Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm not at Harvard

I'd expected to be reading tonight with the wonderfully live-wire Eileen Myles in Cambridge, and I was looking forward to it. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts has mounted a show called "ACT UP New York," centering on posters and other activist art from the crisis years of the epidemic. I'd planned to read poems by Tim Dlugos, James Merrill and the late Rynn Williams, as well as some work of my own.

But I don't know that anyone had quite considered the exigencies of travel on Thanksgiving week. Penn Station was packed, and when the track number was posted on the board for the Acela to Boston there was a mad race toward the escalator. In the Age of Terrorism, you have to get your ticket checked before you can go down to the platform, which means that the cone of travelers has to funnel down to a narrow line, like cars entering the Holland Tunnel. Lots of big wheeled bags, as much must be carried back to the family gathering. As we get closer, more and more of them wheel over my shoes. Once I'm down the escalator a conductor points to the quiet car, which turns out to be full save for a seat at the back, one of those where a narrow table separates two facings seats. There's a woman already sitting on one side; I ask if the other side is available and she says yes, so I stash my stuff above. But as soon as I try to sit another woman sits down beside the first, and I realize my long frame will not fit: my knees will be in the lap of one of the other passengers. So I scoop up my stuff (not noticing I'm leaving behind my sandwich and bottle of water), but it turns out the doors behind me are shut; there's no way out except back through the crowded car, and the aisle's completely choked by travelers and big rolling bags.

Eventually, I'm back through the crowd, duck out of the train, hurry down toward the other end, head in again -- not a seat in sight, unless I make a famiy with a crowd of kids move their pile of coats and toys and bags. The aisles are still full of the unseated, and suddenly I just can't deal. I turn and walk off the train.

There's another in half an hour, the cheaper "regional" train, running a little late. Once it's called I get back into the funnel again, only to be stopped at the head of the stairs by the Amtrak person who's protecting us from Al Qaeda because I have a ticket for the earlier train. He won't let me on unless I go change it, which would mean waiting through the huge line at the counter. So I'm sunk. I turn back, make my way through the wedge of bodies and luggage, over to the security counter where the handsome bomb-sniffing dogs hang out, and find myself beginning to weep. It's the big wave of all this fall's work and travel and responsibly showing up for all I needed to do breaking over my head. It's Thanksgiving, enough! In my head I am already apologizing: I would love to read for you, I'd like to be there, but I am going HOME, I am NOT going to Harvard.

Perhaps, given that many thousands of people travel via Amtrak at Penn Station every week, and that Thanksgiving week is a predictable crush, maybe they could do a little planning to get people onto the train in a humane fashion? Or add some cars?

Apologies to anyone who's come out to the museum this evening, but I hope the reading's wonderful.


John said...

Mark, I hope you went home,kissed Paul hello, kicked your shoes off, opened a bottle of something nice, and began to enjoy the holiday. The Thanksgiving gods work in mysterious ways!

Laura said...

Oh, dear. Your Amtrak descriptions have carved a riverbed for your frustration--those handsome dogs are like rocks in the midst of it all.

I love the poem above and am sure it would have been well-received. Perfect for all that complicated heaviness and nostalgia and hard work and hope. Glad you posted it here!

melissashook said...

This is perfect....for someone who loathes traveling...and Thanksgiving. Thank you so much for all the details, especially the delicious dogs.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what cultural differences exist about train travel -- say, in terms of personal space. Friends who have traveled in India tell me that the amazing photographs of crowded trains are not fictions. (http://blogs.taz.de/wp-inst/wp-content/blogs.dir/44/files/2007/02/043%20overcrowded%20train%20India.jpg). Thank you for sharing the poem.