Notes from a Train Station Waiting Room

My grandfather died. So I visited my extended family’s nerve center in the suburban mid-Atlantic.

There are many details of this visit I want to remember. Like how my grandmother told us all our favorite stories from our more distant ancestral homeland down south: true gothic southern tales of graveyards, mental hospital escapees, and Morgan’s Raiders. Playing bridge: and realizing the game had changed forever for my granny, who had lost her lifelong partner. How we drove around the ruins of a fort and walked against the wind down a beach that had no other footprints. How my grandmother wasn’t quite sure how to pay a restaurant bill with a credit card, having never taken the check herself before. How we went to see a local September 11 memorial for no reason at all, or maybe because we didn’t have a funeral but needed a focal point for grief.

The thing I want to write about now, though, happened after I left my granny’s house. It’s the story of how I missed my train.

Exactly how I missed it would be dull to relate. But I experienced that classic moment of charging up the stairs to the platform only to have the train’s doors pull shut before I could reach them.

Somehow it just killed me to miss this train. I’d held it together all weekend, and normally I’d shrug something like this off. But now the train became a symbol of the brutal heartlessness of the whole world and how life isn’t fair and we all die. I collapsed on a bench on the platform and wept and wept.

After a bit of that I imagined that a security guard might be watching me on video, wondering if I were a terrorist or a suicide risk. So I dried my eyes and went to change my ticket.

As it turned out, I had to sit in the station for three hours until the next train. I found a seat in the waiting room and opened my book.

That’s when I began to notice all the people around me and the chorus of their sounds. To my left, a junkie (?) was snoring. To my right, a guy was blasting tinny, clicky-drum music from his cell phone. Across the way a family was talking loudly in Spanish. And then another guy came along and starting mumbling to himself while writing furiously on a piece of paper.

I’ll be honest; at first I felt irritated about all of this. I was tired, sad, and recovering from a train platform melt-down. And now I just wanted to drift alone in the astral plane of book-immersion.

But then I realized the ridiculousness of the situation. Here I was, reading a book about the workings of society while society itself surrounded me. I started to consider what the other people were doing and why.

The junkies I noticed were crafty. To sit in this particular area you needed to buy something from one of the food concessions. The junkies didn’t buy anything but asked other people if they could have their empty food bags and wrappers, which they then placed on the tables in front of them so they could claim to be customers.

At this point I recalled that I hadn’t bought anything either, on the principle that I shouldn’t need to patronize Dunkin Donuts to sit on 80-year-old wooden bench in a public space. So who was I to feel annoyed about all the others present?

And the benches themselves — beautiful 1930s craftsmanship, now that I took a real look at them. And the ceiling: a marvel.  I’d always had the sense of this particular train station being scummy and terrible, but… once I started to look around, I noticed all manner of architectural flourishes.

Meanwhile the guy talking to himself appeared to be writing a song. I saw him dash off the word “MUSIC” and underline it. Was he jotting lyrics or perhaps chord progressions? Well then. It made sense that he would sit there and sing and talk.

The guy blasting the tinny music, it turned out, had been on break from Dunkin Donuts. DD blasts oldies all day at that train station. And here this man had a few minutes respite from it, sitting on a bench with a jacket covering his uniform, listening to hip-hop/drum & bass. Sure, he might have used headphones. But I couldn’t begrudge him his moment of aural freedom.

I cannot speak Spanish, but I heard the cadence of that family’s language. It sounded like poetry, rounds of poetry fired by a machine gun.

After taking all this in, I had the sudden realization that I myself did not need to sit there in silence. Silence was not the social norm of our waiting room community that morning. And so I started to sing a song that I didn’t even realize I liked until just then.

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain…

And I kept singing it and kept singing it to myself, and when I finally boarded the train hours later I felt okay again.

On the Expiration of a Passport

This tiny blue booklet has accompanied me around the world.

Passport

We had some misadventures.  There was the time I left it in a pillowcase in Sintra.  And once, the Israelis got weird about the fact that I didn’t want a stamp and escorted me to an underground bunker.  They swabbed and scanned my shoes, again and again, for hours.

Everyone who sees the photo says I look like a serial killer.  Wide eyes, lined heavily in black.  Black hair (huge), black t-shirt with the collar cut out.  A facial expression of equal parts boredom and rage.

These days the border patrollers look more closely at me, not sure if I’m the same person.

The girl in the photo had never left the United States.  All the stamps and visas were ahead of her.  Paris, Zilupe, Delhi.  Partying with metal-heads in Latvia.  Exploring abandoned dachas in Russia.  Dancing at a squat in Amsterdam.

The girl in the photo thought that if she kept looking, she would find her people.  It took her a long time to understand that she was a loner, not a joiner, no matter where she went.

Now I’m moving back to the United States after living in another country for some time.  This will be the last trip I take with my beat-up serial killer passport.

The ones they issue today are stiff and junked up with patriotic line-art.  I dread replacing my old friend.  Partly for aesthetic and sentimental reasons. And partly because I’ll never be off to see the world for the first time again.