Thursday, September 25, 2008


After even just three days in a Very Nice Part of Michigan--the left side of the mitten strewn with happy vacationers--I'm feeling a little re-engineered. Just because. Economic crisis or no. It's the quiet when you turn out the lights, the sound of buzzing insects in the woods, a constantly reappearing view of the lake with nothing in it, around it or blocking it. Blueberry farms, more trees, slow drivers, no computers, no real news even. I'm not camping, I'm not roughing it, I am just out of the city. It's good.

I am even, due to a clear lack of thorough planning on my part, stuck here a day extra, sort of. I should have expected not having a ride back earlier in the day. Only it was much better this way. We got up at leisure, hung with our hosts, went to the world's greatest roadside inn (I could eat fried perch every day), saw S's Aunt C.

Now I am alone in a hotel room with a window overlooking a Wal-Mart and no pool access, ready to take the train back tomorrow, and so tired I can't even crawl from the couch to the bed to watch The Devil Wears Prada, which seems (qv tired) so significant that I should be not missing a word. Only I do, and I don't get up as early as I should, which means that at 8:00 a.m. I am already calling the local cab company in a panic about making the 9:02 Amtrak into the city. I keep getting voice mail, that's it. Quite alarming quality in a cab company.

I dress in between fretful dialings of the cell, and hump my luggage sweatily into the Ramada Inn lobby, feeling rather more like more normal urban self, suddenly: peeved, aggrieved, looking for a cab driver to blame for my trouble. Only I'm also feeling just the merest thread of tee-hee in amongst all the angst. This is a huge pain; there is only one train a day, I honestly don't know what I'm going to do if I don't make it, I can't afford any of this, particularly, but still...tee-hee! Travel! Things out of my control. If I miss the train...I miss the train. It is just me and my suitcases. I love that about travel. For this and for other human reasons, I am reining in a major hissy fit. Something will come through.

It does. I am told out of the blue that a hotel employee is going to drive me to the train station. I am sleepily, fulsomely grateful. She pulls up in her mini van, I put my stuff in the back with her kids' car seats, and off we go up and down the back roads to the train station. She is very nice, and--nicely--not super chatty. She shows me photos of her kids, we talk about whether it's more boring to live Here (pretty/empty), where she does, or There (dirty/full), where I do. Country versus city. Her name is Autumn; her dad calls her to remind her it's the first day of Autumn today.

The air is cool and it feels like autumn even if it doesn't entirely look like it. There are rubbings of red and gold on the edges of the green trees. The fruit farms look somewhat dry and picked-over, it seems like children are swept away into school. There is a slight air of being finished for the season in the signage, in the people heading to work.

Due to Autumn's knowledge of back roads, I am at the train station 10 minutes before it is to arrive. She won't let me help with gas money. It's the most adorable train station in the world, re-fashioned out of a train depot built in the 1920s. There is a cluster of about twenty of us there, including some family members seeing people off, for the 9:02. One family has both a baby and a toy Pomeranian. The dog is smaller than the baby, and when he hops down from his owner's arms--his owner looks like a grizzled old farmer--he totters around on tiny jacked-up back legs like a low rider.

I feel, still, free. My hair is looking more and more like Mrs. Claus', and I feel a little nauseous because I am both in the direct sun and across from a pickle factory, but I don't care. I'm on the road. I'm waiting for the train. The wind's blowing a little, there is a bathroom in the depot if necessary, life is good. Tee-hee.

As it is, we wait two hours for the train. This is for a two and a half hour train ride, mind you. I spend most of the time talking to a lady who has retired to this part of Michigan. She is very Chicago: Greek/Swedish, her husband Polish/Catholic, she knows only the south side, and she once went on a double-date or two with Richard Daley (M.) in high school. "He was a dork--he's still a dork," is the most I can get out of her despite multiple probings, making her giggle and me snort. She tells me she fell "for a Fonzie," instead, and has had 40 years of surprises.

The train's comfy. There isn't even a club car, just a sad little corner of a luggage area where an Amtrak employee is selling snacks, which--still--does a really brisk business. You need your refreshments on the train. The conductors are the real thing. Sort of aloof, sort of Henny Youngman, startlingly in the know. Big. It's too hot on the train, but it's still basically comfortable. Even the bleat of the horn doesn't really annoy. I am ground level with town after town of people who all stop to look as we go by. I am really good at looking out the window. I like looking out the window. I doze off. I am thinking the whole time, when I think: we have to have trains. We have to have newspapers. These are businesses of civilization and should not have any choice attached to their existence. We need them. The civic feelings and larger goals attached to their existence, once the ability to make handfuls of non income-taxed cash melted away, should stand on its own now. What is wrong with reasonable profit? Why is our economy dead? I snore.

I am very lucky off the train in Union Station and get some red-cap help right away with my heavy over-packed luggage via a little cart that I don't really know how to describe. It held four us, not including the driver, despite fitting down only one side of the gangway, next to the pillar. And it had a cart behind us for all our luggage. And it did U-turns. It was full of joints and rotating connectors, but how it really worked is still is a mystery. I don't know how this guy did it, got us all up and down and up and down these tiny narrow spaces. I put my arm around the old woman next to me in her pink cardigan in an odd moment of necessary pseudo-intimacy and whooped like a little kid. It was fun.

I drag my luggage to a cab outside Union Station, where things feel very hot, very loud, very pressing. I give my cab driver my address, shout it the second time. He gets it. Then a woman he's been honking at before, during, and after our exchange, whose car is basically blocking his way out of the taxi rank, rolls down her window and starts yelling at him. "You didn't need to be so rude," she starts, "honking like that," although this is clearly the kind of cab driver who uses his horn constantly, like the letter E. He yells back at her about blocking egress from the cab rank. She gets madder, he gets louder. He opens his door to show her the sign, she gets ready to get out of her seat.

I've been smiling at them sort of spacily as they yell. It is very clear they are both exactly right. He was rude, and she is kind of blocking his way. I can see it all. I am mellow. Everything's clear. We are going to sit there forever. I am happy to be finally home but tired, all of a sudden. One long weekend plus two hours late tired about it all. The cab driver started the meter the second my ass touched the seat, and it is the sudden awareness of this fact that kicks me into gear, makes me realize the tee-hees are not relevant. Gotta be in it.

"I'm not paying for this!" I find myself yelling at the cab driver and the woman without thinking about what I'm saying. My hands flail up then drop in the universal urban symbol of whatthefuck. "I'm not paying for an argument!" I yell louder at both of them. She closes her door, rolls up her window, scoots her car out of the way. The cab driver rolls up his window, checks behind for traffic, and off we go. I'm back.


hanne said...

This is perhaps one of the best-written similes to be composed in the English language: ...this is clearly the kind of cab driver who uses his horn constantly, like the letter E.

david ralley said...

who can turn a twin into a twine?
who can turn a pin into a pine?
It's elementary, it's only silent e.

Loved the train travel story. Next time you head west, take the train and tell us about it!

Skip said...

Oh god, this is amazing. I love it. My favorite part is about how we must have trains and newspapers. True. And I can feel the heat and pleasantness of the platform. Thank you for making my Monday!