Wednesday, November 23, 2005

We have been delayed

It's 1:45 a.m. as I write this, sitting on Amtrak train #177, stopped somewhere outside of Baltimore, in the early hours of the day before Thanksgiving. It's one year since our friend Russell died. And tonight, someone else has died.

It was a long day at school today; I was in class in the morning with second-year graduate students, and in the afternoon with the first-year students. It was a gray day, with torrential cold rain. I hadn't brought an umbrella, so I arrived at school dripping, soaked through. The entire building had the distracted, buzzing energy of a snow day; everyone was looking forward to the holiday, but we were all stuck inside while it stormed outside. The first-year students were presenting extended musical sequences that they had adapted from their choice of four assigned films - Jackie Brown, Eat Drink Man Woman, Gods and Monsters, and Adaptation. The students are finding their footing as writers, producing more and better material every week - they are also showing signs of exhaustion. The faculty members are also displaying symptoms of fatigue - as I gulped down a quick lunch of Asian noodle soup in an East Village hole-in-the wall with two colleagues, we all commiserated about how we wanted the endurance to just get through this day. We were of course karmically punished, as we had thought the afternoon class started fifteen minutes later than it actually did - we arrived late, with a roomful of students starting to hyperventilate that they might miss their assorted trains and planes.

Class finally concluded at five o'clock. I didn't need to rush, as my train to Baltimore did not leave until 8:30. I made my way to Penn Station, where it was a madhouse (although not as wild as it would undoubtedly be the next day.) I was granted entrance into the "Club Acela" waiting room, thanks to my status as a frequent Amtrak traveller. I cooled my heels until a few minutes before the train was due to board. It was then that I discovered that I did not have my ticket.

Ordinarily, I pick up my ticket at the station to avoid exactly this sort of nightmare. This time, to get the jump on the Thanksgiving rush, I bought my return to Baltimore early. Now the ticket was nowhere to be found. It was too late to get another ticket for the same train, but I managed to get a seat on the ten o'clock train. I called school; the cheery student from New Zealand confirmed that I'd left a folder with papers and my ticket there. Well, at least it wasn't gone.

I hung around "Club Acela", being treated like the guest who wouldn't leave, since almost everyone else had clambered aboard an actual Acela train. "You waiting for a train .... ?" the attendant asked, perhaps concerned that I had had one too many complimentary ginger ales.

Finally, the train arrived at Penn Station; magically, I had guessed which track it would arrive at, and was at the front of the pack of wildebeest thundering down the escalator vying for seats. Success! I would be arriving in Baltimore much later than I had hoped, but at least I would get there. A sleepy David said that, no, he would not be at the station to meet me (which as it turns out was a good plan, since it is now past two and I'm not home yet.)

On the train, I whiled away the time doing work on my laptop while listening to a podcast downloaded from, which is all about the millions of reality shows infesting the airwaves. Ever the Rob-come-lately, I have only now become a fan of "The Apprentice" (because of watching the Martha Stewart edition.) This particular podcast featured the latest firee from the Trump version - the "first openly gay Apprentice," Clay, who obligingly bitched about his fellow candidates.

Having had enough of that - not needing to know what was happening on "Big Brother" or "Laguna Beach" or anything else - I read the Times. I was just finishing an article about a cleaning company which specializes in tidying up crime scenes and clearing away the aftereffects of gruesome deaths - such as when lonely New Yorkers pass away in their apartments and aren't discovered until they've quietly liquified into their couches - when the train began to jerk and bump, and slowly grind to a halt.

We were already late at this point - the man in the seat behind me, who had been carrying on a cell-phone conversation of record length began to whine into the phone "This is unbeleeeevable." There was an announcement made that "we've had a minor accident. We've hit something... we just need to inspect the train and determine what we've hit before we can proceed."

We had hit a person. Whether it was an accident or suicide was not immediately clear. As the conductor relayed the news to someone in our car, people began to buzz.

"A person? It was a PERSON?"

Someone else began to chuckle ruefully - "Well, boy, have I had a crazy 48 hours or what?" People were up in the aisles, electrified by the prospect of tragedy near at hand. Others slept on. Cell phone man continued to insist that it was "unbeleeeevable."

