Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Star-Mangled Manner

Strobe (noun)

1. A strobe light.

2. A stroboscope.
3. A spot of higher than normal intensity in the sweep of an indicator, as on a radar screen, used as a reference mark for determining distance. 
- American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

(Verb)

To give the appearance of arrested or slow motion by using intermittent illumination
- Collins English Dictionary - Complete and Unabridged


Not many people have ridden atop an elevator cab in full speed descent, but like clockwork, millions pour out of elevator high rise doors to the lobby at rush hour to the taxicabs and limousines outside and the subways below.

Few have dug a half mile tunnel (or a fifty foot well) by hand, but there are millions who travel the subways with daily precision. They ride sitting or standing with a grasp, one hand to the bar-hold, the other to a cellphone beamed to the window - inured to the ride but never injured from it - allowing a few feet from the stationary metaphors in motion on the other side of the glass. The windows dull the strobe-like view of the tunnel walls, as old bricks, metal signs and protruding spikes speed by in arrested staccato beat. To the eye, if it doesn't blink, the existential delusions speed alongside beyond the glass in a ceaseless, rapid and dull intensity. People inside are as still as a still shot while the earth races alongside, mangled in motion. No one really notices. The train’s natural manner might beget waves of emotion, but, oh say, can you see them?

Ding, Ding. Two for down. Doors will open. You wait. Doors close. “Next floor, Lobby.” Finally. You can almost feel it. The bodies within the cab issue a collective exhale, then inhale as the doors open. Out we go.

These elevator and tunnel life arrhythmias are silent to the eye and mind, drummed into the body with the irregular strobing pace of movement, the stops and starts, of “next floor - 46”, “next stop - Broadway”. They are the vertical and horizontal movements of the masses at building floors and at streets and in levels below. Vertically and horizontally coordinated, it’s a daily crucifix of human motion.

Vice President Joe Biden likes to reminisce when his life is temporarily out of recovery from any one of his over-sized portion of family disasters. In 2008 he returned to Union Station to bid farewell to the Amtrak redcaps, a farewell to 30 years riding. He had always gone home that way. During the farewell, he stopped to see the ticket agents, the shoeshine man, and of course, the conductors. They all knew him.
Libby Copeland, the Washington Post reporter who covered the event, reports, “He throws parties for retiring conductors, and once had a crewman serenaded by bagpipes. For Biden's first day back at work following two operations for brain aneurysms in 1988, he took the train, naturally. ‘The engineer saluted him with a longer-than-usual toot of the train's whistle,’ UPI reported at the time.” The event made perfect sense. No ride was better for the soul.

Fifteen years earlier, and for five years, (1962-1967), from ages 15-19, I took that train from my Washington DC home to school in Delaware. As if it were yesterday, I recall one particular conductor who always seemed to be there, almost as if he was on shift only for a single student boarding in Middletown. His voice was that of an announcer, megaphone in volume, and it bellowed with a booming melodious bass which signaled the approach of Baltimore, the first stop out of Washington’s Union Station. The endless, dilapidated row houses rolled by, noting the proximity of the upcoming station. The bellow seemed to come directly from the houses through the windows, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack, and Baaaay-Bee RUTH!” 

Sold! Out came the money. How could any teenager resist such a call for candy? By the time the products had been consumed, the train was arriving in Wilmington, my stop.

Upon approach and in sight of the station, the booming bass reappeared, resounding down the aisle: “Wilmington, Wilmington, Wilmington - home to DuPonts, and kin.” The Star Spangled Banner always waved its welcome. I’d bet it was still waving for Joe on his last trip. At least, one would hope.

That was not so long ago, but oh, how it’s now so far away.

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