I had no intention of writing about this–Trenton of all places–but spending one’s time doing piano exercises leads the mind to wander and point by point, well, everything belongs somewhere. I moved in to my room in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, and, after a quick dinner, unpacked and set up my music things to spend until 2am finishing my composition assignment. In the morning I dallied…
I used to see signs, advertisements, ‘what sort of traveler are you?’ accompanying idiotic photographs of things that this traveler or that traveler does, like carrying a surfboard, or looking at baskets of exotic peppers and roots, or holding a camera. What sort of traveler am I? What a stupid question. What sort of traveler am I? I’m the sort of traveler who will treat a situation with mechanical ease if pressed to absorb too much too quickly, and I’ll walk away with nothing. I went to the Louvre twice–both times it was free, and both times I used the ‘secret’ entrance that doesn’t have a line. And what did I see? Mostly Watteau. I spent hours with Watteau. Both times. I never see any of the exciting things I’m supposed to see. Everything seems larger than life until I arrive, and I’m stricken with the thought that I’m only rushing forward to see a Thing, just this Thing, which doesn’t have much relevance to my life, and I’ve never particularly longed to see it before. What have I longed to see? Not the Mona Lisa, but Watteau, yes, I’ve longed to see Watteau. So I’m that twat who sits on the floor, gets in your way, who just stares and takes notes. Sorry. I need time. I take most things slowly, I take them until I’ve had enough, and then I move on, like a baby pausing with a cheerio half in its mouth, watching you before finally looking away.
I spent a lot of my childhood traveling, it seems, and I think I remember nearly all of it. I didn’t appreciate much of it, though I gasped when I was told I should, but it’s difficult to appreciate anything that hasn’t been denied you. It’s difficult to recognize beauty when you haven’t been shown much in the way of ugliness.
As I dressed, checked the weather (which is a useless action on my part, as I’ll dress the same regardless), made sure the cat was alive, locked the door, and left, I looked at my little handmade map and wondered if I should take a taxi to the trains, or perhaps I should just walk. No. No. Walking is lovely, it’s how I usually get around! because it leaves me in complete control, and taxis are most efficient, but…my little map said I should take a certain bus. It would cost $2. I had exactly that many quarters in my shirt pocket. But it’s a bus. A city bus. Where would I put the money? Or sit? Or get off? And every time it moves I’ll fall over, and nobody will like me, and it’ll smell bad, and there’ll be children everywhere. I stood at the corner with a very short, old man and his short, old wife, and a third short, old man. They spoke another language. Trucks kept coming and parking in front of the bus stop, and then behind one another, so that we didn’t know where the bus would be. I just followed the three old people wherever they went. I felt like we shared something. The bus came. They all flashed passes, I put my quarters in the slot. In France the busses would blast off like spaceships, the driver would multitask, tipping the bus over corners while counting the change you placed in his little tray, and then typing something, the ticket coming out of the machine, and then you’d slide to the back of the bus, over the accordion in the middle, and pray. This bus eased into everything. I got off at the wrong stop. I walk quickly, and by the time I got to the stop I was supposed to get off at, the three short, old people were getting off the bus. They didn’t even recognize me.
It’s this feeling I love, of being back on the road, of not knowing what I’m doing, but knowing I’ll do it somehow. And I don’t think experience helps. Every place is different, every building, every city, has its own customs, even the pizza shop in Amherst, Antonio’s, has its own customs, and when customers don’t know the customs, well, it mucks up the system. All the ticket windows had signs saying they were closed. They pointed off into space, go to the other ticket windows. I paced for a minute before going to the closed ticket windows and asking where the others were. The woman told me she was open. I asked for a round trip ticket to New York. She said I’d have to go to the other ticket windows. When traveling I always have my eyes on, my country-mouse eyes, so that people, especially women, become very motherly and sweet to me, I’m excessively polite, I appear confused. And then I walk confidently, I keep my chin raised and my eyes set, I pretend I know what’s going on. At the other window they said their machines were broken, they couldn’t sell me a round trip ticket to New York. But they could sell me one to Trenton, and once there I could buy another one.