I hated them all.

I then realized that, in a disaster movie, I would be the one who would become the hateful misanthrope - "You're all idiots!" And up until now, I always assumed I would rise up out of the crowd of confused S.S. Poseidon passengers, and lead everyone to safety in the manner of Gene Hackman. But no. Right now, I hated all the businessmen who were clamoring to know if we were in walking distance of the station. (No. We are in the middle of nowhere.) I hated the guy who not-so-subtly tried to go peek out the door of the train.

I hated myself a little for planning to blog about this, after two months of not posting.

I debated calling David. It's ten after two now - but he has to be up early, and there's no reason to wake him. The opening of his store is just days away, and he and his crew are racing against the clock to get everything done. I'm doing what I can, but being away in New York so often, I feel fairly unhelpful in this endeavor.

The police have been called; we could hear communications on the conductor's walkie talkie as they tried to determine exactly where we were stopped. The passengers have settled down; some are typing on their laptops, as I am, and others have curled up and gone back to sleep. We're likely to be here another hour.

It's terrible and sad that this should happen - that, if it was indeed a suicide, that someone would feel driven to this act, in the middle of a cold night. And it is sobering to think back to last November 23, when Russell Groff lost his battle with the infections overpowering his body, and left his husband, his family and his friends behind, mourning him. I remember thinking at the time how awful it was that he died so close to Thankgiving; Kevin-Douglas would always be reminded of him at that time of year. But perhaps this isn't a bad thing - the day would not be "ruined." We would always remember to give thanks for having known Russell - if it wouldn't be presumptuous to do so, for those of us (like me) who only knew him briefly.

As I get older, I've occasionally gotten more anxious flying than I used to. But a thought does cross my mind as I take off each time - I believe that everyone who I love knows that I love them. If the moment came when it was my turn to leave this earth - in a plane, or on an Amtrak train in the middle of nowhere - I believe there wouldn't be anything I wished I'd said that I never got around to saying. There are plenty of loose ends that I'm always trying to tie up - songs to be finished, shows to be written, e-mails long overdue that need to be returned - but I think the important stuff is taken care of.

It's two-twenty. People are sleeping in their seats, some huddled together, snuggling under coats, holding one another. I wish I were already at home, curled up with David and Goblin, trying to get a little sleep before tomorrow's onslaught. But here I am, in a train stalled somewhere in the darkness outside of Baltimore, where someone's life has ended. We all want to get moving, to rush onward, to get to our destinations - but somehow it's right that we wait. We wait in the silence.

It's November 23, 2005, two-twenty five a.m.

We arrived in Baltimore at 4:30 a.m. Leaving Penn Station, one Cheney-alike grumbled to his streaked-and-tipped female companion, Well, after all this, our parking should be free.

I didn't hold the door for them.


Blogger charles said...

i'm sorry for your loss of a year ago - of your friend Russell. your story is well written. thanks for sharing this intimate moment.


2:21 PM  
Blogger Shephard said...

Seems fitting that someone's tragedy gives at least a small gift to the living (those awake, anyway). I sometimes, if even just to make myself feel better, think that when we witness things like this, we are being reminded of what really matters. We need wake-up calls to jar us from our comfortable patterns, and really breathe and be grateful and alive.
Thanks for sharing that.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Rindy said...

Well, I think you could still be Gene Hackman. I mean, you can't tell me Reverend Scott didn't hate a lot of those miscellaneous passengers who didn't even try to help. Especially the ones who were all negative and yelled at him for making a plan, and then when the water came in they rushed the Christmas tree and knocked it over. Had there been cell phones at the time, I'm sure a bunch of them would have been whining away, "This is unbelieeeeevable, we are NEVER booking a CRUISE with this line AGAIN, I swear, can you belieeeeeeve it..."

The thing about Rev. Scott is, he had perspective. As do you.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Hanuman1960 said...

Welcome back Rob.

A wonderful, poignant, posting, as always.... :)

8:50 PM  
Blogger Jason Rohrblogger said...

I hate them all, too.

9:09 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'm so glad I didn't delete this bookmark! Great post.

8:16 AM  

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