Tag Archives: Strangers on a Train


Handwriting Analysis (or: the Role of Coincidence?)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Strangers on a Train, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , ,

It’s been a rough couple days in the northeast. People say things like that which they have no business saying. Most people in the northeast have probably been doing just fine. There’s preparations for what appears to be the northeast’s favorite holiday in the offing. After all, Thanksgiving was born around here, built on the backs of people who have since been chased out or eradicated, leaving only the overstuffed turkeys and their caretakers to gloat over the bounty of having more ruthless ancestors than others.

Highland Park today is dressed up in its Thanksgiving finest: overcast and all the leaves have faded to that brown dead crinkle that rattles above or crunches below and makes everything look like red-brown Thanksgiving print napkins. People walk quickly and wear jackets universally and seem even more hurried and annoyed than usual. Maybe it’s from this observation that I acquire the hubris to say things like it’s been a rough couple days in this part of the world. Maybe it’s from spending the better part of a subway ride and an extended period in Penn Station crying without a soul bothering to so much as ask if I was okay.

Yesterday I got home and caught up with the things online I’d missed over the weekend. One of these, among my favorites, is checking out PostSecret, reading the scattered private thoughts of countless strangers as illustrated by their innermost ravings. It’s an idea we all wish we’d thought of and one very much in line with my ideals as a person writing this blog – the exposure of normally suppressed feelings so they might live, breathe, communicate, and ultimately hearten. And then my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a stark postcard:

And the hovering over the card on the page led to the flipping of the ‘card to the back:

Now, this one would’ve caught my eye anyway for a couple reasons. A, I read all the cards anyway and usually pause to contemplate all the implications. B, this is pretty much exactly what Emily would tell you about our situation, though I can’t necessarily speak to the relationship status of the other person involved, so who knows. But the most important issue is that the handwriting on this card is identical to that of said individual. Trust me, I had almost a decade to learn that handwriting, to watch it over her shoulder on debate flows or see it on hastily scrawled notes left behind or to read it on a notebook or textbook I was carefully lifting off her sleeping torso where it had fallen on her exhausted frame.

Now there’s some realistic counterpoints to consider. For one thing, the odds of Emily sending anything to a website like PostSecret are basically nill. The second thing, the most powerful, is that the postmark faintly visible on the back says SC 290, indicating pretty clearly that it was mailed from somewhere in South Carolina, where many zip codes start with those three digits. Is it possible she concocted some obscure way to send a card to Carolina for its submission to Germantown, MD? Sure, but any sense of feasibility or reality is pretty much knocking this down to zero. I often wonder about those postmarks and whether there’s some PostSecret sharing syndicate to make sure that especially high-voltage cards aren’t traceable even to a particular state, but I think this is considered an acceptable risk by most people.

No, the far more likely explanation is that someone else with Emily’s precise handwriting found herself in an almost identical situation to hers, or more appropriately one they would describe the same way. At which point, all kinds of larger cosmic questions arise. There have long been serious subscribers to the theory that handwriting is an indication of personality. In fact, many prison programs attempt to rehab criminals by changing their handwriting first under the theory that the link between letter shape and mental frame is so significant that it can be reverse-engineered. So what does this handwriting indicate about loyalty, faithfulness, approach to marriage? And out there, somewhere, someone who is not Emily or the author of this postcard is reading this and thinking that this handwriting looks an awful lot like theirs and wondering about the role of micro-destiny in their own path.

All this would seem to carry a little less weight had I not nearly bowled into Gwen on the street again the other day, in the midst of ill-informed debaters getting us lost on the streets of New York City on the way to Fordham. (Which, by the way, went pretty well.) She’ll forgive me for reprinting from her subsequent e-mail to me: “I’m starting to feel as though we’re being a bit cosmically messed with. Like we’re tinseled cut-outs in some toy theater production that just happens to be our lives.” And she, like most everyone, hasn’t even read The Best of All Possible Worlds yet. I’m starting to feel like that book is the cork in the center of the island on “Lost” – once I released it, deep important secrets were on the loose that wound up turning my whole life upside-down. This is a ridiculous thing to think, objectively, but most empirical studies would reaffirm it anyway, especially in light of how reality-bending the work itself is. All this would feel less significant had Russ not spent ten minutes trying to explain how LA feels small compared to NYC because you can always bump into people in the former and he never once bumps into someone he knows in NYC because it’s too vast, even though he knows tons of the City’s denizens. And then I told him my experience was a little different.

My experience is always a little different, it seems. Most people don’t have the capacity for such high volumes of things, be it crying or talking or writing or marveling at the construction of the world’s interactions. It’s not very realistic or practical to spend such time on such things. It’s better to do the dishes or laundry or buy furniture or hang pictures and somehow keep it all together. But it’s not all together and rote mundane tasks rarely help keep things that way. All I can do is contemplate, try to keep everything in perspective, throw up the poisons that seem to enter my system, and try to keep the phone charged for when I myself am running out of juice. It’s a good thing I have several scheduled days with other people coming up. Russ’ll be here in 90 minutes and all my dishes are in the sink.


Tuesday’s Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

“It’s because you’re not trying to be happy or wondering why you should have been made unhappy, because you’ve stopped thinking in terms of happiness or unhappiness. That’s the enormous stupidity of the young people of this generation,” Mrs. Quarles went on; “they never think of life except in terms of happiness. How shall I have a good time? That’s the question they ask. Or they complain. Why am I not having a better time? But this is a world where good times in their sense of the word, perhaps in any sense, simply cannot be had continuously, and by everybody. And even when they get their good times, it’s inevitably a disappointment – for imagination is always brighter than reality. And after it’s been had for a little, it becomes a bore. Everybody strains after happiness, and the result is that nobody’s happy. It’s because they’re on the wrong road. The question they ought to be asking themselves isn’t: Why aren’t we happy, and how shall we have a good time? It’s: How can we please God, and why aren’t we better? If people asked themselves those questions and answered them to the best of their ability in practice, they’d achieve happiness without ever thinking about it. … If you’re feeling happy now, Marjorie, that’s because you’ve stopped wishing you were happy and started trying to be better. Happiness is like coke – something you get as a by-product in the process of making something else.”
-Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

It’s not just because I ran across this passage in my train-reading this morning that today’s been a good day, but that certainly didn’t hurt anything. I’d long heard about the brilliance of this book, written at a time (1928) when the West looked a lot like it probably did in 2008. It’s shockingly modern for a book of its era. I’d put off this Huxley classic for ages over a misunderstanding that it must be a book of essays given the dryly factual title it bears. But at current paces, it’s in the rarefied air of Brave New World, Island, Eyeless in Gaza, and Crome Yellow. Most impressive.

I was on the train to head to New York for my second interview there in about six weeks, though this one was directly for an organization rather than for a placement agency trying to slot me into a job that had already sailed. We’ll see how it goes. I’d be very excited to do the work and get involved with a really dynamic and important non-profit and I think the interview went rather well. So keep your fingers crossed or whatever superstition you adhere to going in whatever fashion you see fit.

Going into New York still feels like a major investment each time, so that’s something that would hopefully lessen with routine… it’s only been twice going in since adopting my new life, but it’s felt like a significant excursion both times. At the same time, I’m sure the first few BART rides into SF felt that way. And while this is certainly lengthier and on a more substantial train, it might offer the opportunity to bring back the much-beloved Strangers on a Train category with my random insights about fellow riders and their transport-bound habits. Chaff, I tell you, but you all seem to tell me otherwise, and thus so be it. Who am I to blow against the wind?

The wind was chilly and verging on frostbitten as I trekked the brief two and a half blocks from Penn Station to the venue of my ‘view. New York is a cold place in so many ways, but today it felt palpably terrified of terror as well. Constant reminders droned through Penn Station about random searches that may be conducted and concluded with an admonition to not “pet the [bomb-sniffing] dogs.” The men’s room facilities are temporarily port-o-potties in an alley just outside the station. A man barked at me for entering the wrong waiting area for my ticket to go home at one point. New York City always feels like it has an edge, but today was especially intense. Maybe something about Election Day, though I fail to see how that makes Penn Station an abnormally likely target. Then again, train stations have long proven to be a vulnerable but somehow unstruck target.

Election Day makes me feel like a target, what with the barrage of bunting all over Facebook and the deep-seated passion on display from so many politically-minded friends. It makes me tired. I don’t exactly begrudge anyone their commitment, but I fail to see why it’s so much greater than the commitment to so many other important matters in our society. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this country at this point in history. They are all corporatists. There is one party in America and it is The Corporation. When someone hits the campaign trail speaking not just against big business, but against the idea of business, give me a call. Then it might be time to get invested in politics. Until then, the interests being defended are those of the moneyed profiteers. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a big dollar bill stamping on a little dollar bill, forever.