On the train I felt hypersensitive, I mean, everything was brighter and more saturated than usual, so when this guy sat next to me in his wife-beater, smelling of sweat and old cigarettes and warm beer, and then produced a paper bag of horrible meat, finishing that with a dessert of spicy pepperoni, I waited and waited for my nose to become accustomed to it, please, I prayed, please don’t let him begin chewing tobacco and spitting into a cup, I couldn’t bear it, and as the car cleared out he refused to get up and move, he just sat with me. And then he was gone.
Trenton took two seconds, bought my ticket, waited with a bunch of aging-rock-star sorts, and then off to New York. Penn Station. I had 13 minutes left, and that wasn’t enough time to be a subway hero, so I hailed a cab and got to the building with 2 minutes to spare. Hooray. They served us coffee in china cups and saucers. It was delicious coffee.
Internet timetables said the last train that would connect in Trenton would be leaving at 23:06, so after a spicy Indian dinner with Caleb we parted ways, I told him confidently that I knew which sub would carry me back to the station, and he said okay but that he had to make a call before he went underground, so goodbye, and once underground I found I really didn’t know which train to take, and I hid behind a column so that he couldn’t see stupid me waiting for my imaginary subway-train to Penn Station.
I got there.
I missed the train right before the correct one because I found the train before I found where to buy a ticket. I bought the ticket, the train left without me, I caught the one I’d planned on catching. It was luxurious. All five of us sat on the left side. It smelled of sweat. The train wobbled and swayed nauseatingly. I moved from the window seat to the aisle to be closer to its center, like you’re supposed to do on a plane, I took an antiemetic, I felt better, and we arrived in Trenton at 1am. I bought my next ticket. Rushed down to the next train, and the conductor said it wouldn’t be leaving until nearly 6am.
This is the sort of thing I love the most.
To be stuck at a train station at a generally ungodly hour, alone, hungry, tired, where do I go? what do I do? but knowing that it’s not really worth doing more than smiling about things, because it’s not like any harm will come of the situation, probably.
I walked slowly back up the staircase, the police sat at the top, a young woman was speaking to them, and the key word I picked up was ‘internet’–she walked over to the screens showing the timetables. I followed her there and asked if she missed the train to Philly also. She had. We’d seen bad timetables. She could go back to her friend’s place. I could go back to New York, get to Caleb’s place by 4am or so. I hoped she’d decide to just stay. She did. Maybe I tried talking her into it, I don’t remember, but I know it wasn’t difficult.
I remember her shoes, they looked like they were yarn socks, and I remember she had three-quarter length sleeves, I remember the color of her eyes, the shape of her nose, her lips, her teeth, her smile, her complexion, and how the skin rounded her hands and fingers. I don’t remember anything else, not her voice, not even her face.
I suggested we take a walk somewhere, try to find someplace open late. We left the station, there was a police car parked across the street, and a cemetery, an old man on a bench coughing,
‘we should remember landmarks or something,’ she said.
‘there’s that old bum.’
‘he might move.’
‘he doesn’t sound like it.’ we turned the corner at a church, turned to the left, and in the night there were no cars, no lights, no people, just building after silent, dead building, she said she wasn’t cold, I felt responsible for her, no gas stations, no convenience stores, every block the same, I would check behind us, I told her that I have tendency to get myself into bad situations, ‘do you get out again?’
‘well, I’m here now. But, what I mean is that you should not entirely trust that going along with me here is safe, so if anything seems like a bad idea, speak up, okay?’
We briefed each other about where we’d been that day, about who we are, where we are from, what we do, what we hope to do. We had Judaism in common, and being in the period of days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.
It’s during these days that we’re supposed to ask forgiveness from anyone we’ve hurt in the past year. I haven’t been able to come up with anyone from whom I haven’t already asked forgiveness. Last year I had to make a number of embarrassing phone calls. This year I think I’ve been pretty decent. It unsettles me. I must have been awful to Somebody. I’m unsettled.
