Unmapped from village to village, it speeds indifferently past swamp and forest, subdivision and slum, city and field. Die-hard enthusiasts chart times and locations in their little black notebooks, waiting expectantly for the 10.39 southbound from Chicago or the 2.23 west to Phoenix.
Today's rumor holds that the trains will be stopping, no longer serving the mysterious depots linked by these very tracks beyond the building. Soon it will be deconstructed into a bike trail, with only the memory of the concept of train, the mysterious smokiness of a midnight escape into a parallel world. Soon there will be no more fantasies about forbidden worlds; there will only remain the well-lit perambulations of the mothers with prams.
What will this world resemble, the day time world bleached of the mystery of the midnight rattling train? Where do the people in that other universe of mottled greys sleep, eat, shop; where are their friends, families; what are their entertainments? Is it too late now to learn how to ride the boxcars, hitch a ride with an indeterminate destination and an ever-changing route? To find the rhythms of the unseen never-nine-to-five?
This is the life that has been pitched as sordid, dark, dirty. The hobos always slightly hungry and completely drunk, at least in those times when they aren't slightly drunk and completely hungry. Hot water showers, feather pillows, regular laundry service are the sacrifices from the daytime world to ... to ... to ... a land from where only the most subjective stories escape.
A world of tramps, beggars, prostitutes, drugs, alcohol, disease, theft. A world of communal brotherly love free from middle class consumption expectations; a world of secret meaning and unspoken codes, Boy Scouts who never returned from a camping trip, but loaded the pup tents and propane stoves into the badge encrusted backpacks and took their skills with flint to a new land of opportunity. A world of half-crazy social rejects who should be in institutions, but wandered off the sanatorium grounds or were discharged when insurance ran out or escaped from family arrangements to disappear into a netherworld, a place that may or may not make more daily logical sense than the outward tokens of the civilized world.
Into this sea of shadows and half-recognized personalities and fragments of lives left behind or lives unlived, the sorrow of broken dreams, the anguish of broken families, the misery of broken hearts. The decay of dirty laundry, dirty skin, dirty rails, dirty boxcars, dirty camps. The freedom from news stories, stock reports, traffic jams, florescent lighting, cubicles, mundane repetitions, alarm clocks, insurance claims. The freedom from studying maps and analyzing outlooks and making deadlines and of creating a sense of urgent importance.
This is why small boys sit in this room and wave to conductors, eagerly wait, quietly, for the roar and shake of the train passing by, Union Pacific or Santa Fe or Northern or even Amtrak echoing down a secret hallway. The boys recognize their futures proscribed in the schoolroom, a future of straight lines and rows of uncomfortable chairs and too small desks set at the wrong angle; a future of twenty minute lunches in sanitized cafeterias that smell of grease and Clorox; a future of badly fitting business casual and early male pattern baldness; and these boys know that is not for them.
For them are the day long escapes into neighborhood-wide hide and seek, the forts behind abandoned houses or in the trees behind cemeteries, the gangs of roving youths with handshakes and coded language to separate friend from foe. The boys are enthralled not with the love of being irresponsible -- they are not Peter Pans shirking duty -- rather, they are in love with the grey areas, the figures moving in the shadows cast by the trees, the half-seen, half-heard, half-fabled world that they can almost grasp: but when the hold is too tight, the shadows slip between the cracks of the fingers, and are lost to the demands of sharpened number two pencils and math homework and mowing the lawn and younger brothers who refuse to go back where they came from, because the shattering noises of the tag-along scares away the shadows.
Always carry a pocket knife. Always waterproof matches. Know how to knot, how to signal with a mirror, how to bind a broken bone or build a tourniquet. Know how to absolve responsibility and how to avoid entrapment. Know how to escape a fight and how to break a nose. Know how to shoot to kill, how to shoot to maim, how to skin a squirrel.
These boys no longer have career days at school that allow for the occupations of Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett; the grand colonial explorations and exploitations of the empire have ended; space is not the final frontier, it is a box of gravity-free tedium, and bad food and bladder issues. The only modern route for an explorer is to disappear into the cracks of the uncharted lands of civilization, to fall between the rails. To follow in the footsteps of thieves, bandits, petty criminals, murderers, the criminally insane, the physically unusual, and disappear into the smoke and mirrors beyond dry cleaned shirts and fortnightly spreadsheets.
The boys wear their blue-striped hats and their overalls, and in the dirt behind the shed they practice hobo signs. These might not be the hobo signs in use by that transient mass, but they practice scratching, hiding, recognizing, discovering, honing attention for the days when attention is crucial. Not for the seven times table or the correct spelling of scissors -- but for the express or the local, the northern or southern, the friendly conductor or the aggressive enforcer. They would have built ships, carved canoes, discovered canyons and dinosaurs and the secret unseen lives of the others, but all they hope for now is to disappear.
Now, though, the rail line is scheduled to disappear, a diminishing demand for freight, a lack of maintenance of the infrastructure, new engines too expensive and old cars too worn. Safety standards too strenuous, trade routes too altered, and everything automated for delivery tomorrow. Delivery yesterday.
So this train line will lie quiet at the end of the month, an exploratory team is already in negotiations to erase the link with the secret unseen world of the tracks and replace it with the sanitized acceptabilities of jogging bankers and cycling schoolteachers. The boys will no longer come to this room, paralyzed by the count of engines, box cars, coal cars, flat cars, caboose, struck dumb by the peek into a society they almost belong to. Once they could access the hidden potential of a full life straining at the bit to be grasped, to be experienced, but now the secret code is slipping away.
Without the trains, without the small boys, this room will lie empty and forsaken, until the building is renovated and this becomes the conference room, with patterned chairs in shades of mauve, and a stifling view of the daytime multiuse trail, a reminder during meetings that even leisure is productive. Where will the boys go? Where will the doors crack open into the secret society of unexplored options, the beckoning call of the might have been, the might become?
written Oct. 2, 08
dedicated to MJG