Sorry, George. It had to be said. As did the answers to my interview questions, which felt much better than they did four and a half years ago when I last sat in a group interview at a non-profit I was excited about coming to work for. That was a significant political day too, May Day 2006, the rallies all over the country and especially the Bay to defend the rights of immigrants. Not a lot’s been done about that one since that day, nor particularly on any of the rights and freedoms issues facing America, at least not at the ballot box. Arguably a little has happened in the courtroom. We’ve given a lot of money to corporations and called it a rescue or a reform or a renewal. Laundering cash has many names.

The man across the way from me in the (correct) Penn Station waiting area had no cash as far as I could tell, and maybe not even a ticket. He was unseemly looking at first, unwashed and underbitten and prattling away in the hyperspeed manner of so many of New York’s outcasts. But rather than move away to better concentrate on Huxley, I briefly used that latter as a foil for paying attention to the former without showing overt interest. A demonstration of interest could lock me a month-long discussion, but bearing stealthy witness to a monologue yielded a remarkable bounty. The man was a savant, a true rhetorician, his words were perhaps a bit fast (an import from policy debate?), but well spoken, extremely well-crafted, and made intelligent points. He spoke of a detailed history either lived or imagined, one in which he’d not been the soliloquizing soul on the taut foam seats of Penn Station’s NJ Transit waiting area. He’d known people and interacted, been accepted and then ultimately beaten down by the caprice of life and its callous inhabitants. He drew analogies to politics, analogies to the future. Yes, he delved occasionally into the “out there”, hinting faintly at crazy before reeling himself back in to something interesting and eloquent. I need to learn to start taking tape recorders with me to the train station. Or maybe at least Rutgers Debate flyers.

Plenty of time for that if I get the job. For now, we wait. See what winds blow into the country, what bluster and hyperbole is made of them. I’ll be on the sidelines, with Aldous, George, and my anonymous beleaguered spreader. This is one for the books. It’s all for the books.


Mack Truck Time and Other Myths

Categories: A Day in the Life, Strangers on a Train, Tags: ,

So I wrote the post earlier today and took a shower and got dressed and walked up to my train, my mind awash with thoughts of the workday to come, Emily’s offer, the parts of my teeth I would soon be without. Made the train with two minutes to spare and found an inside seat.

It was uneven. One part of the cushion was outrageously higher than the other. Didn’t make it unbearable to sit, but less than optimal. I figured this was something that could be easily tamped down, so I investigated and discovered there was something under the seat.

Protruding just the slightest bit from the seat cushion was the neck of a bottle of Grey Goose vodka. Presumably empty, though as I was about to investigate further, I imagined how it would look to be pulling out a vodka bottle on the morning commute. Probably what the purchaser of said bottle was thinking about the time (s)he stuffed it into its present location.

I decided to switch seats to one across the way since I suddenly felt less comfortable being that closely tied to this glass container. And then the second explanation possibility hit me, sending me suddenly walking toward the other end of the train to take a seat (an evenly cushioned one, no less) a full car-length distant.

What if the bottle were stuffed with explosives, then set inconspicuously beneath the seat?

Now, this probably wouldn’t have occurred to me at all were it not for the recent “Mack Truck Time” consciousness I’d expressed at the conclusion of my previous post. The hallmark of Mack Truck Time is much like Morality Day – a time of being extra vigilant and aware of the potential hazards of the world. These little paranoid interludes are probably good preparation for being a parent someday. Or, perhaps, really awful preparation for same.

Regardless, it didn’t take much time for me to talk myself off the ledge of the ridiculous mental assertion that the bottle of Grey Goose was the first act of terrorism on US soil since 9/11. And yet, once one has a thought like that, it festers. It’s hard to just shrug it off and settle into Willa Cather’s wilds of New Mexico and calm mental focus. One keeps looking up at the call button for the train operator and imagining how one would feel if the next noise one heard was not the interminable screeching of metal wheels on metal track, but a thunderous boom followed by screaming horror.

Of course, there’s the sanity-inducing countervailing imagery. The panicky looks of those near the call button, eavesdropping with burgeoning fear. The train stopping at the station, holding up the commute for 30-40 minutes while uniformed men with dogs board and search. The inevitable rolling of eyes that lead to questioning the long-haired guy with anti-American blog posts who called this thing in in the first place.

Ultimately, though, none of these potential pitfalls were what persuaded me. Nor was it the fact that it was a bottle of alcohol that was hidden, which was about the most harmlessly explicable thing ever. (Though of course, that’s exactly what a terrorist would use to make it look otherwise explicable and usual, right?) No one would go to that length to hide a Coke can (also technically disallowed on BART). Still, this didn’t carry the day for me.

What convinced me was the same thing that I posted about in November ’07 and holds true today. There are functionally no terrorists who are going to strike civilians in the domestic United States. Certainly not on the scale of what you could fit in a vodka bottle. Just ain’t happening. If it were happening, it would’ve happened all over, lots of times, in the last eight years. It was not going to start today.

I’m not saying there will never be another incident called terrorism on US soil again. Though I have to believe it’s possible, if for no other reason than the US may not be the label for this soil too much longer. But the odds are greater that it’s Tim McVeigh II than an allegedly Middle Eastern group, and the odds of the former are greatly reduced by the propaganda about the latter. If there’s one thing that wingnut Montana militia members hate more than what they’d blow up, it’s being associated with the people currently being considered as potential terrorists.

So I went on reading about a doomed Archbishop, confident in the fact that my brief paranoia was just that. There were no explosions, no screaming, no news stories that followed. Sometimes a bottle of Grey Goose is just a bottle of Grey Goose.


Watching the Watchers

Categories: A Day in the Life, Strangers on a Train, Tags: ,

Yes, it’s another BART vignette.

I got on the train this morning and sat towards the back, cracking a brand new massive tome, my Christmas treat The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Please note the title here – it doesn’t say “Twentieth” Century, but simply “the” Century, as though it were clear to everyone that there was one American century and it’s over. After all, the annual series by the same name uses numbers to indicate which year is being chronicled. Seems they’re betting there won’t be a twenty-first century edition. Interesting stuff.

Anyway, I’m settling into a familiar (I must’ve read it at least twice before) O. Henry piece about a safecracker when a family I’ve seen once or twice before on BART gets aboard and arrange themselves in the seats behind me. Classic American fifties family – mom, dad, three-year-old son, infant daughter. The Best American Family of the Century.

And the dad starts reading a book to the son almost immediately. It’s an Arthur book, from perhaps one of the most warm and cuddly series of books (and now TV shows) around. Some of the kids at Seneca used to read Arthur and I’ve been impressed at how universally relatable this vaguely amorphous child animal character is, even though when someone was watching it was loudly called “baby stuff” or worse.

And as he reads the book, it’s an interactive experience; the son asks questions about word meanings or motivations for decisions made by Arthur or his friends or family. The dad takes time in his explanations, in no hurry, clearly enjoying himself. Personal pet peeve that the dad uses some sort of inflated hyperactive not-quite-baby talk with the child, though a couple glances at him indicate that he may be the type who uses such speech in many forums, including probably the bedroom. His prerogative, I’m sure.

Next stop, a young woman boards the train, probably just over high school age but definitely younger than I am. The fact that I can immediately recognize her as younger than I am may indicate she’s still in her teens, but I’m slowly becoming acclimated to the fact that I’m almost thirty. Very slowly. She sits down in the seat diagonal from me, facing the family.

And she doesn’t pull music or reading or anything out of her stuffed orange backpack – she surveys the surroundings and starts to fixate on the family and their interaction. A few glances sideways from my sunglassed eyes away from my book reveal that she’s pretty much openly staring at them. And over time, this contentedly bemused smile creeps into her mouth muscles, almost forlorn if it weren’t so sincerely appreciative. Something like admiration might be the best label.

And suddenly I can see the whole story. I know the dad that didn’t read to her and may be missing or gone by now. I know the mom who was overwhelmed, stressed out, couldn’t make it work. The fights and eventual dissolution. The struggle associated with the word “family” that this woman has lived.

And yet, here she is, and she can appreciate it all the same. She can take in this moment without bitterness and with minimal focus on her own story, her own angle. She can just be happy that someone else is living the family she didn’t have.

And she just doesn’t stop staring and her face doesn’t fall, the whole way to her stop.

(It should be noted that I’m inclined here to talk about how this family’s success and happiness may be fleeting, or is even likely to be fleeting given the age of its participants and the state of the economy. I believe it was Jess Hass who told me years ago that I had a gift for finding the dark lining on the silver cloud. If I were writing the short story, it would end with the daughter in the stroller ending up just like the watcher twenty years hence, but somehow unable to forgive her parents or get past her own history and fate. Maybe she’d even yell or say something quietly rude to the family on her way off the train, two decades after a bliss with her brother that seemed so permanent on a train ride in 2009.

But it should also be noted that life is not always the way I, or even O. Henry, would write it in a short story.)


