A Train Trip Out

Traversing the wilds of New Jersey.
  February 26, 2004

A friend asked me to write a script, so I did.  Maybe it'll get filmed.  No matter, because its real work is done: I now look at everything with eyes like camera lenses.  I put on a sock today, preparing to go out.  The sock was dusty and, bothered by my foot, it released a cloud of motes that danced in a shaft of light coming through the window.  I sat still and watched them dance.  Much later, sitting in a station house (a station shack, really, four walls and a door, and a slanting roof; my bench ran into a derelict payphone), I listened to the absence of sounds shared with four other travelers.  It was preternaturally quiet; all I could hear was the small sound of music leaking through an elderly woman's earphones, and the scraping of the soles of other people's shoes against the concrete floor.  These sounds were lines around the edges of the silence.  I thought then: this is what I would like to capture in a film.  American movies are loud and fast; they forgot that time can move slowly on this continent, too.  Slow it down to the rate of treacle flow, zoom in on the soft, passing noises in the background, and you'll discover a universe of neglected splendor.  Think of dust mites that under a microscope turn into magnificent monsters, creatures of Boschian nightmares.  It's transformations like this that make me believe even the greyest slab of concrete can look good to a discerning eye.

A cute Indian girl waited on the platform with me.  She had a transparent folder with résumés in her hand, just like the folder in my messenger bag.  I asked if she was going to the same recruiting event as me.  She was.  I asked if she would like to share a cab.  She would.  Her name was Jessica, she told me; she majored in economics at Rutgers.  We both agreed that job-hunting sucked.

Finally the train came.  It was small and dirty.  Someone scrawled words with a finger on dusty windows.

Jessica and I settled into seats across the aisle from each other and started talking about California.  A little black girl, perhaps four years old, sat near us; her surly mother hovered in the background and looked outside through reverse inscriptions on the glass as we awaited departure.  The girl babbled about incomprehensible, barely audible things.  She had a bracelet, she bragged to us—and indeed, there it was, a ring of brown plastic clasping her wrist.  It looked like the plastic shaving you peel off to unseal the cap of a gallon milk-bottle.  It held the girl's boundless fascination.  It would be a watch, she told us, if only she'd put a real watch on it.  We smiled and played along, conquered by this logic.

“Here,” said the little girl, “I'll show you something.  But you have to close your eyes first, and no peeking.”

“I'll look away,” I said and turned towards the window.  I could see the girl reflected there, rummaging in her pockets.  Suddenly, her mirrored eyes flashed at me.

“No peeking,” she said reproachfully.

A back clad in blue uniform obscured her face.  I turned around to stare at the holstered gun of a policeman; he and his partner stood facing away from me, glaring at the little girl's mother.  Jessica shrank back in the neighboring seat.  A conductor flanked the officers on the left.

“You have no ticket,” stated one cop.  I expected a “ma'am” at the end but it never arrived.

“I paid him for the ticket,” the mother replied and jerked her shoulder at the conductor, who shook his head in denial.

“It's a four-dollar surcharge for on-the-train purchases,” he said.  “Your ticket is five eighty.”

“My ticket is a dollar eighty!”

A brief heated debate regarding fair pricing broke out, cut short by the policeman's “Get off the train and then we'll discuss this.”

“Shame on you,” a voice came suddenly from behind me.  I turned around: a middle-aged woman was staring at the cops with indignation.  “Can't you see she has a little child with her?  You shouldn't talk to her like that before her child.”

“Ma'am,” the cop said tersely, “let us handle the situation here,”—and to the mother: “Let's go!”

She muttered an expletive but complied.

“How much does she owe?” the woman behind me asked.  “I'll pay for her ticket.”

“No, you won't,” said the cop.

“Why can't I give you my money?  Just take it and leave her alone.”

“You can give us your money,” he agreed, “and then get off the train, too.  Would you like that?”

“But the child…” the woman complained, defeated.

They paid her no more attention.  The mother and her little girl were escorted off the train as the rest of us displayed calm.  It consisted mostly of averted eyes.

As the train pulled out of the station, sun flashed through the window opposite mine, the one into which the ticketless mother stared before being kicked out.  Reflected in my window, the illuminated letters became legible and spelled—perhaps stupidly, perhaps not—“The Bonecrusher.”

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