A ne’er do well Californian, a Chautauqua, New York marathoner with a serious cupcake addiction, a man obsessed with seeing the Mets trounce the Cubs and another man trying to make it home in time to bid his dying 105-year-old mother goodbye walk into a Chicago-bound dining car…
This happens to me a lot. Okay, situations that feel like this seem to happen to me a lot.
I am seated opposite the pristine Chautauquan in her black and Tiffany blue horn rimmeds, and the intense, wiry Mets fan, who wears a plaid shirt over his sports paraphernalia yet still manages to leave me with the impression that under those sleeves, where some might tattoo thorns or Celtic knots or other decisions to be regretted later, his arms will be tattooed with the miniscule, neat and curving lines of baseball stitches.
Neither seems inclined to talk, which is not the way of it at mealtimes on a train, but I have been trying this thing lately where I’m not the first person to speak in any given uncomfortable situation, from the mildly to the excruciatingly so…so I don’t. My toes are curling in my boots with the effort.
At the last call for the five pm dinner slot, a 6’4” gentleman I measure to be in his early sixties with a belly that hovers in front of his otherwise lanky frame like a balloon low on helium, origamis himself into the spot next to me at table. He also says nothing. He makes a steeple of his fingers in front of half-closed eyes, elbows resting on the placemat in front of him.
I look away and out the window at how the westering light plays on the green and gold checkerboard of cultivated land and patches of wildwood, with here and there a tree torching red or orange or yellow, eager to usher autumn full in.
Our order is taken, the Balloon Man removing his finger teepee just long enough to hold the menu up to his nose so he can read it, and still no one has made a move to introduce themselves, to break the ice.
An older gentleman in the booth behind us whose hearing has gone the way of his teeth hollers between the staccato clack of dentures, “MY GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS AT THAT BATTLE, BUT I NEVER GOT TO MEET HIM AS HE UP AND DIED THE DAY I WAS BORN!”
I catch Chautauqua’s eye. Surely sharing a look and a smile with someone isn’t the same as starting the conversation? I haven’t broken whatever the weird, unwritten vow of silence it is I have with myself. Without leaning in or lowering her own voice she confides, “Harpers Ferry. It’s the same man who was talking about it in the waiting area, before we boarded. You could hear him all the way across the room.”
Excited that someone is finally speaking, I am eager and inane: “I got to the train kind of last minute, so I wasn’t in the waiting area at all before we had to board.” I gesture over my shoulder in the direction of the old man whose great grandfather fought, on a side indeterminate, at the Battle of Harpers Ferry. “But I like him. I like stuff like that.”
Chautauqua nods and smiles without using her teeth, her smooth blond hair moving not a whit out of place, and I think to myself she is just the sort of cool blonde Hitchcock would have approved. We lapse back into silence. To amuse myself and because I like symmetry, I sit wondering if there is also a Cary Grant-type here somewhere on the train, hiding out in a bathroom or half-suffocating in a bunk, waiting for her to give him mouth-to-mouth.
Trains set you off kilter, gift you sea legs on dry land; the fancies we pack in our bags and bring along when we travel by rail buoy the train along the tracks despite the clickety-clack and the awkward, cramped roomettes and the meals of warmed over fish and sugar free pudding, and the half-resentful air of the conductors and the recurring, inexplicable smell of broccoli in the corridors. What we imagine about trains has little to do with the reality of train travel, but nearly everything to do with the romance we ourselves bring aboard, clinging to our clothes and carryons, making these impossible scenarios seem more plausible. Also: too many old movies.
If I were laying odds, I would have placed my bet on Mets to speak next, if only to start spewing baseball stats. He was wound up – forgive me, the metaphor is apt – like a pitch. But before he can say anything, the Balloon Man pipes up, through his finger teepee.
“Well I’m sorry if I’m not great company but this is the second time I’m doing this trip in three days and I haven’t slept since six o’clock yesterday morning because no sooner did I get to Virginia but my brother called me and said, ‘You’d better hurry home if you want to see your mother alive again for the last time,’ so like I said forgive me if I’m not good company usually I’d be the best company you can have on a train but not tonight.”
