If you ever find yourself boarding a train to New York City, with all its promise and premonition, I advise that you first fortify with a sandwich from that snug little kiosk at the Amtrak station in Saratoga Springs.
The proprietor’s name is Rich, and she shows me a picture of herself, before the colon cancer, when she had this headful of black, kinked curls. Quite a pretty lady, running the kind of store you’d never find in the security state of an airport or the dungeon of a bus station, Rich toasts for me a whole wheat bun, then announces she’s been to nearly all of the countries in Africa, that she’s heading to Guyana on the 15th of August. In her little store, she shows me homemade things for sale that line various wooden hutches. She says her late husband was the prime minister of Dominica, before he was killed, that she’s giving it all she’s got. Plucked from a half-size fridge, which is covered in lace, the cheese on my sandwich is of a kind of that comes pre-wrapped in a plastic sleeve, the orange more bright than I imagined, or recalled.
With time to eat, I kill my sandwich, which is really not that bad, and then I enjoy a seat warmed by the sun, and mourn the fact there’s no one to play the black piano in the middle of the room, so I ask one of the women sitting nearby if she can play. Oh, I suppose I could, she says, adjusting her hair. But it’s been years. I head outside, wishing I could play, reminded of my own games, wondering what it would take for me to stop, or to know when I’ve done enough. Then the humidity puts a bit of a sheen on my forehead.
It’s all aboard, and I enjoy the ease, as well as the generous overhead compartment. The conductor punches my ticket with a silver clicker, and it’s like I’m the millionth clicked, with a knot of loosened chads falling like confetti. We gain speed — don’t get too excited; this takes longer than you’d think, or perhaps you might hope — but on the Amtrak, following the Hudson on the Ethan Allen Express, we all bide our time, certain to emerge on the other end, like it or not, so until then, for a few hours at least, we rock in the stiff arms of an iron mother, as if the train, beyond wanting us to arrive, obliges we arrive well, rested, realistic.
Meanwhile, speaking of this dual nature of life, of dreams and disappointment, you’re all of sudden no longer aspiring, but instead — because the train was this place where your only real job was to sit still — you’re studying the backs of houses, an act that can be unsettling, because we spend so much time putting our best face forward, hoping, forgetting what we look like from behind, when, for instance, a train glides by, and then you have no choice but to wonder: Who are we, actually? How hard would it be to put some paint on those shutters? Is someone dying in that upper room, the one with the yellowed curtains? That El Camino will never run again. Unless you try hard enough.
Also, birds of prey: One sits in a treetop, with tree branches stripped bare, and the bird is waiting, a note of menace in its patience, because we all know the train is almost always late, and yet we are all hungry for something we don’t yet have, and hope, perhaps, to find in a place like New York City, even if we’re late, even if we’ve been pretending we don’t need New York anymore, and yet we also know birds will stop at nothing to find and rip to pieces a living thing, leaving blood and bones. We do what we do, pretending it’s possible that the world does not require violence, that death and disappointment are not the close friends of success. How slow is a train going that I can see the slight but perceptible footsteps of a turtle, which yanks itself into sunning position on a black log, most of it submerged under dark water and behind green grass? The turtle is small. I am big. I am grateful for what I can see on a train.
There is Internet on the train. A guy I know from the Internet posts this image of people showing their rear ends to a passing train. I do a little bit of reading and determine that I am reading the train on “Moon Amtrak Day,” when people drop their pants to salute passing trains. I look out the window, but instead of bare butts all I see are trees and bushes with red berries. I read more, realizing that only in southern California is it Moon Amtrak Day. So I’m feeling left out, like the good life is elsewhere, like I’ve been doing it all wrong, that I should have focused my energies on another coast, a different way of pretending New York isn’t everything, and then I see, on a weed-choked lake, what looks like some kind of tiki hut: Grey wooden pylons, a deck of two-by-fours, a jaunty spray of palm fronds. But it’s not a festive hut, it’s a hunter’s blind. Ducks must be very foolish.
But we’re all quite capable of ignoring even the very obvious. If you look closely, even in California, you can probably see the faint white globes of pollen floating on the summer air. You can see how likely or unlikely that any of it will work out. The lake is dusted with green, and in this green you track the frantic movements of water bugs, which have drawn accidental maps to themselves in the floating fuzz, and then I wonder if fish are smart enough to follow the trail, eat the bug, have some lunch. Who will follow?
Wow, there’s a freaking mountain out there. I keep forgetting New York is more than Yonkers, New Roc, and the Lower East Side. Then I see a great blue heron, flying north, and as we pass each other, I stifle an urge to say, Turn around, bird, New York City — where anything is possible, where it’s cruel but magical and big things can still happen — that place is SOUTH.
Summer’s pretty much over. It’s been hot, with too little rain and fearsome words like drought and disaster. At the beginning, I had some goals and I still do but I suppose I am also okay with coming to terms with what I have accomplished and what I am unlikely yet to complete. Ambling down the aisle, stretching my legs before it’s time, I see most everyone is typing or listening or reading or checking their makeup. Through the window, the last glimpse of a world that isn’t mostly covered in concrete, I see a lake where the water is low. Rocks usually buried are instead visible, and they bake in the sun.
They say anything is possible. That rain will come, oceans may rise, you might in the end become exactly who you wanted to be, or not. In New York’s Penn Station, the signs are so confusing you worry you might never begin. Then you find your way, and walk into a blazing afternoon, and there are hours and hours until sunset, when things become both easier to imagine and harder to see — and then it’s dark and we wait for a new day to come.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bernt Rostad