Cleanup on Aisle 6

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Quick Updates, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

Coming up from the train this morning, I walked my usual path through Powell Street Station, winding to the right and up the mini-escalator to a little landing before the second mini-escalator. On said landing were two orange cones, pretty much squarely in the middle of the walkway. Splaying out in all directions from the cones was spilled coffee, heavily whited with milk.

I almost actually paused mid-stride, no doubt causing a chain-reaction of commuters walking inattentively ahead, already trying to dodge conical orange obstacles. But I proceeded, while craning my neck and trying to figure out if that had really been what it looked like.

Someone had taken the time and energy to place not one, but two cones over the top of a large coffee spill, but not to make any effort to clean it up.

Sure, I may have been watching it in a twenty-second window between placement of the cones and running to the janitorial closet to procure a mop and bucket. I considered sticking around atop the second escalator to determine whether this was an especially inopportune period of time or really a telling phenomenon. The fact that I considered such a dalliance would (or might) make me late for work (and I was about 10 minutes ahead of schedule) was sufficient answer in my own mind to the possibility that this was just a brief phenomenon.

Besides, wouldn’t one normally keep the cones and the mop in the same place?

It struck me, of course, that this whole incident was The Metaphor for the current state of things, at least in America and possibly on a larger scale. There’s only time, energy, inclination to throw up caution flags, to do the absolute minimum to warn people of the danger without the slightest effort at containment. You have been warned. But no one is even going to attempt to actually ameliorate the harms. Navigating is only safer by the slimmest of technical margins, in that you know that you’re navigating something dangerous.

Don’t fall.


Postscript — I write an awful lot about BART and situations that take place on the trains and in the stations. To the point where it’s sort of amazing that I have yet to create an official category for posts about BART. I should do that, but that would require retroactive categorization, which is sort of a gargantuan pain (especially when I’m so far behind on other, seemingly more meaningful projects).

It does make me wonder, though, about what I would have to post about if I didn’t take a train regularly. My ideal life involves writing full-time, but I’ve always been very aware of how crazily isolating that could become, to the point where inspiration and life events were much less available, thus diminishing much of the point of writing full-time in the first place. The paradox never troubles me so much as when I think about my observations on public transportation and how I would rarely be on it without this kind of routine. I think the summation remains that a full-time writing life would require enough small, enjoyable trappings of routine (e.g. clubs/activities, volunteering, etc.) as to keep a finger on the pulse of the “real world.”



Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

There’s this great scene in a recent great movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) about timing and the house-of-cards nature of our worlds. One thing bounces just the wrong way, leading to another thing bouncing just the wrong way, leading to another… and eventually, collapse.

It’s very much akin, though just slightly different in tenor, to the story of the horeshoe-nail that lost the kingdom, which I’ve discussed before and more recently. Not unlike what I consider to be a pivotal scene in Loosely Based. Not dissimilar from another scene in another movie, about the irretrievability of scattered feathers. Which, hey, my Dad just blogged about too.

Last night, I was deciding between playing poker online and playing another game on the computer. I hadn’t played poker online in ages, but I had just done really well in a live tournament in New Mexico (7th out of 40 when Afsheen, who joined me was 9th [cash at 5th]). On a whim, I decided I felt like testing the waters again. I didn’t see any poker tourneys I liked open for registration, but thought to check for any in late registration, with only a few seconds left to register. Amazingly, there was a $2 multi-table tournament that was just my speed for adjusting back to online play.

I got in just in time to play this tournament. And it turned out I played it for several hours, till about 2 in the morning. I finished 26th (out of over 2,000) and made a ridiculously low sum of money for the efforts of that kind of time, but I at least proved to myself that New Mexico wasn’t a fluke and I’ve been playing good, disciplined poker lately. But this was way later than I had been planning on staying up, especially since I had an important 8:30 meeting the next morning.

Because I stayed up late, I got up late. Everything was running a little behind. I considered, at 7:20, skipping a shower to ensure that I’d make the meeting in plenty of time, but it occurred to me that this would have consequences just as impolite as being late to the meeting. It dawned on me that I could just punt sitting down on the train this morning and take the Fremont to MacArthur and transfer to something between the early train (that gets me to work at 8:15) and the late train (that gets me to work right at 8:30 or closer to 8:35 if anything goes wrong). There’s a middle train that doesn’t stop in Berkeley (comes from a different line) that would put me in about 8:22.

Because this occurred to me, I took a shower. And because I was feeling confident in this plan, I dallied a little. And because I dallied a little, I was just a little behind for the Fremont train when I left. And because of that, I could hear the train just as I was hitting the first audible grate at the station. And I knew it was the Fremont train. And I thought that I could make the train, but I’d be running a small risk of running so fast I tripped on a step and smacked my face on concrete. And something about that image stuck in my mind and I didn’t want to risk it. Even with lateness on the line (you have no idea what my punctuality record is like at work, especially for meetings), I just didn’t like my chances. Even without face-smacking, it was mathematically most likely that I would end up nose-to-plexiglass with a subway door, disheartened and completely winded as I watched it scoot away.

Because of this decision, I strolled into the station. And as I got down to the platform, I confirmed that those were the red rear lights of the Fremont train, slouching toward Ashby. And so I took up my post standing in front of the yellow safety strip’s contrasting black section that indicates where the doors would open in 7 minutes for the San Francisco (late) train.

And I started reading The Idiot. And was soon immersed in the book.

Until five minutes later, when I heard a thudding sound and a chorus of shrieks and gasps. About twenty feet away, a set of legs was suddenly visible on the tracks, with hints of a torso attached.

Not just twenty feet away, it should be noted, but twenty feet closer to the mouth of the tunnel through which the San Francisco-bound train was about to barrel. Just one black-door-marker shy of said mouth.

There were more gasps and whispered explanations of an arbitrary and unpredictable fall (the person was on the near track, as though having fallen straight down into the track well, as opposed to jumping or flinging toward the far track or the fatal third rail). The legs didn’t move. There were rising yells, calling for someone to stop the train or call to stop the train or tell the agent to stop the train or do something to just stop. The. Train. 90 seconds and counting. And then the heartrending polished announcer voice: “Nine-car San Francisco train now approaching, platform two.

I had briefly considered jumping down to help the person up, but now there just wasn’t time. One imagines scenarios like this and the person is always either conscious and able to be helped up without jumping down with them (an active participant in their own rescue) or times their jump to coincide with the train’s arrival and only a truly psychic shoulder-grab can be of use. This unconsciousness on the tracks now 80 seconds short of the train is unimaginable. Someone is on the white courtesy phone, bleating that the train must be stopped because someone is on the tracks.

Suddenly, the legs move, stretching up in obvious pain, but demonstrating consciousness. I do the only thing I can think of, yelling to the person that they need to get up, that they need to get up now and we’ll help.

The legs collapse again. They do not twitch. The train can be heard loud and rolling down the tunnel.

And then… then… a squeaking. A squealing. A… stopping.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Everything thereafter seemed a bit of a muddle, a bit of a mess. I learned just how long it takes emergency personnel to get to a point where they can deal with someone who is passed out on train tracks. I learned a lot about crowd behavior, how some people just will not give space to a possibly dying person no matter what. I learned about how rumors spread and eyewitness reports become almost instantly corruptible. I learned that BART spokespeople are no more reliable in the newspaper than anyone else. (Although I guess technically “no train was about to arrive as the woman fell” – it was at least a full minute from the fall to the approach of the train, but that’s how long it takes to stop a BART train without an attendant standing by. Maybe this comment was just intended to make it clear that this was not a suicide attempt.)

Most of all, though, it’s about timing. The person could not have fallen so much as 15 seconds later and lived. Though if the person had fallen at the other mouth of the tunnel, there may have been hope to flag down the train as it was going through the station. Had the person fallen a minute earlier, people probably would’ve hopped down and helped her (most people thought it was a guy at the time and I never saw her face) out, though there’s always the risk that this causes injuries too.

And that meeting? I was thirty minutes late. I put in a payphone call to the meeting organizer and she passed on the word that it was all beyond my control.

Thankfully, this moment wasn’t more powerful for me today. The images from this morning’s scene are stark enough without a more damaging punctuation. Just imagining it in that adrenaline-filled second-cum-lifetime was plenty for me.

What are you doing right now that will impact everything you experience from here on out?

Turns out, everything.


Western Civilization

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

On the train ride into work this morning, I wasn’t able to get a seat. The train was running just late enough to pick up enough stragglers to sell all the seats just before Downtown Berkeley. I had to stand and observe instead of read and recede.

Almost immediately, I noticed the middle-aged man two rows up and to the left with a laptop. I noticed him not because of his balding head or tall stature, but because he was playing Civilization III on his laptop. It took me a few minutes to determine, from my vantage, which version of Civilization he was playing, but the menu screens gave it away.

