“Children are going through contortions on the benches. Two young men talk in Spanish across an aisle. A man and woman speak German over by the water fountain. The young ticket agent makes regular appearances. He talks briefly with the fat lady, coaxing her out from under her scarf, talks to the crossword-puzzle lady, to a restless and sweaty young man seated by the cigarette machine. ‘It’s coming, it’s coming!’ he assures us all with a big grin, and we think to ourselves, ‘April Fool!’”—Anita Sullivan
On The Other Hand
By Anita Sullivan
EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—7/4/2016—I am lightheaded with fever. This means that when things start going wrong, I don’t even notice. I lug my overstuffed suitcase-without-wheels through all the temporary construction tunnels at the Atlanta airport, down to the ground level; I go outside into the frigid April breeze and stand for half an hour with all the other puzzled and shivering people in the carousel of shuttle vans, and I don’t feel even a blip of irritation. Why didn’t they tell me I would need a sweater in Atlanta? Why are there too many people to fit into each van, and I’m always at the end of the line? It’s 1996, but the Olympics don’t even start for another three months.
The driver snickers when I tell him I’m going to the Amtrak station. He doesn’t bother to ask what time my train leaves. The other people are all going to hotels like the Hilton and the Sheraton, which is what you’re supposed to be doing in an airport van, so we drive them to their hotels first, all eight of them, one at a time. This takes about an hour and a half, during which we tour most of Atlanta. “You think things are bad now?” says the driver sardonically (he has a sardonic mustache), “Already, we’re getting traffic for the Olympics. Already!”
“What if my train were leaving in 15 minutes?” I mutter to myself. But who would go to a train station from an airport? The Atlanta airport probably occupies 5,000 acres and employs a bajillion taxi and van drivers and caterers and shopkeepers and airline mechanics and ticket agents and security personnel. The Amtrak station dozes shabbily in a hollow on a downtown corner, with parking for about a dozen cars. It is possible to reach it by bus from the airport, but first you have to take the subway, then get off at the Art Center and transfer to Bus #23, lugging your (my) ancient suitcase. The subway system is attached to the airport basement like a sucker fish onto its host, pulling people down from the sky to continue their travels beneath the earth. But not to the train station.
I am deposited at the Amtrak station two hours early for my train. “How can this be?” you might well ask. Because there are only two trains per day: the southbound in the morning, and the northbound in late afternoon. The airplane schedules exist in a different world than that of trains. I’m beginning to think my romantic notion of chugging directly into the station at Clemson, South Carolina, scarcely two miles from my parents house—my mother and father waiting on the platform, me actually arriving at home as I used to do so often long ago—beginning to realize my plan may have become like an old home movie, which ends with a great flashing of black and white dots, and then oblivion. But then, I do have a mild fever.
When I walk into the train station, I notice two waiting rooms, one smaller than the other. I suppose this is left over from the days of segregation. A Black woman and her active little boy are the only other people in the station. They are sitting in the small room, so I feel inclined to sit there, too, at least for awhile. The benches “out there” are larger, like old church pews, with high backs and ample seats. The benches “in here” have those stupid little dividers, so you can’t stretch out your feet.
Despite my fever, I decide I’m up for this. I pull out my notebook to work on a poem. I set my lumpy baggage in front of me like a hassock, remove my Birkenstock sandals to put on some socks against the chill, take a slug of water from my water bottle, and feel quite competent. I look up at the cobwebs on the enormous round window at the end of the room, and at the thin April light coming in through its opaque white panes. If I keep my chin up, I might almost believe I’m in a cathedral. But when my chin comes down, I see the old-timey vending machines, and I simply must go and get myself a cup of that vile coffee with the powdered milk that comes out scalding hot into a Styrofoam cup. I buy some peanut butter crackers, the ones of a color between orange and yellow, a color food should not be.
An hour goes by and more people come in. My head starts to ache. A pleasant young ticket office employee is circulating among the waiting crowd, letting each of us know personally that the train is an hour late. This is not a dream. I start to walk around the outer room. I keep excusing myself as I step over the extended legs of an old couple. Finally, I stop to talk to them. They tell me they are going to New York. Their luggage is discreetly scruffy; they seem accustomed to long waits.
I look out through the back door along the platform to the tracks far below the station, the empty tracks. I am in a glass cage. A man in a red shirt goes out this door. Soon I see him making wide gestures with his cigarette. He is standing on the edge of an abyss. The woman doing crossword puzzles has not looked up for an hour now. A taxi driver comes in, asking for a wheel chair. “There’s a big woman out there, a really big one!” he says. They wheel her in, and she heaves herself onto the wide bench, leans back, covers her face with a cowl.
Children are going through contortions on the benches. Two young men talk in Spanish across an aisle. A man and woman speak German over by the water fountain. The young ticket agent makes regular appearances. He talks briefly with the fat lady, coaxing her out from under her scarf, talks to the crossword-puzzle lady, to a restless and sweaty young man seated by the cigarette machine. “It’s coming, it’s coming!” he assures us all with a big grin, and we think to ourselves, “April Fool!”
Some old music is trapped above the ceiling fan, where it gabbles and hisses to itself like a bumblebee unable to escape through a window. I try to listen to it, but its edges have run amok, as if long ago someone forgot to turn it off. One day maybe it will wear itself completely out, and dry up into a fine dust that will rain down from the ceiling and make the passengers sneeze. Gone will be another tradition from the Days of Train.
The train is now an hour and a half late. This is not a dream. I stand at the front window looking out into the city. Across the street is a pancake house. Should I go out for a walk? In Athens, Greece I probably would. Maybe even in Madrid, or Tokyo. But this is the Amtrak station in Atlanta, Georgia. I have a fever. This feels more like a prison now than a cathedral.
Through the thick city dusk in front of the station a man jogs slowly down the sidewalk. He turns his head our way, looks at me for a second or two through the window. He will carry my eyes as seeds in himself, to disburse through the world, as I will carry his. That thought occupies me for quite some time. Everybody has looked at someone who has looked at someone, clear back to Adam and Eve. Thus are we all connected.
The station employees want to go home. “Let’s party!” says one of the young Spanish-speaking men. He is sort of talking about all of us, sort of not. “Is this April Fool’s Day, or what?” says the father of one of the energetic children. People are taking it all philosophically instead of getting angry. There’s a general tendency for conversation, people are looking at one another more often, making exaggerated grimaces and shrugs. This is where the Olympics will take place in a few months; it’s election year; the time is out of joint. I am lightheaded with fever. If we stay here much longer, we’ll probably all be in love.
To order Anita Sullivan’s book, Ikaria: A Love Odyssey on a Greek Island, click on the book cover below.