Archive for poverty

Train Hopping

Posted in Prose with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2010 by 1writegirl

Glory days
They’ll pass you by, glory days
In the wink of a young girl’s eye, glory days
.
–– Bruce Springsteen

When I was a young girl and my life was full of fresh ripe choices every which way I turned, I found myself almost incapable of staying anywhere for long. The year I graduated from college and moved to L.A. to take a job with a major airline, I moved seven times, from one end of the state to the other and back before flinging myself 3,000 miles away to see what other possibilities might await. Such is the glory of youth, the unwavering and compelling faith that each move you make in a new direction will be a better move than the one you made before; the perception that there are no wrong or bad choices, only adventures of one sort or another.

I traveled exclusively by car in those days for my domestic transitions, and got on a bus or an airplane only every now and then to visit my family. Traveling to Europe, though I would have loved to book a passage on the QE2 had my circumstances allowed, was undertaken necessarily by plane. I wonder now that it didn’t occur to me to find a wealthy old dowager who was preparing to cross the Atlantic in need of a companion, or a couple with children in search of a nanny.

Like most Americans of my generation, I’d seen movies about trains, read books about trains, and learned about the importance of rail travel during American westward expansion in History class at school. Trains, in my mind, were associated with romance, the wild west, old money, mystique, and of course, a criminal element. But rail travel, at least while I was growing up, was either too spotty or too expensive or both to make it a viable form of transportation for trips of any length. So it was while I was in Europe, tenderly and enthusiastically just turned eighteen, that I rode my first train; where it was and still is the preferred method of transportation because it is efficient, cost-effective and highly accessible. I remember zooming southward out of Paris on the TGV, the first of many train trips I would make over the next two months within and between countries, and wondering what lurid and mysterious situations I might encounter. You can’t read Murder on the Orient Express or watch Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” under the age of twenty and expect your first excursion on a train to be anything less than a potentially sinister affair. Mine, as it turns out, was more sordid than sinister. I was cornered in an otherwise empty car while traveling at 180 mph or so through a tunnel by a probably-drunk Frenchman in a business suit who simultaneously clapped a hand over my mouth and attempted to force his way under my skirt. I managed to free myself with a good bit of elbow thrusting and one or two well-aimed or just lucky kicks, and hurtled myself out of the compartment, down the passageway and into the dining car where I remained, skittish and hyper-alert, for the duration of the journey.

Undeterred, I continued to think of train travel as a desirous form of transportation, and still do. I have, since then, ridden on several trains both outside of and within the United States, and while nothing that I’d consider romantic has ever happened to me on one, I don’t discount the possibility that it might. Being both a writer and a nomad, my thoughts of trains tend to gravitate toward a previous era when the haves with lavish jewels and expensive champagne were onboard, in ordained and oblivious comfort, the well-lit and posh trains with sleeper cars and first class; while the have-nots were onboard without sound, without fanfare, under cover of darkness and without permission, the dirty half-empty freight, cattle cars, and cargo trains. I wish that I could say, as an old woman telling stories of her glory days to her grandchildren, that I had been both passengers, on both kinds of trains; that I’d been on both sides of the coin, the head and the tail, the heiress and the tramp, depending on the year, the circumstances, the companion.

These days I live in a town with regular train service daily, both passenger and freight, to points north and south, the Amtrak station sitting several blocks from my house on the southern edge of old downtown. When the whistle blows at night, I’ll sometimes hear Arlo Guthrie in the breezy aftermath, or picture the look on Gary Cooper’s face in “High Noon” as he anticipated the arrival of death. The high school which my son attends, the only one in town, is just across the tracks.