Before I could definitively determine that it was Civ III, it occurred to me the man may work for Sid Meier in some capacity and that he may just be heading into the office early by loading up the laptop. But realizing the version confirmed my actual suspicion, that this man was simply trying to prolong the delay before his workday really began and he had no time for games.

There was something profoundly resonant about this man’s experience and the fact that it occurred to me fairly soon after this that I should try to get a closer view so as to vicariously play and thus get some leftover utility from his game to make up for what I was losing in not being able to read. Then the question: would trying to closely follow a Civ game over the shoulder of a stranger give me the same headache I would otherwise get from reading while standing in a moving BART car? Sigh. It simply wasn’t worth it.

But watch I did, from long range, just enough to determine the man’s general approach to gameplay – he seemed to espouse the quick expansion and massive city-building that has always been a hallmark of my own approach through ownership of all four Civilization editions, plus the esoteric unsanctioned alternative Civ 3 that came out about a year or so before Sid Meier’s actual release of same. My vision isn’t what it used to be, so I could only make out terrain and general unit types, but nothing too specific (or headache-inducing).

Back when my vision was more like 20/12, my friends and I infiltrated the brand-new computer lab at the Albuquerque Academy library with freshly minted pirated diskettes of the original Civilization. The librarians were about to get an extended lesson in the first rule of computer lab setup: always face the computer monitors (screens) toward where the lab monitors (people) are going to be. One’s initial inclination is the opposite, because one thinks of a computer lab like a classroom. Students should face the front and the teacher and the monitor all at the same time. And for a full-time classroom, it might work, but not for a free-range computer lab.

It was of course forbidden to play games (let alone install them on the hard drive) in the library lab, perhaps even more evocatively so than it was illegal to copy the game in the first place. But the librarians there were all too stereotypical: lonely overweight women pushing sixty with all the technical savvy of John McCain. They were slow and lumbering and suspicious and you could see them coming in plenty of time to save your game and quit and open a Word document while trying to feign that ponderous, vaguely constipated look that signifies being stumped in the first paragraph of a paper.

It should be noted that this was just before the Internet age, about 1994-1995, so there was none of the alt-tabbing and massive multitasking and assumption of illicit Internet activity that pervades modern education with computers. Hence the naivete to set up the monitors facing the back wall and the incredible innocence of allowing students write-access to the hard drive. The computers were immensely expensive pretty new toys with capabilities entirely unknown to their adult overseers. Keep in mind that this is the school where, about this same time, I would join with a co-conspirator and a classroom full of willing amused accomplices to successfully convince a teacher that she was using a voice-activated VCR.

Eventually, out of sheer boredom or a truly teenage desire to constantly push the envelope, we got less diligent about saving and closing games every time a librarian would pop their head in (can you believe they only came by once every 20 minutes or so?). We would line up in the back row, sometimes four of us in the back and two more in the next-to-last, all playing our various games (my kingdom for network multiplayer in those days!). We would often laugh too loud or curse too much and draw more frequent visits from the stern gray-hairs. And look up innocently, making eye-contact only with that perfect blend of “I-have-nothing-to-hide” and “what-are-you-so-suspicious-of?”

I forget how it all ended exactly – a couple people got busted from time to time, but they really never punished them much (it was outside of school time, after all), sometimes suspending them from coming to the library for a couple days. They didn’t really comprehend the depths of Civ’s infiltration on the computers until much later, maybe after a year and a half or so of our reign over the lab. They locked up the hard drives from student access and we moved on to the Mac labs and text-based Internet (!) RPG’s that were harder to detect as anything other than scrolling word processing.

On the return trip on BART today, I got a seat and chose, since I was getting off early, one in a four-plex of facing seats. Next stop, at Montgomery, two noticeably overweight young women, just on the border of high school and college, piled in diagonally across from each other, each flanking me laterally (one across, one next to). The third empty seat they reserved for… their shopping bags. And they more than occupied the seat. The instigator of the dump-bags-on-seat plan kept having to tamp down the pile of colorful plastic.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been on BART in rush hour out of the City, but it is no place for bags on a seat. Not that people don’t try this occasionally, with luggage or their feet or a bike. But the withering peer pressure and angst of so many crammed unseated passengers coveting one rest-worthy surface that isn’t even being occupied by a sentient being – let’s just say it’s not something one generally wants to subject oneself to. Inevitably when confronted, people’s reactions for overtaking this space are huffy, defensive, and entitled, as though they know such a front is the only reasonable-seeming response to being called on being so downright unreasonable.

In any event, these did not exactly strike as BART neophytes, but bag-tamping was underway. And despite the Walmart-on-Black-Friday throng of boarders at Embarcadero, the last SF stop, not one person asked that the six (yes, 6!) bags be removed from the seat in their favor. Perhaps because it looked like it would take the length of the Transbay Tube to even undertake such extrication.

It was only midway through my incredulity at their audacity and selfishness that another amazement struck: what person age 16-20 is buying six bags worth of stuff? Who are these debutantes with their obliviousness and their functioning credit cards?

Being wedged very much into the center of their conversation, I was able to learn a few answers. They were very involved in a health or science class of some kind, where they’d each just completed a final project on a different disease. Indeed, the non-tamper was waving around a 10-pager with a cover sheet that simply read “Herpes” in eighty-point font. (I mean, really, did I imagine these people could have a lick of self-consciousness when one of them is animatedly waving the word “Herpes” in the air?) Amazement at the ease of transmission methods of a particular disease whose name eluded me (perhaps the aforementioned manifest on text). Mutual reassurance at the virtual lock on securing an A in this class. Detailed analysis on how to adjust double-spacing and margins to reach 10 pages.

Just before my stop, the non-tamper hauled out a cell phone and started calling home (a good indication that they were pre-collegiate). She rolled her eyes and half-gasped and mused on why she ever calls home in the first place, since everyone has cell phones. She informed her comrade that she had, in fact, just cancelled caller ID and call waiting on the home line, since no one ever used the phone anyway. She was waiting for someone to notice.

With savings like that, you could bring home a whole extra quarter of a bag. But who would notice that either?

They were overly gracious in moving their legs aside so I could pass out of the train, up the escalator, and into the night.


Postcards of the Hanging

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
about the time the doorknob broke.
When you asked me how I was doing
was that some kind of joke?

Late afternoon rushing down the steps for the train whose destination I can only see upon turning the corner of the bottom of the staircase and left for the doors that will still be open hopefully if I can get there in time see this is why I didn’t take the escalator because you can’t control your own destiny in case someone fails to follow the rule of standing on the right and walking on the left no running on the left because I am running seeing the train and hoping it’s not too late and I have a split-second to read it to decide whether to dive between closing doors or make that little stutter-step hold-up motion that means I’m not going in here’s the last step…

The morning walks toward work lately have been graced by a blood-orange sky since Tuesday. By which I mean that an actual orb, hovering eastward, has been the picture of a blood-orange against a sky somewhere between charcoal and ash. Walking in its pursuit, ever in the direction of the sun and the train, has felt like an epic effort at some Old Testament mission. On Tuesday I thought it was just an omen, but have since learned that fires in the outlying areas are blowing particulate matter into the atmosphere, leaving us in permanent twilight. A co-workers eyes burn each morning as he disembarks his bike or motorcycle. Mornings and evenings are the worst; there’s something about the sun’s rise and fall that brings out the eeriest. Yea though I walk through the valley of.

…and now I can slow down just a hair as I have seen both RICHMOND and been able to jump aboard ahead of the closing doors, but here’s another split-second decision because people are ever at my back, more flooding throngs of people in the momentary chaos of train-boarding fight-or-flight, where is the nearest best seat? And I spy there, ever in motion and just catching my breath, it’s right there, there is a four-plex of seats two-on-two facing each other, and three of them are open and now I have the classic prisoner’s dilemma of whether it’s safer to take the outside corner spot so as not to invade this person’s space and seem too close to them even though the next station will clearly fill the next two seats and everyone will be close and personal or whether to just fill in and take the slightly favorable inside seat because after all it’s easier not to feel guilty about de facto displacing someone who technically might make better marginal use of the seat if one’s on the inside and couldn’t possibly get up to offer one’s seat because one’s trapped and the massive disruption and inconvenience for everyone of offering an inside seat just undoes any chivalric or actual value in offering one’s seat anyway. And besides which taking the outside corner inconveniences anyone who might have to get diagonally between the two sitters of which you would become the more difficult one, trying to get the inside seat which you just moments ago rejected because of the illusion of some sort of momentary fleeting personal space or becoming too personal with someone who after all you’ve never met because you’re just sharing a train and the mutual desire to be home and done with this already and my goodness just take the inside seat already even though this whole musing has been automatic, the actual thinking done long before, and taken about fourteen nanoseconds…

I have had so little to do at work these days that I have taken to keeping an eye on the financial markets very closely in the west-coast mornings when they are open. For one, I’ve begun a little gambling in “the market” and for two, it’s an interesting time to watch such things. And no doubt, the way things are going, the direction of everything surely impacts my work after all. Would not the soup kitchens of 1929 been well-served by keeping an eye on the ticker? And today was remarkable, a dive to those dreaded words: 52-week low. And indeed it was 21 months’ worth of low, something closer to 90 weeks, something incomprehensible to those who remind us that, in the long-term the stock market cannot decline any more than could Rome fall, the Titanic sink, or the US military lose a war. And yet, somehow, no one ever calls a market gain a “correction”. Corrections are only down.

