The Train Ride

On my way through Emeryville, I see the freeway beside the train, maybe 50 yards away. I am looking at the overpass I usually drive under and feel like I’m sideways in the universe for a moment. 

The businesses along the track have placed signs for train passersby to see, but it seems they’ve forgotten they hung them there in the back. A sign that reads “Power Tool Repair: Factory Authorized” flaps listless over the gravel between their backdoor and the tracks. The intervening space is littered with castoffs, detritus—clothes that have been flung and scattered, fast food containers, a disassembled couch, a car’s backseat placed where day laborers can sit and get high while waiting for an offer of work.

I pass graffiti-covered walls, the flavor of the day artistic graffiti-style with bright fresh colors, but in the middle of the mural’s chaos there’s a moment of painted quiet that speaks loudest: a black man’s face and his expression is at the cross roads of open, angry, hopeful and defensive.

Along the bay it’s a thick grey morning, but I can see across the water to a hill that is illuminated by the only spot of sun in any direction. We keep moving north from the bay into the delta. 

It’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning, but there are random people at the water’s edge. A photographer in a bright yellow and red jacket is looking from the woman he will photograph, who is dressed in shades of gray that match the water and sky to the silver gray train behind her. He smiles. A mile or several miles later, a man with a stick balances on tires that are half-exposed in low tide. He picks each step, moving further out, poking into the water with his stick. 

A fishing boat that looks like the ill-fated one in Jaws rests on its side in low waters, rusted and rusting. There are posts all around it that used to hold up a system of docks, a watery ghost town in miniature. 

A ship named Empire State is docked near the Carquinez Bridge, not far from a restaurant called The Nantucket. Just past the restaurant is C & H Sugar, a complex of brick buildings that are old and older attached to rusting steel buildings that are connected to new, boldly painted, tough as nails buildings. The history of the company tells itself by the evolution of its buildings. 

The water in the river-like delta looks completely flat until a small fishing skiff bounces past, riding across the large, low waves. The bouncing is rhythmic, like a horse at trot on flat ground and I imagine the bumping whine of the engine as it hits, hits, hits each wave. 

A train going in the opposite direction passes on the parallel track, inches away. It’s a sickening feeling as car after car passes, the press of air between the trains, the motion-sick opposite sway. They are rounded silver fuel cars and I sing inside my head to the rhythm of the trains, “go safely, go lightly, go safely, go lightly” and I think about the village in Quebec. 

Train bathrooms are exercises in brilliant, efficient minimalism. Everything has a label and each label is done in three languages: English, Braille, and pictorial symbolism. The button on the wall beside the toilet is described, “Flush.” There is a clear plastic container with thick fluid that is mounted to the sink. The label behind it has a picture of cartoon bubbles, “Soap.” The only unmarked thing in the room is the least obvious thing—a rectangle of metal is flush against the wall by the door. I poke it and the top extends out—a maximum strength hook to hold my computer bag. 

Returning to my seat, I see a lush green field that extends from the tracks across to the distant freeway. The train blasts its whistle and from nowhere scores of snowy egrets rise in alarm and return to the waterways hidden below the grass-covered surface, a world hidden from view. 

We pass a crossroad where a line of cars waits for us to speed by and I remember an afternoon on the train ride home when we made an unexpected stop and sat on the tracks for 20 minutes. The conductor came over the loudspeaker to explain that there had been a family in their car that had been stopped on the tracks. He said that the train had stopped within eighteen inches of hitting it. A collective gasp and applause erupted as the train lurched onward. 

In the distance there is a white, full-size dinosaur. It’s on the other side of the highway, beside a red barn. Behind the barn, there’s an orchard with invisible fruit, but its secret is told by the regular rows of the same tree, growing again and again. 

Five windmills slowly turn outside of Suisun. The train stop in town is flanked by an It’s It Ice Cream factory outlet store and my mouth waters in memory of the days when their calorie count wasn’t a deal breaker and when I couldn’t understand how my jeans got so tight. 

We pass fields of thigh-high sunflowers. I remember my first drive through California, coming down from Washington State. It was this same time of the year and the flowers were almost full grown. It was amazing to drive by miles of fields full of the towering flowers. My amazement was complicated by the miles I was putting between myself and my unspoken-yet-now-officially ex-lover in Seattle, and by my knowledge that my three-month-long cross-country trip from east to west was concluding at the end of that very day. I drove while lamenting with my hopeful bewilderment dripping from me like sweat down my ribs.

