I’m on a train, heading back to New York City. It’s a Sunday around dinner time. A man, maybe seventy, seventy-five, walked into the café car sometime shortly after we pulled out of Union Station. At first, I didn’t notice him. Just another traveler looking for another seat. He finally sat across the aisle from me. We’re surrounded by seven or eight people now, many of whom are drinking beer or half bottles of wine. (How tragic to drink a half bottle of wine by yourself on a train on a Sunday.)
I’m facing south, my back to the north, and our train rushes toward New York City. The water, trees, and towns are flying by me while the grey sky looms ominously over all of it. Before we had escaped too far out of the District I pulled myself out of my seat and wandered to find a bathroom. The bathroom in the café car had a little sign on it, five by five or so, navy blue with a yellow border around the outside, letting me know that it was out of service. So like a man who had just returned to shore after being at sea for ages, I ambled toward the next car and the next bathroom as the train tested my balance. I hurried as best I could. I was concerned leaving my bag unattended. But I had done it anyway, putting a grocery bag with my black dress shoes on top of it out of hopes that a potential thief would not notice the thousands of dollars of electronics nestled in a three hundred dollar bag.
Lacking any grace, I hurriedly zipped up my fly and clicked the lock with a little red ball on the end from right to left on the bathroom door, which in turn put out the orange occupied light hanging above the door. I started heading back to the café car and hit the door to open it up. It crawled open and there was a guy, probably my age, standing in between the cars balancing one of those flimsy cardboard trays they give you to hold the various awful food they serve. I realized that he didn’t know how to open the train doors; he was essentially jailed between two train cars saved only by my hurried piss to get back to the café car. A bit embarrassed, he slid by me as the metal plates connecting the cars slid under his feet. The conductor called after me, saying in a teasing voice, “He doesn’t know how to open the doors.” Nothing in this life is worse than defeat by inanimate object.
I find my seat and slide down the fake leather into my place. I’m partial to the café car. I can spread out here, I’m close to the beer, and I can people watch here. And with the tables, I can even get things done. Normally, it’s a bit awkward though sharing a table with a stranger. Everyone just hides in their work though. Everyone understands that you’re not meant to talk here; you’re just ships passing in the night, briefly sharing the same water. When I settle back in, I notice that the old man across from me has swapped with the generic thirty-something who was initially sharing the table with me. He’s got both his hands poised on the table, playing with the air from time to time. He’s sitting with his back to the south, facing the direction the train is heading. “I like being able to see where I’m going, not where I’ve been,” he says in a mostly high pitched voice that has some gravel to it at the same time.
He seems eccentric or at least he seems like he may have been eccentric in his youth. He’s dressed in all black. Black pants, a black undershirt, a black button down, and a black sports coat. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s wearing a black beret, which falls toward his left wrist on which he has a black banded watch that he wears backward with the face covering his veins. It’s like funeral attire for someone who may have at one point long ago been an occupant of a commune somewhere or tenant of an old coffee shop.
Only his pale skin—which glows a bit red and has a bit of a leathery sheen to it like he’s been out in the sun too long—and his white wiry hair peaking out from under his beret and his white mustache breaks through the black ensemble. And then there are his glasses, he must be near sighted because the lens make his eyes look a bit bigger than they must really be. They’re circular, trimmed with gold wire, and look soft against his eyelids which fall steeply toward the table at sharp angles, framing his eyes with triangles.
There are two Heinekens in front of him along with an old plastic bag that it looks like he recycles. He folds it from time to time for no apparent purpose. It’s full of nuts—a variety, but I can’t tell what’s what because I’ve never been able to distinguish anything beyond a cashew or a walnut. He wrapped each of the Heinekens in napkins he swiped off the counter of the café care. Apparently, he only wanted to get up once, so he’s keeping the second one cold for when he finishes the first. And he does finish the first, and then the second. He finishes the second a bit more dramatically. He cocks his head back—his beret doesn’t move—and he drains whatever is left. Oddly, when the second one is done, he gets up and buys another one, but this time it’s a Sam Adams. I want to ask him why he changed, but don’t.
He says he’s retired, but doesn’t say what he did except to say it was a “good company.” Retirement is fighting back. “We just sit in a bar drinking. I need to stop drinking and do something.” He says he and this woman, who he never describes beyond that, now spend their days going to the courthouse and watching trials. She must not be his wife because he doesn’t have a ring on and there’s no mark suggesting that there used to be one. Two sons were on trial for murder one time. No one in the courthouse cared about them. “Their mother said what did I do?” “Nothing right evidently,” he retorts to himself. He recently stopped going to the trials though because arraignments are more fast paced and maybe more interesting. “Murders, rapists, child molesters,” he says. “They sign their papers and get a lawyer.” Drugs are a problem on Long Island, too—that’s where he lives.