Last Saturday was the first football game of the season, and his first ever. He’s a wide receiver — though there is nothing remotely wide about his reedy, sinewy frame. I say this with a wry grin and the chosen ignorance of someone who knows as little about the game as it’s possible to know. I envisioned him snapping like a twig under the weight of a full-on tackle and forced my thoughts elsewhere as my beloved and I ambled over to the stadium on foot, confronted when we got to the tracks and our usual shortcut by a passing train, with old rusted near-empty cars that had ladders running from top to bottom of each. It slowed as we stood there, and for a few moments we watched it silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We looked up and down the tracks but it was a long train and we couldn’t see the end of it in either direction, and as it grinded to a halt, he turned to me. “Want to hop the train?” he said, grinning. I looked up and pictured myself scrambling up the ladder of the closest car, scooting across the top, lying low and out of sight to the other side, then shimmying down the opposite ladder. Or would we stay on top of the car, our bodies pressed hard and flat into the warm metal surface until the train passed out of this town and into another, then jump off before it came to a halt? “Yeah,” I said, smiling back at him. “I do,” wondering as I said it what I would do if it was the latter idea he had in mind. After all, he is a nomad, too. But it was neither. He jumped up on the iron bars between the two closest cars, treading carefully along the metal yoke toward the inside till he got to the halfway point, and turned to face me. He braced himself, then held out a hand in my direction. I took it, he pulled me up, and I followed him across to the other side. He jumped down and turned around, putting his broad hands around my waist. As he lifted me gently to the ground I closed my eyes and saw the coin again, saw myself in cashmere coat and black hat, black silk gloves to the elbow and cuban stockings with a seam down the back, cigarette holder in one hand, a  martini in the other; flipped it over and saw the furtive chase, the raggedy, tattered clothes and duffel bag, the hands-out climb aboard, the musty darkness, the squeaky breaks a wake-up call, the need for imminent, albeit stealthy departure.

As we walked away from the tracks and toward the football field, I glanced back at the train, now moving again, slowly but gaining momentum. My glory days are behind me, I thought to myself. And yet if circumstances were different, I might have truly and literally hopped that train.

Someday, I still might.

Rambling Revelations I

Posted in Prose with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2009 by 1writegirl

The office manager in the urologist’s office where I work doesn’t like me. I haven’t yet been able to ascertain whether it’s personal or not. I suspect she wouldn’t like anyone who is currently doing the work she formerly did before she informed the doctor she needed help with her workload. I suspect she’s of the opinion, “Nobody does it better.” Or as well. Or if things continue on as they are, at all. Does that make sense? Not to me, either. But I’m waiting for her to corner me behind the water cooler and say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but you just aren’t working out here. It’s not a good fit. The doctor would have spoken to you personally but he’s extremely busy, well, doctoring, so he asked me to let you know. Go ahead and leave right now…”

Sensing the inevitable, I actually tried to quit last week, in an effort to save everyone the unsavory consequences of being stuck with an employee who “isn’t a good fit.” I came into the office, announced to OM that clearly I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of things, so much for that extensive college education, and why didn’t we all just cut our losses right now and I’d be on my merry way. After all, 72 other applicants applied for this job, surely one of them is still willing and available. She said she’d been too hard on me, would I please forgive her, and doctor would like to see me. I marched into his office where I presented the same speech, then added for good measure a bit about how I’d gotten spoiled from living off my savings after selling my house a few years ago, which allowed me to simply write and not have to worry about mundane and annoying little distractions like making a living. I told him, in a burst of bare naked honesty, that I realized after working in his office for two weeks, “how much I really detest office work.” He seemed surprised to hear this. “It’s not rocket science,” he told me. “Precisely,” I said. I waited for my dismissal. Instead, he announced he’d chastised OM for what he referred to as picking on me, and asked me if I’d give them another chance.

So here I am, filing charts and sending faxes and making appointments and dodging phone calls having to do with patients wanting tomorrow’s laboratory results today and nursing home facilities wanting to speak to doctor about the prescription for Mrs. Smith’s increasingly bothersome incontinence, and thinking what a relief it would be if OM really did fire me. Which is crazy stupid, because I need the money, and this is the only job, albeit part-time, I’ve got at present. Yet the fact is, I hold onto this position for that reason alone, and have to drag my sorry ass in to work it filled with compunction and reluctance every time. The fact is, I detest living in a world where your worth is based on what you do to acquire money, and acquiring money is the primary motivating force for your existence once you reach the age of “independence.” This world is so wrapped up in the exchange of performing some duty for receipt of an intangible which we endow with power and sustenance that those who reject the logic and benefit of such a system are shunned outright as slackers, bums, worthless leaches and downright losers. Creativity for its own sake is given no value whatsoever, and there is no such thing as the inherent worth of a human being. You are tolerated at best, and made to feel ashamed and inferior for your lack of “contribution to society” if you don’t throw yourself wholeheartedly into the pursuit of work for remuneration. That’s just how it is and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Still, I think I’ll secretly continue to fantasize about OM giving me a pink slip. Somehow the idea that it’s right around the corner makes it just a tad easier to bear when she sighs deeply and takes a chart from my hands, muttering under her breath, “I’ll just do it myself, that way I know it’ll be done right. Go and make 100 copies of that form, will you?”

And if I don’t ever get the hang of it? So much the better. As Bindo says, doing stuff is overrated. I mean really, what I long to do, what my heart cries out for – shit, gotta run. OM is coming and I still haven’t collected those urine samples…