Friday, February 12, 2016
Night Train to San Francisco ((A Neighborhood Escapade)(1968))
When I went to San Francisco I put my leather-bound suitcase under the backseat of where I sat on the train, and looked out the side window. I couldn’t afford a berth; it was three times the amount of the economy coach ticket. And back in the summer of 1968, when I was but twenty-years old, it didn’t make a difference: I kicked my shoes off, and as night come quickly, I couldn’t see much anyway. I tossed my black Swede jacket over me—over my shoulders, took a newspaper I found lying on the open seat next to me, turned on the overhead light and read the headlines, and scanned the front page.
“Turn off the light,” said the porter, “Everyone’s trying to get some sleep.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t want to. I’m not sleepy, Mister!”
“Well, I guess so,” he said, adding “we’ll be stopping in a few hours if you want to get off the train and stretch your feet for ten-minutes…” then he looked down at my feet, “you should put your shoes on,” he grumbled.
“No,” I said, “I’ll not put them out in the aisle, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He simply turned his head and walked away.
I got up and went to the washroom, washed my face: I wasn’t tired; I walked about the train—although dimly lit in all compartments. (It was my second train ride I had taken; the first being coming back from Seattle to St. Paul, Minnesota a year earlier where I had visited the city for a short while)— A few of the windows were left slightly open and the night summer’s air came in cool. The moon was like a big white button in the sky. There were lights in the distance that blurred as the iron horse, as they often referred to it in the cowboy moves, raced onward.
We angled into Chicago, but before I could see its tall buildings, we were on the outskirts. I looked out the window to see the windy city but all I could see were railroad yards and freight cars lined up to kingdom-come. Then suddenly we stopped—a dead stop, the porter came by again, “If you need cigarettes or anything, there’s a stand outside on the platform, be quick about it though,” he said and I jumped up, crawled out from behind the two seats and onto the aisle, and then onto the landing area of the train station.
“Where are we?” I asked the owner of a stand, that was selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes and warm quart beer, on the pier.
“Outside of Chicago, why?” he asked.
“No reason, give me a quart of beer.” I said.
“Will Hamm’s do?” he questioned.
“Yaw, how much?”
“$1.25 plus tax,” he quoted.
I paid the fellow, then the train started to move, and I found myself running to just make the train, jumping onto its metal step with one hand on the beer and the other on the railing. And there I stood in-between the two cars, and drank the quart of beer down whole within a matter of minutes. Found a trash can, throw the empty bottle in it and went back to my original seat. An old lady was sitting in the seat next to mine, and I moved on over and around her, to the window side and fell to sleep. When I woke up the train had stopped again, we were someplace high up, it was cold and when I moved my jacket, the old lady pulled her arm back, as if it was searching for something, where it didn’t belong. I gave her a nasty look, one that perhaps said: it wasn’t safe for her anymore here, and when I’d come back she’d be gone.
“We’re going through cold country,” said the porter. We were in the mountains now. I put on my jacket, my shoes and reached under my seat to check if my suitcase was still there, it was, thus, I moved out to find another quart of beer, rushing from one vender to another, then finding a little store on the pier, that was connected to the inside station and halfway out onto the platform. And I could feel the cool air in my lungs, I let a Luck Strike, and walked into the store casual like, knowing I was only twenty-years old, still not old enough to drink, or buy alcohol, but I usually didn’t have a problem with that. Hence, I walked inside the small store, two Negros were sitting about on wooden stools, their shoeshine box in front of them “You-all wants a shoeshine boy?” asked the Negro with the black and yellowish front buck teeth extending through his open mouth.
“No, just a quart of beer,” I rambled.
The storekeeper was asleep behind the counter in the corner, his head against a cushioned pillow.
“Hay, Ollie, wake up, yous got a customer,” said the middle-aged Negro with the black teeth. When he smiled he opened up his mouth wider showing off his damaged gums, and spit into a spittoon, the tobacco he was chewing was blacker than his teeth, his eyes were as red as Marilyn Monroe’s lips; his head was the shape of a football, he was wearing a brown fitted, knitted cap, and his ears looked to be the cauliflower type, as if he was at one time a boxer, perhaps forty-five, the other fellow was sleeping on his forearms and knees, back bent.
I went back to my seat on the train and she was gone altogether with her things, and so I drank the six-pack of beer without fret. And fell to sleep sometime between the fourth and fifth beer, because when I woke up, there were two half cans of beer on the floor and one full one in my lap. I found my way back to the washroom carefully, as not to wake up the few folks still sleeping. The bathroom now smelled vulgar, pee and vomit were all over the seats, and no toilet paper.
Thereafter, I could smell the breakfast seep all the way down from the dining car, three cars up. I looked out the window at the countryside; it was now flat, not mountainous like before. It was forty-shades of green, and lots and lots of telephone poles, and fine looking horses grazing, small hills, patches of wooded areas here and there. Seeing all this appeared as if I had never left Minnesota (perhaps I was in Montana, who’s to say), except there were no cornfields, not one, but it was nice looking country anyhow.
No: 640 (6-23-2010) Notes: These short stories were written between January of 2010, and February of 2012 (in a 25-month period). The story numbers are between #631 and #879 (as you may well know if you’ve read the author before, the author numbers his poems and short stories: the first one being “The Little Russian Twins,’ written in 1981, and the most recent, “Distraught” number, 3879, written: 2-29-2012.