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EVERYTHING SHOULD BE UNDER THE SUN
Saturday Crowd Scenes:
Another Pond In Winter
Boston. December, 2000. Another pond in winter.
"In accordance with Massachusetts state law, there is no smoking allowed in South Station."
The more than slightly robotic womans voice boomed out of the public address system, just enough all knowing, all-seeing in tone to give passengers on the escalator the impression of ascension into a future world.
"Stay tuned for more from the leader."
It wasnt, of course, anything more than a bus and train depot. As Julian rode upward on the slotted metal steps, he
turned back towards the massive windows framing Atlantic Avenue. In between the first and second floor, the fat distortions of the electric piano intro to Fela Kutis "Confusion" pushed through his headphones and into Julians Saturday morning brain. The elongated, red light message board behind him welcomed him and pointed to where he was heading, reassembling its pixel letters every three seconds or so. The dotted, Boston pulse of the sign illuminated the thump of the Nigerian invocation in almost synchronous time. Julian stepped off of the escalator to the right and made his way down the corridor and towards the sky light rotunda, where steps led up to ticketing and the obligatory newsstands and Dunkin Donuts.
"Yeah, they going to New York all day, every day, man." The blue coveralled worker was reassuring the college student in the hand-knit cap, as Julian walked by.
The two other station workers with the answer man looked at each other with faint surprise rather than a solid backup chorus of "Thats right, brother."
"But with the snow this bad?" the student persisted.
"Man, it aint nowhere near stopping those New York busses on the road. Theres one most every hour."
Julian wanted to believe the on the spot forecast, but as he moved towards the gate for the Worcester line he was having his doubts. The snow expected in New England today was supposed to be of NorEaster proportions. Boston, at the moment, however, was clean as a whistle. The only tangible precipitation on the walk over was the usual damp, ocean nearby, tar and fish, smell of the inner harbor area. It was air you could feel almost every day of the year around here. Was a blizzard around the corner? Maybe not.
Julian queued up inside the wide, vinyl-covered ropes near door five, and placed his red and black mountain backpack on the floor. He swigged a bottle of water and waited for the bus. He stood behind a part-time dad lugging his cache of post Christmas presents and seldom seen five-year-old daughter.
Why would anyone go backwards on a train? Julian always avoided it. Whether it was back on the subway in the city or the occasional Metro North trip, he would face the front. He had walked the length of two cars before finding forward seats. Tossing down his bag, he settled in to an aisle seat and wondered how much this would cost him. Five minutes before ten at gate five the familiar, robotic voice had returned.
"Attention please. Due to severe weather, all South Station bus service has been canceled at this time."
It wasnt much of a scramble to the other end of the station to grab the 12:30 commuter rail, and the scheduled trains didnt operate at the same mercy of snow as those travelers on the roads. Julian looked down at the timetable he had grabbed (instead of standing in the Amazonian ticket line) and tried to determine how many zones equaled how much cash. Eight dollars? He wasnt sure. Is a town a zone? The train lurched ahead, two minutes late, as the first flakes hit the ground. Fela returned to the headphones and Julian hung his coat up on the hook by the window.
Everything out of control.
After Back Bay, the clerks appeared.
"Tickets. Tickets please."
Thumbing through a found Herald, Julian didnt notice the man waiting for his fare.
"Ticket?" the Boston Irish voice asked from under the standard issue railroad cap.
"Um, I need one to Worcester," Julian replied, fingering a ten dollar bill. "How many zones...Im not sure..."
"Just give me four bucks."
"Sure," Julian complied, wondering about the discount. "Thanks."
"Ah, a little bit here, a little bit there, friend." The man punched a light blue, bookmark slip of paper and turned to the next seat. "Good day, folks. Two for the bleachers?"
By the time the train reached Newton, the snow was falling hard. There was already a frozen crust on the ground from last weeks fall, and out of the train window Julian could see the visible patches of road and shoveled cement were rapidly disappearing under the diagonal rain of white.
