this sign which I think is a set of instructions for lowering life boats into the water.

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Complete gibberish. Clearly these instructions aren’t intended for passengers. What on earth is a davit, or a tricing pennant or a bowsing tackle? In any sort of emergency, without a crew member on hand we’re all going down with the ship.

Signs like these point to hidden worlds, to the existence of people and processes or even cultures and cults to whom these messages make sense. We outsiders are like archaeologists trying to glean meaning from the pot shards and hieroglyphs left behind by some vanished civilization.

You might feel alienated or excluded by all this, but I think it’s much more fun to be intrigued and even amused. I prefer to see these signs as tantalizing hints, like a fleeting smile or a momentary flash of exposed skin from that good looking girl or guy at the next table.

In fact they’re really just glimpses of the machinery that makes up the modern world, a world built of a complex weaving and layering of thousands, maybe millions, of highly specialized jobs, functions and systems. Most of us don’t grow our own food, make our own clothes or fix our own cars. And even if we do, it’s a hobby or a weekend activity. Instead, we trust others, mostly strangers, to do these things for us. And they, in turn, rely on us to perform our specialized jobs as mechanics, managers, teachers, coders, traders, doctors, or whatever. To keep the world going, and yes to keep the trains running on time, we’re all dependent on each other and connected to each other more than any time in human history.

Most of the time we’re unaware of all this machinery hidden behind the curtain. But once in a while we get a peek …

In all likelihood the signs and artifacts of your job are just as mystifying to others as the Vibrator People are to us.

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