…and so I slide in to claim the seat across from yes, another fellow human being and a stranger, just as the train is moving and the chaos has settled and for one brief stop at least we will be the only two in this group of four, just like people who know each other. My movements are reflexive, automatic, as I settle and start to reach to unzip my backpack to remove the book when she speaks to me. “Hel-lo,” in a friendly, sing-songy, familiar voice. And by “familiar”: there is no recognition on my part, but she speaks as she would to a familiar. A friend, a colleague, a long-lost comrade. I look up. Who is this person? My age? Younger? Slightly younger. School? Work? An intern met in a fleeting moment; the batch of anonymous looking wide-eyed kids that gets younger every year? A former college debater who saw me debate in outrounds? One by one, the possibilities recede. I just don’t know this person. But does she know me, or think she does? I am wearing sunglasses, after all, though also a coat that no one else in the world may own, a bright threading of orange, red, and brown picked up in Nepal. But I am left with no civil recourse but an equal rejoinder: “Hello,” with less sing-song and less familiarity, but not so little as to rule out that I have clean forgotten this person instead of had nothing to recall…

The line is getting longer, of course. By leaps and bounds. I’ve been charting the trends, adding up the food bills, trying to peer into the void and project the curvature of the next spike and up-tilting angle, really putting the analysis into my Analyst title. I could use a wizard hat and spectacles, and maybe a glass orb to refract the blood-orange light that is often already past my window by the time I take my 8:30 seat. The news is all bad: floods in Iowa, threats in Israel, defiance in Iran, idiocy in Washington, panic in New York. It’s speculators or it’s not; no one can tell. It’s the oil companies or it’s not; no one can say. It’s inflation or it’s not; no one wants to admit. Houses sold in a fire-sale. The job lines longer too. I look out my window to see our own line. New faces or old? Who can tell? Everyone looks old in line for free food.

…she is now looking half-expectantly, half-normally. She is not looking away after the requisite time of casual observance. She is utterly unrecognizable, still. I am reading a book, the one I now start to pull out of my backpack, that includes a subplot (or maybe the main plot – who knows at this point?) about mind-control tests done on one particular subject who thinks he’s just another one of the testers but he’s being altered. Messed with. One might argue, given my history, that this is a terrible book for me to be reading. Or perhaps the best. But pull it I do, and she makes this overt, awkward show (she must be younger than I am) of trying to look at the cover, trying to parse out the low-contrast words of the title, presumably in hope that she has something to say about it, or ask, or, but she must not know Pynchon, or like him, or be able to quite make out the cover which I do nothing to exactly thrust in her face (nor to really obscure; I’m just trying to be normal here in this suddenly very self-conscious reality) because she mumbles something that sounds from my seat like “Rhurbook?”…

Eventually I need my own food and stumble downstairs toward the door, thinking perhaps I will spend some time away from the building for awhile because it’s just not been a good morning. And I’m half-hoping to find a place with a TV to watch the Euro Cup semifinals that Russia has somehow surprised their way into and it would really just be too overt to watch on the streaming video at my own desk in my shared office. And I’m not quite dizzy with hunger yet, but getting close, as I play the constant game of dodgeball with all the inhabitants of the Ellis Street Tenderloin; our usual crew accustomed to taking time that even when bored I never seem to have. Or feel to have. And it’s all strangely quiet, even the guy who shouts random numbers and city names and facts a high volume is somehow muted and the glower of blood-orange stands much more blatant above even though it’s just a bit past midday and the uneasiness they’re writing about in New York seems somehow manifest here in San Francisco while I’m hoping to get to images of the anxious situation developing in Vienna (the first half was scoreless, I’d already periodically checked online) and all I can really see is people in a haze of uncertainty. Even the tourists look vaguely a step behind. By the time I get away from desolation row and down to the cable cars, I’m just in time to catch some Russian from a cable car, a big burly bear of a classic Russian voice, and I think if this man can skip his homeland’s biggest soccer match in 20 years, maybe I can too. I find a chile relleno burrito in a nearby taqueria which somehow doesn’t have a TV anyway and return to my room on the row.

“I said ‘Oh. A book.'”

Russia lost, three-nil.

…and I have literally nothing else to say, not a damn thing that won’t make this already extremely awkward situation more awkward and I have to wonder: is this awkward for her? Is she paling in frustration over the fact that I can’t remember who she is? Or that I somehow am coming across as standoffish and east-coasty to her simple friendliness? Or is she – oh God – is she somehow hitting on me? Play with my wedding ring. Try to half-smile so as not to appear to be a total jerk. But there’s nothing to say. It’s one of those situations where I often yearn to say something that completely exposes the weirdness of the situation to turn it on it’s head and say something akin to were you just being friendly or should I know you from somewhere or who do you think I am or what?, but of course I almost never say those things in better situations; certainly better situations than now on the train, waiting for the miles to fly by under the tunnel and up the gut of the East Bay. Where – I am literally sweating now – I will be captive, captured, hemmed in by my own deliberate guilt-assuaging seat-clinching strategy, forced to sit through the ratcheted awkwardness that would be created by any sort of risky comment taken poorly. And so I stare, through sunglasses now actually fogging from the sweat of my literal brow as I grow red-faced and thankful that at least if I start to tear up slightly, the sunglasses will conceal, stare at the page without really being able to read or concentrate or focus. It’s hard enough to concentrate on this book as it is, especially on the afternoon side of the train when my mind is weary from too much time in the seat. Just staring at the page, wondering if she’ll say something, if I should, if she’s getting off at the next stop? Ha. She’s almost guaranteed to get off at mine…

And there was more to do, as there always is of late, in the afternoon, with a meeting approaching and late calls from outside sources. And I was thanked for one of my finer works, again and again, this one about it all – about food and prices and projections and where it’s all going. If one more person tells me how much easier I make their job when I’m about to stop I’ll. But what can I do? One cannot just slowly slide into shoddier and shoddier work if one ever hopes to be employed again (I don’t, but may have to, y’know). One cannot especially if one actually still believes in the work being done by the whole operation to begin with (I do, oh ever how I do). And, perhaps most key, one cannot slide simply because it is what has angered one so about certain others who almost forced this issue coming up nigh on a year prior. But the days one wishes that issue had been forced after all? Those are bad.

…and we sit and sit and sit. Sit there. Stop after stop. I, very occasionally risking a glance without head motion, through the sunglasses at her demeanor as it – does it? – descends into more and more grumpy, less and less sing-song cheery. Silence reigns. I am able to focus on my book for periods, but always with a lingering malignance in the back of my brain. The sweating fades, some of it still cold on my forehead, but the redness tilts back to a normal shade (this I can only technically imagine, though one can surely feel redness, no?), and I start to anticipate how this will end. My co-worker was spat on today, with an ambiguous level of deliberateness. A subtle kick? I’ve had those on the train before, someone obliquely making one lose one’s footing as a personal victory snicker. But now she’s staring out the window into the black tunnel, looking the picture of depression and surely it’s just because I can’t see her face but – oh God – (and here the fiction-writer takes off in his fancies and imaginations and storyline plot futures) what if she is recovering from x trauma or y experience or z deep-seeded fear and this was some sort of test or guidance from Mr. Therapist or Ms. Spiritual Advisor or Miss Friend and surely just saying hello on the train with a cheery tone and a Broadway smile will make it all better, restore Faith, demonstrate that there Is Some Hope and Goodness in the World. And I’ve dashed it somehow, or squandered it, and maybe it ends up being about her personal appearance or her ability to speak or just even what it all matters for anymore and can I even give a crap about this sham life that we all seem to be going through? And suddenly I have stomped on whatever flickering coal was left of that, something that had to be heartily coaxed with much log-shifting and blowing by Mr.T/Ms.SA/MissF at personal exertion and energy, knowing they were taking a small but potentially perilous risk in saying “just start saying hi to people with that winning voice and smile and you just see if things don’t improve” and I am the agent of destruction. What if she does something terrible? But of course I know deep down that I’m exaggerating and running away and way overblowing my role in any particular strangers life. Aren’t I? Though isn’t it sometimes strangers who seem more objective than friends, therapists, advisors? But surely, I have nothing to do with this right? I mean, maybe I really did meet her for five seconds and I’m just amnesiac. Although then this reinforces all the previous concerns – she’s forgettable and oh God we’re off to the races again…

But today is not a bad day, except for this little internal tiff. This sinking feeling of everyone being all smiles and hope and somehow, no matter how one plays one’s cards, one knows one to be Judas. This is surely exaggeration, but perhaps it only seems so because this is not my world. I do not belong where words like “career” and “empowerment” are bandied about. But they cannot see this, and this fact feels like a knife or 25 pieces in my hand.