The storm had deserted the streets and cars were few. It gave the train a weird, survival pod vibe. The last few survivors on earth included: two businessmen scanning spread sheets; three German tourists pointing at a map and munching Au Bon Pain croissants; a large, die-hard, Patriots fan in an old red with vertical blue trim HANNAH 73 jersey; and across the aisle from Julian, two very buzzed girlfriends making their way back to the suburbs after a multi-Bloody Mary, Copley brunch. The two women had taken to calling out the station stops in response echo to the conductors Southie accent.
"AhhhhB-in-DALE...Next Stahp, AhhhhB-in-DALE Station...."
"Your turn, Rita."
"Okay, okay. AaaaAAH-BIN-DAY-el!!" Spit laughs and knee slaps would follow.
"You gals behave, or Ill have to call the staties," the clerk joked.
"Only if they strip search, officer," said the other woman.
"You are wicked, Trace."
The train continued west. As it pulled into the Framingham station, Julian could see snowflakes as big as quarters smothering the rail yard landscape. By now, it was a beautiful storm. The footing would be tough in Worcester, but ,for scenery, everything worked. The pod continued, unabated in its escape.
The clerk nudged Julian awake. "This is your stop, sir."
Julian rubbed his left eye with his thumb, and looked out of the window for the station. He didnt see any.
"You know Im going to Worcester, right?" Julian asked the clerk, who was moving into the next car.
"This is what you paid for," he answered, disappearing behind the sliding partition door.
Julian looked around, hoping to check with the other passengers. They had all gone.
He turned to look out of the window. Nothing but trees and snow and a frozen pond. Then he saw it.
About one hundred yards from the shore sat a man in dark clothing, on an old straight backed, Yankee captains chair. It looked maybe like an ice fisherman, but with no gear or tackle.
"Excuse me, but I dont think this is Worcester." Julian stood, waving to get the clerks attention through the glass portal to the next car.
The clerk continued punching tickets as the train heaved forward.
"Next stop, WOOS-tah Station. Woos-tah next."
"Okay," thought Julian, sitting back down. "Maybe he meant the next stop. I guess Ill...."
Looking again to the portal, Julian couldnt believe his eyes. The rest of the train was pulling away, while his car stayed put. He ran to the front window and shouted to anyone that might hear.
"Wait!! The hitch is off! Theres somebody back here!"
Julian ran to his seat, grabbed his backpack and burst out of the cars side door. He ran for about fifty yards down the track in the snow until the rest of the train pulled out of sight.
"AW, COME ON!!! DAMN IT!! DAMN IT!! DAMN IT!!" Julian screamed to the trees.
He ran back to his car of passage. The doors were all locked. Julian slammed metal with the side of his fist.
This stretch of track seemed to be set far from the road. It clicked in Julians head that his only options were hiking up through the woods ( to where he thought the highway was) and walking the rest of the track -maybe fifteen miles?-to the next station. Maybe wait for the next train to come along? The schedule said 7:33. Six hours. The wind stung against his already red cheeks.
Before he could choose option one or two, Julian turned back towards the pond. The man in the chair had fallen over, face forward.
"Somehow, in the middle of this shit, there is someone worse off than me," thought Julian.
He pulled his ski cap down tight on his head, running his arms through the padded straps of his backpack, and headed out towards the center of the pond.
The footing was pretty slick for Julian in his rubber-soled ducks. Thirty yards in, he had abandoned conventional walking for the slip and slide, faux skating moves that sprung from a youth of driveway hockey. Bobby Orr it wasnt, but it was a pretty decent way to navigate the ice. Julian reached the man and the chair in a few minutes.
The man was dressed in full puritanical garb. White shirt and black pants, black wool coat, black boots and gloves, and a few feet away, tossed aside from the plunge, a black brimmed preachers hat. Without the hat, Julian could see that the man looked at least fifty. His hair was somewhat long, a very British cut, and its red tone was greying a little more slowly than that of the mans Ahab style beard. The falling snow traced the man where he lay.
"A crime scene of winter," Julian thought.
He took off his backpack, and knelt down over the fallen pilgrim.
"Sir, are you all right?"