Consoling sounds that aren’t exactly words come from the rest of us seated at the table. Mets’ highstrung energy is knocked down a register, and he and Chautauqua share a covert “Here we go” glance. I raise my hand to the Balloon Man’s sweatshirt-clad shoulder. I think it’s the sweatshirt that makes me do it. No one should have to be that sad in a violently purple Lake Tahoe sweatshirt.
“I’m so sorry. And I’m sure there’s no need to apologize to us. It’s completely understandable.”
“Completely understandable,” echo Mets and Chautauqua, nodding in unison, because faced with a stranger’s tragedy in a transient moment, it is easiest to be an undifferentiated voice in a Greek chorus of grief.
The Purple Balloon Man nods his acceptance of our feeble offerings, but still insists, “No, I need forgiveness.” He shakes his head like a dog dislodging a tick and removes his hands from before his mouth. “So what are we all doing here? You, young lady, what brings you on the Capitol Limited?” he stabs a finger at Chautauqua, a bad play at forced light-heartedness making him appear more aggressive than I’m sure he means.
Chautauqua, bless her, is unflappable. She observes him coolly over her glasses. “Just a little weekend getaway. My best friend lives in DC. She moved there to get her Masters.” I get the feeling that offering up this much information to him is out of character and a supreme act of kindness on her part.
The Purple Balloon Man, however, is not satisfied. “And what did you do there?”
Chautauqua frowns, shrugs. “Georgetown. Jazz.” Brightening, “I have DOZENS of cupckakes from Georgetown Cupcakes in my roomette, which may or may not make it all the way back home.” This is not an offer to the table at large, nor does she say this like she is joking.
She suddenly leans in conspiratorially, and as someone who I guess looks like they could appreciate the following story she says directly to me with more animation I’ve seen from her yet, “You know Georgetown Cupcakes? They have a Kitchenaid mixer, pink, with rhinestones on it, that they say was a gift or a prize or something from someone important. They were on television. Have you seen the lines? They go out the door sometimes. But I called ahead and just picked up.”
I make all the corresponding faces of simulated surprise and delight throughout this little speech. I’m pretty sure Chautauqua called ahead before she was born, and demanded cupcakes await her arrival.
Satisfied or bored, the Purple Balloon Man turns his attention to Mets. “And you, young man?” Young being a relative term.
“I’m headed to Chicago to see some baseball…” he catches himself “…to see the Mets BEAT the cubs,” he says with exactitude.
“Mmmhmm, mmmhmm,” the Purple Balloon Man is thoughtful. “My mother says if they win she’ll have been there for their first win AND what hopefully won’t be their last.”
Mets is riveted. “Their first? But that was in 1908!”
The salad comes, and between what sounds to me like an excessive amount of crunching for this limp train salad, Purple Balloon Man clarifies, “Well. She was born in 1910. But when she was a little girl she remembers it still felt like they were winners.”
“Oh.” Mets sits back and attends to his own plate. Over the table hangs both the unspoken and uncharitable fact that while we all feel bad for the Purple Balloon Man, 105 years is a pretty good run. Also, that the Purple Balloon Man is given to bending the truth. I, as a storyteller, support and appreciate this.
Silence and chewing, chewing and silence. Swallowing.
“My mother has lived in Chicago all her life,” our patron saint of unlikelihood intones, with an air of pronouncement. “I think maybe she’s just holding on to see the Cubs win. Give her one, last, little bit of joy before she shuffles off.”
What will Mets say to this? He looks uncomfortable and at a loss. I’ve foregone the depressed salad for a glass of what I’m assured is white wine. This is probably why I say, making the face of mock admonition you, if you know me even a little, have seen me make, “Well I guess you can’t root for the Mets, now.”
This is greeted, luckily, by a general laugh. But then Mets grimaces, pauses before forking in another bite of salad and mutters, “I guess we can let ‘em win a coupla games.” Perfect.