He twice mentions that it’s supposed to be eighty soon and he’s going to go to the beach. He says it almost exactly the same both times, about ten minutes apart. It makes me wonder if he’s all there. He likes the beach and mentions it repeatedly. “The train is full.” He keeps saying that too as he fiddles with the napkins in front of him, folding them too. But there’s less madness to that because each stop more and more people get on while few get off. They come marching through our car hoping to fall a seat. Really, the old man and I could scooch toward the window and two more people could sit down. As they march through the car, lugging a bag behind them, you can tell that all they want is for us to move over. Everyone seems to have agreed though that that just won’t happen. They’ll have to keep moving, and they do, one woman muttering “I can’t find a seat” on her way by.
He gets up and heads toward the back of the train without saying a word. That itself was a bit surprising because he would start talking to me even when I had my headphones on. He wanders back into the car, heading toward me with a bag in hand. Evidently he had a seat on the sixth car early on but it was next to a Russian. I’m to understand from his body language that this is a bad thing. The Russian was complaining to him about Russia loosing to Canada in a hockey game. He raises his right eyebrow to express his apparent disagreement or maybe just indifference to it and takes a swig off the Samuel Adams, which he also wrapped in a napkin.
“I meet people on the train sometimes I don’t,” he says holding out his left arm and tilting his hand from one side to another like a plane banking from side to side. “There are brainy people on this train—DC types. Everyone has a laptop on this train, other trains people have smart phones.” He goes to Chicago once a year to “meet people” and is on his way home. He doesn’t say what people and he doesn’t stay overnight. He gets onto the train, rides to Chicago, stays for ten hours, and then heads back to New York. And although he says he doesn’t mind flying, I can’t tell if he’s telling the truth. If I had to bet, I’d say he is. He seems tired of sitting in the bar with the other retirees. ”Factories and trees, trees and factories,” he laments as I’m mulling all this over. The Northeast Regional is no California Zephyr, which has the best views of the Rockies. Get a sleeper car he says.
There are only about forty minutes left. I know because I asked him and he referenced his backwards watch. He knows the train time down to the minute and complains that after we get to Manhattan he has another hour and fifteen minutes on the Long Island Railroad before he gets back home. “All these people come from circuses or plays and all this shit, they’re tired trying to get home,” he offers shrugging his shoulders a bit and raising his eyebrows. He’s going to get another beer, “a tall or medium one,” which will hold him over before he gets home. They don’t sell beer on the other train, but he says he always buys one at Penn Station.
He had a wife, I learn eventually, when he’s talking about museums in DC. It isn’t clear if she died or they got divorced, the latter probably. The medical museum is an interesting one. “You know people used to invent all sorts of bogus medical devices that you’d wear. All hogwash,” he says as he chuckles and waves both hands toward me to indicate his disagreement and dismissiveness. But that’s the end of the story. It wasn’t intended to go anywhere I guess.
Over our quiet banter, a passenger across the aisle where the old man started out begins to sing out loud—its more loud than singing. He’s drunk. He’s the one who was drinking the bottle of wine. Tragic. He’s on the fourth bottle now. The old man’s eyes dart toward him and he puts his elbow on the table and his left cheek against his left hand as if he was just reminded that he doesn’t have any faith in humanity. But he’s immediately jerked out of it when he hears two young guys behind me talking about the race. “Who won?” he asks urgently as if he’d been waiting to find out all day. (He doesn’t have a smartphone of course. But he tells me if you have one they can tell you how fast the train is moving.) “The other one,” the louder of the two guys says. “Exaggerator.” The old man’s fist strikes our table with a glancing blow. “That was the one I was going to bet on.” He said he didn’t have time.
We slink farther and farther toward the City as darkness begins to creep in and the sun begins to fall over the horizon. The skyline starts to build over my shoulder and the lights start twinkling. He walks through still more stories from all the times he’s been to Chicago. Something about the Hancock building and not going up when it’s cloudy. And this time he walked a woman to the Capitol building when he was on his way home. The drunk guy is getting louder and louder and the signing is becoming more difficult to understand. As you do in the café car, we all ignore him although the old man darts his eyes to him from time to time and mutters to me that he’s drunk—as if I hadn’t notice. And then, just before we plunge into the tunnel, he looks to the window and then to me: ”The sky’s red. It’s going to be a nice day tomorrow.”
Image courtesy of Ian Freimuth. Some rights reserved.