No answer came, and Julian repeated his inquiry, this time shaking the mans shoulder with his gloved hand.
"Hey, can you hear me?"
Julian reached and turned the man over, onto his back. He felt for a pulse. No pulse. The adrenaline of "Oh shit, how dies CPR go?" mixed with "How the fuck am I supposed to save this guy?" gave way to the complete shock of silence. The man sat up in a shot, gasping and sucking air to a degree that drowned out Julians own startled scream.
Julian had sprung backwards in reflex, and came down hard on his tailbone as the man turned his eyes towards him.
"Arrghh! Ouch, damn. Ow." Julian reeled. "You scared the hell out of..."
"Take this," offered the man. He stood and stretched out his right hand holding a book. "Go on. Its for you."
"Whats the deal, here? Are you even okay? Because you sure looked dead about a minute ago," Julian asked.
"Im fine. I thank you for your help. Take the book."
Julian took the green, hard cover edition from the man in black. He brushed a little snow off of the cover. Across the middle it read: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau.
Julian removed his right glove to thumb the pages. He looked up to see the man speed stepping towards the other side of the pond, one hand clutching his coat closed, the other holding his hat on. Julian watched as the man became a black speck against the tree line.
"What now?" Julian wondered as he took a seat in the burnished captains chair. "Where the hell am I?"
He read a passage on page eight.
Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and through her, God.
Julian looked up and saw only himself, the trees, and the snow.
"WOOS-tah! WOOS-tah Stay-shin. End of the line," the clerks voice opened Julians eyes. "Everybody out."
Julian straightened up in the big, maroon, seat grabbing for his backpack on the right. The storm had
put what looked like six inches on the ground in Worcester, and seemed to be going strong. Julian stood up and filed out to the platform behind the John Hannah tribute and his Super Bowl XX coat.
Passing through the grand Union Station Julian walked past the abandoned stage set and folding chairs ready for tomorrow nights New Years celebration. Right now, an audience of none. Nothing much to celebrate.
Out in front, beyond the shelter of the station walls, the snow fell hard and fast. A lone shoveller did his best to keep the walk clear for any arrivals. It didnt matter. Except for a few jeeps and brave sedans meeting their friends, there was no activity to speak of. The nearby highway hummed with a few plows, but there were none of the usual sounds of honking cars and available cabs. It would be a very long walk home.
Julian had trudged across the street(the highway now a big, white and grey, slush sidewalk)to the mall. "Probably easier to get a cab here," he reasoned. It was more than that. Standing in the local book outlet he found the Thoreau section and grabbed knowingly for a green volume. He plopped on the nearest courtesy couch and began to scan Walden.
Things do not change; we change.
He sat and read for an hour or so, before rising and paying the cashier at the checkout.
"Your change, sir," the young girl offered, handing over two ones and dropping three nickels and some pennies on the counter. "Whoops." She scooped them up and handed them to Julian.
"Well, a little here, a little there, I guess," said Julian.
He walked out of the store and took the escalator downstairs.
"Is there any way I could call a cab from here?" he asked the curly haired woman at the information desk.
"Sure, honey. I already tried for a lot of others. Im not sure if..." She began dialing.
Julian drifted off in the sounds of mall muzak and glanced at the local hockey schedule on the desk. Ice Cats.
"Okay dear, youre all set. Front entrance. Red cab. Henry." she reported.
"Thanks a lot. Uh, Henry?" wondered Julian.
"Yeah, dear. Youre Henry," she explained.
"I am?" Julian asked.
"Today you are," she told him, answering another phone call. "Information, Worcester Outlets...."
Julian slung his backpack over his right shoulder and turned Fela back on. He stared out of the glass doors at the town square. The snow continued to fall.
*Note: Henry David Thoreau published Walden (which includes "The pond in winter") in 1854. He is regarded as one of the great American writers. His philosophy helped found the civil disobedience movement.
Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti was the Nigerian father of Afro-Beat music. His stands against military governments, economic oppression, and arbitrary arrest subjected him to a life of police harassment and eventual exile in Ghana. His recordings have recently been reissued on CD.