Paul Kempner
The Trains Must Run on Time Even if the Cars Are Empty
by Howard Richard Debs

I have ridden the New Haven Line
on the Metro-North Railroad
coming in from New Rochelle
with stops along the way
at Pelham, Mt. Vernon East,
Botanical Garden, Tremont,
Melrose, Harlem
to end the run at
Grand Central Station
cathedral of train terminals
where people from all
these and other places
stream together in what
seem constant waves
filling the cavernous halls
to fulsome measure
for now, not so.
He works the Hudson Line,
starts at Poughkeepsie,
I’ve been there too, on
the way to Hyde Park
up the river to dine at
The Culinary Institute
of America, wondering
why the Hudson Line
didn’t extend that far;
it follows the river,
where the Sloop
Clearwater sails,
the organization emblem
of Pete Seeger’s dream;
soon they will restream
their Music Festival,
for now the virtual Great
Hudson River Revival
an annual call to
environmental action,
for now without echoes
on the river’s banks.
The train goes through
Beacon, Peekskill, Dobbs Ferry,
Yonkers, Riverdale, Yankees,
few tickets punched for that stop,
for now. He tells of
passengers who no longer
ride, the nonagenarian lawyer
who went into work in Manhattan
almost every day, and took the
last train going home. He’d
hold her bags and help her
down the platform. She
doesn’t travel into the city
for now, but he has her
number and they text each other—
for now.

PHOTO: Pictured is Paul Kempner, who has worked 22 years as a conductor for the Metro-North Railroad in New York. Photo by Stephen Wilkes, used with permission

Included quote from article by Marilyn Milloy, reprinted with permission, AARP The Magazine, Copyright 2020 AARP.  All rights reserved. Metro-North Railroad route map, used with permission

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: The theme for this series is Prime Movers, focusing, rightly so, on the people who keep things going in these harrowing times, people like Paul Kempner. But infrastructure, institutions, organizations, also have a major role as prime movers in a real sense too. The Metro-North Railroad is one such entity. For information about an important way those who may wish to do so can help others during the pandemic and receive a special gift for such help go to TrainsMustRun and thank you for that.


Howard Richard Debs is a recipient of the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award. His essays, fiction, and poetry appear internationally in numerous publications. His photography is featured in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His book Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), is the recipient of a 2017 Best Book Award and 2018 Book Excellence Award. His new chapbook Political, ( will be released in October 2020. He is co-editor of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, forthcoming in 2021 from Vallentine Mitchell of London, publisher of the first English language edition of the diary of Anne Frank. He is listed in the Poets & Writers Directory.