Now the main course has come, and the Purple Balloon Man, tired I think, of ruminating on the end of the matriarchal line yet loathe to let anyone else dominate the conversation, sends his steak back because there are vegetables touching it on the plate, commences a long lecture about how one should always order their meat cooked one degree lower than they’d actually like it on a train, laments that real china is no longer used on board, and regales us with a series of grim airline stories that account for his dedicated rail travel.
“And my daughter was only two years old, two. years. old. And they didn’t trust the little pink jumpsuit she was wearing for the cold, so they wanted to take her in a back room to check it for explosives and I tell them, ‘I’m her father, and I don’t know you, and I don’t know you, and she’s only two years old so I’m going, too’ and they tell me ‘Sir, you can’t do that and if you continue to resist we will call in the FBI and have you arrested.’” He pauses for dramatic effect.
“So what’d you do?” I ask, less because I believe him or am sincerely interested, and more because politeness dictates and I am on automatic pilot and if no one asks he’ll continue, all right, but probably louder, to make sure we’re all listening.
“I let them take her. I just wanted to get her home.”
This bums me out. This bums the whole table out. So when it’s time for dessert and the Purple Balloon Man bullies us all into the tiramisu – “You can almost taste the rum in it!” we none of us resist.
I am on the inside of the bench seat, closest to the window, and the Purple Balloon Man is a slow eater. Half his steak is still there, and even some stalwart salad from the first course remains, limping along. It’s when the rest of us are halfway through the plastic potted tiramisu that I know what’s going to happen. Chautauqua begins to send her fingers casually, like exploratory scouts, into the depths of her purse for a tip. Mets sees this and hurries to pull a fiver from his own wallet. I look at them, not quite beseechingly, but with mute incredulity. I thought we were in this together, I scream at them with my eyes. But they refuse to look at me directly while they make their perfunctory goodbyes. I watch them over my shoulder all the way out of the dining car.
“Well, it’s just you and me now, young lady. No one else wants to hear an old man’s stories.” This is the way of old guys on trains. They know.
And I know I’m in for it when the Purple Balloon Man settles back and begins with a neat exposition of his surname.
“I don’t think there’s a hundred people in the United States with my last name. My name is a German-Aryan name that no one can ever pronounce. Starts with a G—“ He proceeds to spell it. I proceed to pronounce it, because it is not a difficult name, particularly if you have any knowledge of German. He proceeds to be piqued.
“Well there you go. One in a million chance.” Man, I can’t get any credit.
Over the next half hour, I manage two or three polite interjections, which are mostly plowed under for fodder in the field of Mr. G—‘s soliloquy. I would like to share with you a portion of the lecture I received, to the best of my recollection, which I’ve titled Rich Men’s Wives and Kids These Days: The Nameless Scourge Undermining Family Values and Ruining America, a treatise delivered October 19, 2015 by Floyd G—, as he crosses between time zones via rail on his way to see his possibly 105-year-old mother for the last time.
Kids these days, they don’t understand the meaning of hard work.* My grandmother, she worked cleaning out the school buses in the Thirties in Milwaukee. They’d park ‘em all in this big , cold warehouse, no heat no air conditioning, and she’d work all night cleaning ‘em so they’d be ready to go out again in the morning.
“That does sound like hard work.”
Damn right it was hard work! And cold in the winter. Hot in the summer. And what little in the way of clothes she had on her back and she had to get on her hands and knees and clean up after kids and winos who got sick in the back of the bus on the ride home.
[Winos? I thought we were talking about school buses, but okay. IT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME, ANNE]
On her hands and knees! For a pittance by today’s standards, by any day’s standards. And on the weekends, she worked at Woolworth’s. You remember Woolworth’s, with the soda counter, where you could get a hamburger? No way you could remember Woolworth’s. You know Ray Kroc? The McDonald’s billionaire? You wanna read an excellent biography, a true American story, you read his. He worked selling malted machines, you know, that stir up the shakes? He got a contract, got Mr. Woolworth or whomever, to buy up a malted machine for every store. He got a bonus for brokering that deal, Ray Kroc, that’s how he made his money. I don’t remember what his cut was, was it $32,000 or $37,000, but it was somewhere in there. And you know what he did? He went home to his first wife and said, ‘I’m gonna buy a name.’ So he approached the McDonald family in Des Plaines, Illinois, and he used all his money to buy a name.