…I get off the train at my stop, perhaps a shade early so if it’s hers as well I can’t be following her. All three remain seated besides me. There are no words, no look, no kick, no event. I proceed out of the train and out of the station, briefly glancing to see she’s not behind me…

I walk again downstairs, out toward the train, ‘neath a blood-orange sky.

…I walk upstairs and homeward, ‘neath a blood-orange sky…


Did I Miss a Memo?

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

No one came in to San Francisco today. The train felt almost post-apocalyptic.

Of course not a real apocalypse. How could the trains still be running after a real apocalypse? And there would be no others aboard rather than the seeming 33-50% reduction witnessed this morn.

But the dreams were intense enough last night and the empty train car surreal enough to beg the question of which was reality.

Quickly the question turns to evaluation, to analysis, to logic. It is summer, after all, with the first and longest day over the weekend. We are trained from an extremely early age to take off in the summer, to alter our schedule when the weather warms and expect things to get better, easier, calmer. July fourth looms on the horizon, but surely not everyone is taking their requisite two weeks starting now?

And indeed the weather has snapped rigidly cold, back to Mark Twain’s San Francisco “summer” after a week’s reprieve sent from balmier climes. Could people have somehow foreseen, checked a 30-day forecast and requested their week now, departing sunny and warmed for a place that would stay that way in June’s final week? Could that kind of prescience been in play, anticipating how difficult it would be to face another bitter, teasing joke from the City’s skies?

Unlikely. Indeed more likely that the decision was faced 30 minutes prior, not 30 days. That facing a window and a weather report, many chose to burrow rather than bolt, to neither fly nor flee, but freeze. Or beg not to freeze ’neath an added blanket, holding an ironically brewed cup in the face of no need to wake.

Staring awake, envisioning an empty train, its few riders unnerved by the sense of watching rats walk the ropes, single-file, out of the ship’s hold. Some carrying small bags or little blocks of cheese and meat from last night’s feast. Suddenly the yestereats turn in one’s own stomach, one notices the rocking of the waves a bit more, shoulders slouch and hunch as one braces unconscious for unimagined impact. One knows not whether to vomit over the side or to jump. Or to hang on for dear life.

Yes, no doubt they nestle amongst the bedclothes, stretching in that utterly relaxed way, regretting caffeine but taking solace in leaving the seats alone today. The trains were running late and stalling often; even conductors are not immune to waves of intuition, to coordinated impromptu staycations. We are all more connected than we could ever imagine.

And our constant reminder of same, the price of oil, rocketing ever skyward as though it could outrun the rain. Threatening to capsize a once proud crew of sailors, leave them faced with water that had been so untouched and unthreatening as to seem metaphorical. I sail on a mythical ocean, they might’ve bragged back in port. It looks of water, but ’tis made of glass. We slide along like skaters on the ice.

Eventually all things break. Glass, ice, people, even rats. We are not meant to experience infinince on this planet, only to gaze upon the concept in wonder and disbelief. That which endures here may be somewhat overblown. Best not to make too much of longevity and focus on the meaning in that which we see, feel, touch, sense.

Sense. Use it. Maybe tomorrow, the trains will stop altogether.

In the meantime, friends, it looks like a deluge. Even the sidewalks of the Tenderloin are clear. And those here are in motion. Running in circles feels like progress when you know it’s wrong to stay in one place. Walking beats standing. Standing beats sitting. Sitting beats lying down, at least outside of a bedclothes bunker.

It’s morning in America, but I don’t see much daylight.



Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

Yesterday, I worked a half-hour later than normal because suddenly things happened right at the end of the day that it seemed best to attend to then and there. Then I went to eat at Chipotle after work, mostly because I was hungry, but also because of new and slightly silly influences laden in the whole nature of yesterday.

So these factors combined to put me on the steps up from the platform of Downtown Berkeley BART about 45 minutes later than normal – at 6:30 instead of 5:45.

Racing up the steps, I heard a voice from one of them, a cautious and inquisitive “Storey…?” And one pretty much can’t mistake that for someone calling to somebody else. I turned around to see an older, taller impersonation of one of my old Seneca kids. Smiling at me and saying hello.

Now I have long envisioned meeting Seneca kids later in life – all grown up or at least much older. And most of the time, the picture involves me losing a number of teeth or worse. Most of these visions are in the context of nightmares – not a week ago I was back on the halls of a Seneca house, somehow training someone else and dealing with one of those bedtime blowout disasters that made us all love the place so dearly. But with all the same kids from ’05, but now three years older and still living in a house designed for those younger than they were at the time. Good times.

But here was not only a kid who had been there back in ’05, but one who had specifically antagonized me more than other staff. Actually a favorite of many of the staff, truth be told, but one who always just had it in for me. Granted, he was one of the least violent and troublesome youth and had actually even been placed before I left. But there was none of the torment or targeting, none of the sour glares I recalled from nearly two years in the house with him. Instead, he smiled and asked me where I worked now. I happened to be dressed up, so it was all too clear I wasn’t still at Seneca. And I guess he was still in the loop over there somehow anyway.

We talked for 2 or 3 minutes; nothing major, nothing earth-shattering. It was a little awkward, but a good comfortable kind of awkward that denotes that you both understand the other is authentically happy to see you, that the awkwardness is space and time and nothing innate. We shook hands at the end, and I told him he’d done well. He has. He’s graduating from 8th grade (he proudly noted that “I stayed in school!”), he’s stayed out of the system, he seemed like a “normal” kid, just sitting with friends on the steps of a BART station, waiting on a train.

While still working at Seneca, there seemed to be a network of information about people. One worked so intensely and closely with kids, so personally, and then they were often whisked away to places unseen, never to return for so much as a visit. Yet still, managers would talk to other centers and people would get grapevine updates. But upon leaving Seneca, one’s connection to information dried up. I mean, I’m sure if I’d stayed close with a bunch of people still working there, it might’ve been different, but in all likelihood, they still wouldn’t have been folks in the know. There’s no way of knowing the rest of the story. How did that person grow up? Did that turn out okay? Did they stay or go?

So it’s nice to get a postscript here and there. To come face to face with the past and have it smile back. To think that maybe, just maybe, something turned out okay in this world.

By the time his train roared into the station, I was gone.


Subterranean Homesick Pigeons

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

As I was coming out of the subway today, a pair of pigeons were going in. They weren’t quite to the faregate yet, but I doubt any BART security would kick up much of a fuss over two small birds.

They were wandering, pecking and peeking around in that cautious, almost shy way that pigeons amble when they’re not surrounded by hundreds of other competitive pigeons. No doubt it’s a crumb of food or something that looks like food that first leads them down this path. Probably not left deliberately, but one never knows. Down the first staircase, around the corner, the next staircase, and then the long white-floored expanse of empty fluorescent glow.

It has to be two pigeons – it seems somehow unlikely that just one would make the venture underground. I’ve probably seen it before, but it was frantic, somehow incongruous and unsettling. The solo pigeon is well aware that there is something amiss in unfamiliar settings. The pigeon pair can reassure each other, make certain, give a gentle cooing signal that everything’s going to be all right. We don’t realize just how much animals communicate with each other, how everyone has a way of talking.

So they explore and wander. Pecking at the flat black specks of color in the long white hallways. Cocking their heads to pry their gaze into a passing human’s eye. Maybe, after a time, pausing to decorate the floor or starting away in fright at a lurching playful child.

This situation can’t end that well, though I didn’t stick around to observe conclusions. Eventually the pigeons will test their ability to fly, find themselves strangely hampered by the lid on the air. Thus limited, there may be a small amount of discomfort and even panic as they try to discern where they can take to their wings. Eventually the humans will tire of the scat and flapping, seeking to chase their source back to where they belong. But if you’ve ever watched someone trying to herd pigeons, they are almost perversely averse to such corralling. Even if someone has their best interests at heart. They will take just enough flight to get behind you. Duck around the sides. Go briefly in the right direction only to amble back to their initial interest point.

Gradually more disoriented, unable to reconcile their new location with any prior place, they will tire and weaken. Feeling threatened, they will continue to peck at any who approach too closely. No food, more scat, high stress. Eventually, exhaustion. And then either de facto escape or retirement.

Some pigeons carry messages. Tied to their leg. In their beak perhaps. Steadily seeking out humans. Waiting patiently for them to read. And perhaps reply.