Vacation

I am trying to explain to myself why I am not in Maine today, because not being there is a physical pain. It’s my first day of vacation and all I can think of is sunfish.

A freshwater sunfish at the end of your hook—no matter how big a fish it is relative to other sunfish—is too small and bony for a fisherman, who must scorn it before throwing it back into the pond.

On the other hand, to a young swimmer, nervous about the Loch Ness monster, about octopuses, whirlpools, and mucky pond bottoms, to a swimmer who keeps an eye on her bare feet under the water until she can’t reach the bottom any longer and so has to float like a board on top of the water, keeping her feet as far as possible from the murky depths where a disembodied hand might rise from the mud to grab them, to this sort of swimmer the sunfish may be a gentle friend.

Not concerned with bones and eating or catching and releasing, the swimmer can delight in the flat fish that shimmers in the sunlight. The sunfish might nibble on a leg at rest in the water—tasting its surface as it might a sunken log—so lightly that the person might not notice it at all if in conversation, in thought, or otherwise distracted.

On the other hand, its nibble may startle and become a tickle and gasp affair that sends the sunfish darting to the safety of a shadow or into the plume rising up from the pond floor, stirred by feet dashing for shore, where they will be safe from piranhas pretending to be sunfish.

Once on shore, it’s difficult to ignore the instructions from a nervous grandmother, who can’t swim and lives in fear of drowning grandchildren, grandchildren who should not swim past the floating dock in front of the camp, but who do so while pretending to be deaf to her admonishments. The dock marks the spot where their grandfather can wade, hurling his mass through chest-deep water—because he can’t swim either—in less time than it takes to drown, a race that’s been tested just once, but he won it and we’re all still here as a result.

“Put that life jacket on right instead of standing there fussing with it,” one of several adults says as he pulls, tugs, clamps and clicks it into place.

 

“My god, I can’t breathe you’ve got it on so tight.”

 

“It’ll loosen up in the water, so forget your complaining, miss. You’ll be lucky if you can float with all the potato salad you ate. Without that lifejacket, you’d sink like a stone. Now go on with you.”

Bellies protruding, we grandchildren hop across hot stones, throwing ourselves into the pond, kicking up walls of water in our wake to discourage any would-be pursuers from following too close behind. They can’t follow us into the pond or they would ruin their freshly curled permanents, their new sundresses, and their hearing aids. They would lose their new contact lenses that would float away from their wide-open eyes to be nibbled by curious sunfish under the dock.

Bastille Day and Dusting off the Blog

I might never have given Bastille Day two thoughts, were in not for Martha Lunney. I interviewed Martha for my first women’s studies class at the University of Southern Maine in the 80’s. She was the only paid staff member for the Feminist Spiritual Community in Portland, Maine and I was diving headfirst into feminism and spirituality. As I recall, she was generous with her time and sparked interest enough that I participated in the FSC during the years I lived in Portland.

About ten years later, I got on the San Francisco Muni’s 24 Divisadero line at the corner of Castro and 19th Street, heading home after a day of work. To my surprise, Martha Lunney was sitting on the bus, so I sat down and said “hello.” She didn’t remember me, but she wished me Happy Bastille Day. I’d heard of Bastille Day, from having taken several years of French, but I didn’t understand its significance to her. She explained that for her, the day was symbolic of the ways we can break free of ties that bind us, whether self imposed or those imposed by others and that it could be an opportunity for a personal revolution.

I might have forgotten this lesson, had I not gotten on the 24 Divisadero a year or two later and found Martha Lunney sitting on the bus. I sat down and said “hello.” She didn’t remember me, but again wished me a Happy Bastille Day. Although I have not seen her since this bus ride, I have remembered the lesson and have embraced it as my own.

Bastille Day, or rather the season of Bastille, has carried more of a charge for me this year. I am looking around at outmoded behaviors and stuff in my life. Piles of dust and detritus are begging to be given the boot. As with dust, the gradual accumulation has become heavy and suffocating with time.

Conversely, things of importance are more easily seen after dusting, hence today’s blog post. I don’t have a map for the writer’s journey; I only know that I’m on it. It’s a stumbling journey for me, one filled with uncertainty and doubt and judgment about the uncertainty and doubt. Judging the journey is at the top of the pile of things that have got to go. This is one shackle of a lesson that I may need to shake and keep shaking until it becomes my path, my pattern, and my revolution.

Viva la revolution!