[As a California nerd, I’m pretty that the first McDonald’s were in San Bernardino, though it is true that Kroc opened his first in Des Plaines; I know at this point though that there’s no stopping Floyd on a roll, so I keep it to myself]
A name! His wife thought he was crazy. She left him. But you know what, she’d stuck by him all through the downturn in the mixer business and how difficult that was, and he never forgot her. When he died, he left her with seven-point-five million in McDonald’s stock. He’d remarried, but he still took care of her. Yes sir, he took a gamble on a name, took his bonus and sold his house and car right out from under the wife and it paid off! Young people don’t know how to take chances like that these days, don’t want to risk anything, just like Ray Kroc’s first wife.
“Don’t you think maybe it’s that many young people feel displaced, and that the kind of honest, hard work your grandmother did has been so denigrated in our society that those jobs aren’t even seen as an option?”
They don’t have any family values! Like Sam Walton’s wife. I worked for Wal-Mart, oh, must’ve been ten years a while back, and the whole time I worked there it was a class operation. A strong family values company. None of this working on Thanksgiving. You want us to give up one of the few days off we have, Thanksgiving day, the day we have to prepare for that God awful Black Friday? That isn’t even humane. But I guess they feel like they have to do it to make the money, to get their money’s worth. Kids these days don’t wanna work. To recoup, they got to be open just about 24-7, I suppose. Even McDonald’s is open on Thanksgiving. Used to be you couldn’t find a place open on a Sunday, let alone Thanksgiving day. You mark my words, before you or I are in the grave, we’ll see these places open on Christmas day. It all comes down to family values. Wal-Mart was a good, strong family values store. Ever since Sam Walton died and his wife’s took over, things have gone downhill.
“Is it really his wife? Isn’t Wal-Mart a publicly traded company?”
I mean, sure there’s a whole whaddyacallit, board of directors or whatever, but you think if she wasn’t so greedy they’d be open Thanksgiving? No. It all went downhill after old Sam passed. Made no provision for his people. I suppose people do what they have to do. You know, I did some research on that ancestry.com, you now that ancestry.com? It’s wonderful. I found out my father stole tickets to a Cubs game when he was a boy, and got caught, and was in jail for two days, and paid a fine of seven dollars and fifty cents. I told my mother about it, and she said, ‘How do you even know it was him?’ and I said, ‘Mother, how many Floyd G—‘s were living at that time and were exactly that age and would’ve done something like that?’ I don’t think there’s a hundred people in the United States with that last name.
The nice thing about Floyd G— is that when he’s done holding you hostage he’s done. He leaves you feeling what I imagine a sentient spittoon, full, would feel like, but eventually he does go. In fact, he gets up with an alacrity that belies his size, his purple balloon belly hovering over the edge of the table as he looks down at me and says “Well, it was nice talking
at to you. Sorry I’m not as good company as I would be in other circumstances. Usually I am full of interesting facts and anything you’d want to know about the railroad.” I have a very hard time imagining what Floyd would be like unbound by the constraints of grief.
“What is your mother’s name, Mr. G—?”
“Ethel. Her name’s Ethel. What makes you ask?”
“Just, I’ll be thinking about her. And you. And for the record, my name is Anne, Mr. G— my name’s Anne.”
*Author’s note: people really do say these things, though the odds of finding them saying these things on trains is significantly improved, because older people.
I’m always amazed by the people you meet on your travels. It’s like stumbling onto this new world where the rules aren’t the same, but they’re familiar anyway.
I think that’s an excellent definition of travel, Bryn. In the States, anyway. Some places, nothing’s familiar and the rules are hard to figure. Those are the most challenging spaces for me, but also the places I feel most alive.
love your style of writing.
Thanks so much, Jeff!