The Market Will Sell

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

Every month, almost like clockwork, the Powell Street BART station will change over its entire advertising schema. It’s not quite the changing of the guard, but it’s at least as colorful. In addition to the standard raft of billboards throughout the station, there is a large floor advertisement actually matted atop the base of the escalators. It’s one of those things that really blew me away the first time I saw it and has now become entirely commonplace.

Anyway, December ’07 is devoted to Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign. They have rolled out a holiday-oriented theme that, in line with most of the Thrive stuff, seems to believe that health is just a matter of positive thinking and maybe a smattering of vegetables and exercise. An interesting approach from medical providers. But given that they benefit the most from people not using their services, I suppose it works.

So each ad is different, which is a refreshing change from the iPod ads which all run together, or the earlier Sony Reader ads which literally had two different designs that they repeated about twelve times each. All seem to resolve around holiday cheer and vacation, with the running theme of “Time to [blank]”. Time to Relax. Looks nice. Time to Forgive. Cute, especially with a youngish couple kissing and making up, with the kissing neatly cloaked behind a balloon. Time to Illuminate, with the politically correct menorah. After all, there’s another with a Christmas tree. Time to Thrust. Wait, what?

Even a double-take assures the mind that it is indeed “Time to Thrust”. Part of the reaffirmation is that the image is entirely below the waist, with a headless female figure standing barefoot atop a notably taller headless male figure’s shoes, facing him. Oh, wait, hold on… “Time to Trust”. And – oh my goodness – it’s a young child with an adult.

You really have no idea how disturbing I found this ad to be. There is massive blurriness behind the area of the T, R, and U in what (apparently) is really saying “Trust”. But it’s really hard to see. And then there’s the factor that the whole ad campaign is punctuated with Thrive, neatly started with the THR letter combination. And of course the below-the-waist cross-gender shot. Yeah, there’s really no way on Earth this was unintentional.

But you can feel sheepish enough, Kaiser, for evoking encouragement of pelvic movement on your health-promotion ad series (insert overly obvious joke here). But in a presumed (when one really examines it fully and objectively, not quickly and assumptively) father-and-daughter combo? This just breaks new ground of inappropriateness. And frankly, it’s ultimately disturbing. After all, the message is that it’s time to trust. But if it’s time to thrust, the trust couldn’t be more misplaced. Between the adult male and the female child. Could it really get any more subliminally despicable?

You can say whatever you will about the use of sex in advertising just being the market solving. After all, I was reading about another example just yesterday. But when Kaiser’s invoking pedophilia, I get a little worried. Though I guess they got what they really wanted. Someone’s talking about it. Instead of spending my time relating details of my life or the latest revelation about what’s going on, I’m talking about an inappropriate ad on the subway.

What, exactly, has the market solved lately?


Next Stop, Orinda

Categories: A Day in the Life, Strangers on a Train, Tags: ,

I am out of energy. Just plain out of gas.

Today did its best possible job of getting me to eat my words. At least in some respects. In others, quite the other way, there was an air of affirmation for my distaste for time in the seat. But I had more than enough to do, legitimately, today. Even if it continues to be revealed how preposterous everything else is.

I really think everyone finds themself on the precarious edge of giving up completely or hanging on. 2008 could look very different indeed.

On my way home, I boarded a Pittsburg/Bay Point train (the yellow line, though sadly no one identifies BART routes by color) and promptly forgot that I was not on a Richmond train (the red line, and my homeward bound line). I also hit that very dozy stage of reading right around the last few stops, so I was in that warped sleepy/tense state of involuntary rest, equal parts fading and concerned about getting off at the right stop. Usually in this state (probably one in three evening BART rides are like this, varying wildly on the engrossingness of the present book), all I’m looking for when the train stops are the colors of the stations. Shiny red brick is 12th Street, blue brick is 19th, outside is MacArthur, dull yellow is Ashby, and dull red brick is my stop, (Downtown) Berkeley.

I was pretty sure I was hallucinating when I saw a second consecutive outside stop, but I figured I must have just dozed hard at MacArthur. I tensed up a little more, and then realized I was in a tunnel at speeds and surroundings much like the Transbay Tube. But could the train have reversed course? Was I in the tube again? Surely this was too long to be the route to Ashby…

I was fully awake when the conductor announced “Orinda”. I sheepishly shuffled off and waited for a reverse train, which turned out to be San Francisco-bound. I joked to myself about reading, dozing, and winding up back on Market Street. Maybe I’d head back to work just for kicks.

I didn’t. But I paid for the experience with ten minutes in the cold at MacArthur, waiting for another Richmond train.

This story isn’t that interesting, I realize. Who doesn’t have a fell-asleep-on-the-train story? Well, before tonight, I didn’t. And maybe that’s why it seems indicative of something. Things took on a different hue this day, one of oblivion. And oblivion didn’t look like the end of the world or torture, it just looked different. Like someone had put a BART station in Orinda. I mean, really, Orinda?

Last night I stayed up by myself (Emily seems holed up in Sacramento almost indefinitely) and played online poker and listened to Pandora. (The link indicates that this was not my cat. Though I also listened to her.) Pandora (the site, not the cat) seems to have finally honed my taste down to a science. A limited science – I think they repeat the same 30 or so songs for me – but I still have given thumbs-up to almost all of them. And the new ones soon get one. I am impressed.

A recent song they keep drumming up for me has reminded me why Matchbox-20 has spent its entire career on my auto-buy list until, somehow, this album. (I mean really, the last one [“More Than You Think You Are”] wasn’t that great before this. And then where did they go? Rob Thomas had to do his solo thing for approximately forever.)

The song is called “How Far We’ve Come” and (how out of the loop have I gotten with music?) it apparently went to #3 in the charts at some point this year. Also, apparently the album is mostly a rerelease of old stuff, so I don’t feel crazy not getting it yet.


But I believe the world is burning to the ground
oh well I guess we’re gonna find out
let’s see how far we’ve come
let’s see how far we’ve come
Well I, believe, it all, is coming to an end
oh well, I guess, we’re gonna pretend,
let’s see how far we’ve come
let’s see how far we’ve come

What if the world ended and nobody cared?

This post is as bad as I feel.


Terrorism and Other Myths

Categories: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Strangers on a Train, Tags: ,

File this one next to “Iran will acquire toasters” as part two in a series of explaining basic principles of political reality that the entire world fails to understand.

Was that too harsh? I don’t think this post is going to get any more easy-going.

The inspiration here is an online news article that is (finally!) not from Fox News. It’s this one, wherein CNN elaborates that no less than 21,000 people were mistakenly let into the United States in 2006. Security measures should have stopped each one of these twenty-one-thousand souls from crossing into the precious New Promised Land (USA).

Not only is this a fact, it’s one that the government itself is willing to tell you. Or “leak”, at least. So the actual number could be much higher. This doesn’t really matter, because there’s probably not much of a difference in your mind between 4,000 or 5,000 people and 21,000 or 25,000 people and even 40,000 or 50,000 people. Maybe if you think hard and put it into a context like sports stadiums, you can kind of grasp it, but in the end, sports stadiums of various sizes all start to run together and look the same anyway. At a certain point, numbers all start to look alike and those of us who are not mathematicians (read: everyone reading) really don’t distinguish these big numbers very well.

The point is, a metric crudload of people who were supposed to be too dangerous for the common people to interact with were let into the United States of America.

The rhetoric that is taken as a given (roughly equivalent to “the sun will appear to rise in the morning” or “Senators are doin’ it for themselves”) in the US government is that just one person who shouldn’t be let into the country (or on a plane, or into a stadium, or into a country club) will instantly lead to a breach of security so fundamentally devastating that it will instantly manifest terrorism. After all, there are about a quadrillion people out there who “hate us” (for no reason, of course) and every one of them has no life aspiration beyond blowing Americans into little tiny formerly flag-waving pieces.

Even if some of that is slightly exaggeratory, the general gist is true and is displayed daily. Not just by government sources, but by all sorts of media, ranging from “leftist” to “right-wing”. We need to live in fear of the constant numbers of terrorists chomping at the bit to blow us up where we work, live, and play. The only thing keeping our physical bodies intact is the watchful eye of American security.

The problem with the watchful eye theory is that American security is run by the same people who do all the other jobs in America. And 85% of all people, in work and in life, are asleep at the wheel almost all the time. So we get our stadium full of 21,000 would-be terrorists into the country.

Conservative estimates with this simple formula of mismanagement of the border (21,000) times people who hate us (10% of surreptitious dangerous would-be entrants? 5%? 1%? 0.1%?) would range between 21 and 2,100 incidents of terrorism per annum in the United States. Say you have the most incredible law enforcement ever, that using the combined forces of the Patriot Act, wiretapping, suspension of the Constitution, martial law, and a pod full of those precogs from the movie “Minority Report”, can anticipate and prevent 95% of terrorist acts on US soil, even though the same people let 21,000 dangerous people in the country.