A taxi stopped at a light nearby, I went to his window and asked if he knew anyplace that was open. He asked why we were outside and I told him. He said ‘go back to the train station and don’t leave it. And definitely don’t walk any further, this is a dangerous place, you’re going to get mugged, go back, right now, go back and stay indoors until your train comes, okay?’ So we began walking back. This time I was able to walk on the side of road, which is where the gentleman is supposed to walk, but switching sides felt somehow awkward before. The cab met us fifteen minutes later, told us to get in, and then sped off, taking us to the back of the station where a cafe was, he said. He said that for $80 he’d take us to Philly, but I told him I only had $15 on me and apologized. He wouldn’t accept any money from us, but made us assure him we’d stay indoors. We sat at metal patio furniture, drinking hot chocolate under a Coca-Cola umbrella, indoors. We spoke for hours, she never looked tired, she rested her arms on the table, one hand always very near mine, leaning over the table, making eye contact, engaged, laughing, smiling, easy discussion, creeping towards political views, families, religious experiences, as I found she’d been brought up far more religious than I had, it was simple, it was enjoyable. At some point she sat back in her chair, crossed her arms like she was cold, and I couldn’t figure out how it intersected with anything we’d been discussing.
We took a walk toward the bathrooms, I was in there for less than a minute and she was out before me, she said a homeless woman was brushing her teeth and gagging in there, and afterwards we sat on benches on the wall. An old man sat down next to me and began telling me about how he’d been schizophrenic but that he took medication for six weeks and it cured him. He’d left the hospital after being there for a decade. He’d strangled the nurse. He’d kill his sister. He laughed and laughed and laughed. I suggested to her we take a walk. We went to the timetables, we stood there watching people around us rushing and doing everything with so much more energy than necessary, moving like death was in pursuit, and they announced the train was boarding. She chose a seat for three, put her bag between us, sat with her knees up, her shoes off, we kept speaking softly, waiting for the train to move, in between silences she’d catch my eyes and then we’d quickly look away. She began biting her nails for the first time that evening. Eyes. And she would close them;–rest her head, and then open them gently and catch mine, and then close hers again. The train lurched forward, she didn’t fall, she didn’t flinch, she rested her cheek on the rubber seat, or in the air, I told her she didn’t have to sleep like that, she said, ‘no, it’s fine’ with a tone of finality, and with that bag between us, with her legs and feet and her bag between us, three armed sentinels, all was still, and all was silent.
One night in the guest house of a British MP I was curled up on a sofa speaking with Nassar, he was telling me about his childhood in India, his travels across America, he served me lamb samosas, and as I took a bite he said ‘I hope you’re not vegetarian.’ He told me about how in nearly anywhere in the world if you sit up with somebody, anybody, and speak with them half the night, learn about each other, it brings you closer to that person, and that the next day you two have a closer relationship, you look at each other with different eyes, but that in America, you sit up with someone half the night, tell your stories and get to know each other, and the next day at work, they pretend it never happened. Americans are friendlier, yes, but their relationships are shallower, their friendships are almost meaningless, their words, no matter how heartfelt, are nearly empty.
It was nearly 7am when the train woke me up, I touched her shoulder–her shirt sleeve was white–30th Street Station bustling, again, we were sequoias, and they were mosquitos, we walked slowly, they were being born and dying faster than we could breathe, she didn’t look at me, at the lobby the air roared, we faced each other and couldn’t make it halfway through any sentences, being shoved by people, unable to continue speaking softly because of all the noise, so much movement, so much light, so much sound, so unlike our little Trenton, I began to ask if she–I’m no good at these sorts of things, I’ve rarely bothered, it’s difficult with anyone, even with Caleb, knowing him for years, our goodbye was awkward and difficult, yeah, we’ll get together soon (of course we will, we have unspoken weekly dinner arrangements), Jessica makes it easy by hugging me and saying something encouraging about the future, and Céline would smile and wink before ducking into a car, but here, in the 30th Street Station, her whole body screamed reticence and foreboding, she looked at me with eyes that said ‘I’ve never seen you before in my life’–
‘I’ll be around for a few–‘
‘I don’t know my schedule, but, I mean, you can call me maybe, I don’t know, maybe.’
I thought about all the times I’ve given fake phone numbers to people, fake names, fake e-mail addresses, all the times I’ve climbed through bathroom windows and hitched rides with paperboys, and the branch she was clutching snapped, and wordlessly she was washed away toward the trolleys, and I turned back upstream, walked as quickly as I could, chin raised, eyes set, walked right into the dead end of a windowed hallway, oh so lost.