2006, you owe me, conservatively, between 1 and 105 incidents of terrorism on US soil.

Not that I want, like, endorse, or do anything other than abhor terrorism. But hopefully my point is blindingly obvious by now. We have not had any terrorism on US soil since 2001. For six years, despite pursuing a foreign policy hell-bent on generating terrorism and inciting generations of hatred, there has not been a single act. Not one. The numbers above, times six. Or really, to the sixth power, to fully illustrate the beating of the odds.

There are only two possible explanations for this.

Either (A) there are no terrorists or (B) US law enforcement is working at a 100.00% rate of anticipation and prevention.

I think we’ve blown up (B) as though with a rocket-propelled grenade. How do you account for the 21,000 mistakes? How do you account for the math above? And how in God’s name do we have US law enforcement that despite allowing a burgeoning drug trade, endless gang warfare, and sky-high incarceration rates, suddenly learned how to prevent something purportedly likely with 100.00% accuracy?

It also just doesn’t wash with the fact that I carry a backpack, often extremely full (I pack lots of layers to account for San Francisco’s schizophrenic weather), onto a subway five days a week, and it could just as easily have explosives as jackets. (Note to SFPD et al: It does NOT have explosives. It has jackets.) If BART felt they could effectively anticipate my explosive:jacket likelihood, they would not have just spent millions of dollars on new hidden camera systems, entirely to prevent terrorism, that not even Turkish hackers will know the location of. (I learned about this on the local news at the ER.)

But if I grant (B), then nothing else really matters. I think I’m more scared of a world in which law enforcement can anticipate and prevent with 100.00% accuracy than one in which we risk occasional private acts of discord.

So we’re left with (A). There are no terrorists. At least not that want to do anything in the United States.

I guess you could allegedly make the counter-argument that terrorists all have an extreme penchant for panache, and the bar has been raised so high by 9/11 that it’s just too darn intimidating to commit terrorism on US soil. Daily events in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to contradict this theory, not to mention the old days of Israel, Northern Ireland, and wherever terrorism is sold. Granted that only 2 of those 4 examples are in the fabled “post-9/11 world”, but I think they’re quite relevant given that it’s allegedly the same enemy as the one that is coming for us on US soil. So even if I grant this crazy argument that only the biggest plot ever would be satisfying to commit within American borders, all it means is that we can stand down and relax, because we’re going to see something coming a mile away. The fear and paranoia paradigm still doesn’t wash.

The only other counter-argument I could possibly imagine would be that the deterrent is so high that terrorism doesn’t get carried out. And while ending up on the rack in Gitmo isn’t appealing, I don’t think it’s deterring countless acts of terrorism in the Middle East. And certainly it’s no secret that US law enforcement rates are not fueled by precognition and do things like let in 21,000 “bad guys”.

So what would be deterring people who hate the US, can get in, will likely not get caught, and are willing to kill?

We’ve got another binary choice here. For the sake of clarity, we’ll move on to two new letters. Either (C) there aren’t any such people or (D) they see a distinction between attacking US civilians and US occupiers.

You might say we can rule out (D) off the bat, because of 9/11. But if that’s the case, we’re left only with (C), which means that 9/11 was not what it seemed. But if we rule out (C), it makes (D) very hard to explain in the context of 9/11 as well. In fact, why did 9/11 happen and then lead to six years of uninterrupted bliss inside a porous and osmosis-prone United States?

I can’t explain it. But I will go with (D), in part because (C) would have to mean accepting that literally everything we are being told about both Iraq and Afghanistan is untrue, and that’s a little more than I want to handle tonight. (D) is at least logically consistent and sound outside of 9/11, and even more logically consistent and sound with an inside 9/11. (You see what I did there.)

So then we have a people who blow up people only for the purpose of kicking out an oppressive occupier. Who will only attack military or invasive parties and steer clear, despite plenty of motive an opportunity, of attacking civilians who have stayed out of the conflict directly (despite empowering the conflict indirectly).

I’m no fan of violence. I’m an ardent pacifist who advocates peace and non-violence about all things. But I also like semantic and logical political arguments like this, a throwback to my debate years. And I’m left feeling that you can’t really call this phenomenon in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere “terrorism”. It seems pretty military to me, or at least paramilitary. And while that doesn’t justify it any more, at least we have defined terms. These people are just rebelling against an occupier in the old traditional method. Adhering very strictly to terms of engagement more civil than those used by the oppressor.

Which, in fact, brings us all the way back to (A). There are no terrorists.

Sleep easy, America. There was never any threat (from abroad) to begin with. Border guards, go ahead and let an extra thousand in, on me.

Part 3 in this series (mostly noting it now so I don’t forget) will likely involve breaking down the problems with fighting a force which routinely employs suicide bombing as though they were ardent individualists.


At the Zoo

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

Early this morning, we posted a new video for The Mep Report, my former podcast with which I still interact from time to time:

Most of the material is old, but it’s repackaged in a nifty new way intended to promote the show. This one isn’t going to take over the world, but it’s hopefully the kind of thing that makes people want to listen.

Not many people wanted to listen today. In general. It was, again, one of those days that makes one question nearly every assumption, every action. I came so close to not making it into work today. I can’t even tell enough to know whether going in was a mistake or not. At this point, I’m past the point of caring.

On the way home, a prophet got on the BART train. He was a firebrand preacher, raised in the ‘hood, with a goon on either side of him mugging, leering, and laughing as he spoke his truth. The man was eloquent and profound. He found his target audience, a man twice his age from the Vietnam era, engaging him in a repartee of the man’s life and his own perspective. He quickly found more than his target audience. After one stop, I had to put my book away to listen.

Only a tape recorder would have done him justice, but one key moment was his declaration that television is a harder drug than anything else out there, “except maybe alcohol and cigarettes”. He broke down television to its component parts: “tell-lie, and that’s their vision.” His target audience was clearly impressed, verbally affirming. Many of the others surrounding were annoyed or afraid. And just as many, like me, were listening.

After two straight days feeling debilitated despite working for one of the most important social services agencies in California, hearing this man was the most inspirational moment of my week.

He wasn’t perfect (at one point he said he liked Hillary more than Obama, though at least he prefaced it by saying that there’s no point in voting because no one’s vote counts), but it was a damn sight better than anyone else who’s standing up and calling out these days. It made me wonder why I’m not doing more of the same. It also made me wonder how he’d react if I asked for his contact info and said that he should be speaking to more than just BART trains.

Probably, he’d feel patronized. Who the hell am I, anyway? But the man had a voice and a vision. He was able to capture the despair of this day and mix it as a message of unification for a muddled mass of misfits rolling northward toward nowhere.

And why did it hit me like a testimony to our time that this man was speaking to BART trains instead of crowds? Why wasn’t he leading the charge, the voters, the revolution? The inspirational populism of All the King’s Men came to mind, and I had to acquiesce, as I was walking away from the northbound train, that he had no reason to be less corruptible than anyone else. Sure, “the best minds of my generation can’t make bail.” But also, “show me the money.” In the end, he would probably be just as buyable, just as susceptible, just as able to adjust his story and perspective to meet the needs of the imp of self-interest.

In a way, are we all doing the same thing every day? In a small, small, but damning way? Why do I not speak truth to BART trains? Why do I not rave at those who might listen, at those who don’t listen, at those who seem inexorably locked into demanding that I listen?

It’s not fear. It must be a sneaking suspicion of self-interest.

Out, damn imp.

Above ground, now. Walking westward, toward the sun and its descending shadows, still not gone yet by an act of Regress. A woman, seconds before entering a gym in her designer work-out gear, screams at a young woman on a bike in angry sarcasm: “I’m so glad your mommy bought you a bicycle!”

I wasn’t there to see chapter one of this interlude. I only saw the aftershock. Maybe the woman almost got run down. But the dripping bitterness just seemed out of proportion. The younger one stood perched over her bike, stock still, in that kind of silent shame that cuts deepest when one is sure one has nothing to be ashamed of. And did this woman really just yell and then bolt into the carded confines of her high-priced gymnasium? After unleashing invective at the allegedly spoiled?

She eventually moved on. And so did I, hurrying now. And the wandering mind recalled the ongoing rage of a born bicyclist who uncharacteristically turned his rage on everything this afternoon, just before this journey began. Usually his rage is confined to bicycles, but today it was for everything, valid or in.

“He seems in a weird space today. Let’s just leave him alone.”

The zookeeper is very fond of rum. I feel that the last 48 hours have brought me closer to an understanding of why people drink alcohol than I’ve ever had before. There have been many moments of thoughts akin to temptation in the past. A mid-sophomore year (college) night above a pulsing party in the space below comes to mind, as the scent of cannabis wafted to my window. “It would be so easy,” I moaned. Over and over.

I remain, as then, steadfast. But these are trying times. Times without measure.

Stand up, ye prophets. And I may even, soon, have the courage to stand with you.