I arrived at the train station at approximately 7:45 in the PM for a scheduled 8:22 departure. I walked through the doors and instantly felt a calm still. Despite the presence of other passengers coming and going through the door, there persisted a soft silence, as if no footfalls were being captured by the hard cement floor. The entire depot was lit with an eerie fluorescent light, and the pale blue glow made the other souls present appear ghostly and devoid of color. Then again, it was Connecticut.
I consider myself a somewhat seasoned traveler, so naturally I checked the status of the train immediately upon entering the depot. All indications from the display panel told me my train would be arriving at track 2 as scheduled. I proceeded to a kiosk and tapped my way through a few touchscreens to get my ticket, then headed down to the track to escape the unsettling glow of the depot and breathe some of the cool October air.
Standing there on the tracks I saw a few other weary people waiting for my same train while others came and went around us. Standing out there on the platform, I began to feel like a stone in a river, with other passengers from other destinations flowing around me in a stream of peacoats and parkas while I stood unmoving. I looked around at my fellow stones. College students going back to school after a weekend away, a few families and a handful of solo travelers like myself. The time was 8:20.
At 8:30, watches and phones began to peek out beneath sleeves and out from pockets as people began to wonder just how late our train was running. I saw others expressing mild annoyance, and thought myself better for being more reasonable. After all, this was Amtrak. The loveable screw-up in the family of transportation conglomerates. You know the one. That person in your family that you praise for the most modest achievements, like for example, showing up on time. I wasn’t worried.
When the LCD clocks above us flipped to 9:00, serious doubt began to set in on those of us still out on the track. Many had abandoned their posts and retreated to the warmth of the station, which now seemed like the smart thing to do. I gathered up my things and ascended the stairs back towards the quiet blue hum of the indoors, stopping just inside to look again at the display panel. It now read that my train was “Delayed: 5 mins.” I looked over at another passenger who was also trying to make sense of the information.
“Do you know how long it has been like that?” I asked.
“It just changed to that.” She replied.
I shrugged the train status off, thinking the information was about as delayed as the train itself, and headed to the nearest open seat next to a large woman with a glittery bejeweled pink iphone. As I sat down she paid me no mind, continuing to talk to someone about her predicament. Through listening in, I could tell she was relaying her experience with my same train to whoever was on the other end. It was then I heard it.
“Girl, I done told you already. I don’t know when. Them Amtrak people said the bridge is out. Girl. The Bridge is out. Whatchu want me to do?”
The bridge was out. I and a few others swiveled our heads towards the woman at these words, looking to glean more knowledge from our most up to date and reliable source of information, who incidentally had pink, bejeweled 2 inch nails to match her phone which she held delicately in one hand as a soothsayer might hold a magical orb of divination. As the woman caught us all looking her way, she abruptly ended the call and shoved her phone back in her jacket without saying a word. Then she got up and walked out the door to the street, leaving a renewed lease of silence.
A few of us met each others eyes, and then reached for our smartphones. We were going to get to the bottom of this. I should say that at the start of this ordeal, there were maybe 30 passengers waiting with me. A quick look around the station made me realize that several folks who were with me on the tracks (including the Pink Troubadour) were no longer with us. As each of us in turn called Amtrak to see what the status of the train was, our numbers began to dwindle. Talking to the customer service reps was a lot like casually strolling up to a stranger on the street and asking them what they knew about advanced geothermal processing. After many ‘Ums’ and ‘Hmms’, all they could tell me was the train was running five minutes late, but it didn’t matter, I could get on any train southbound and they would honor my ticket. This was at 10pm.
As if sensing our growing desperation and the elevation of anger in the souls trapped inside, the station itself seemed to come alive as out of nowhere a booming voice filled the sterile white walls of the station. “Passengers be advised, Amtrak trains headed Southbound are delayed due to a malfunctioning bridge switch. Trains will continue as soon as the malfunction has been repaired. Expect delays.”
Thank you, faceless voice from on high, for relaying to us important and yet useless information about our travel arrangements that would have been extremely helpful hours ago.
It was now 11pm, and of the original thirty, only about 10 southbound riders now remained. Some pacing (actually more like gliding) around the station in circles, some resiliently standing in place in front of the status board, anxious for any news. Others like myself were slumped in a corner on the floor nearest an a/c outlet, trying to stave off the death of our only links to the outside world. All of us, silent. Hungry, angry, bored, tired and losing track of time. But always silent, with the exception of one individual who abruptly broke rank and loudly proclaimed “Fuck it.” as he picked up his duffel and wildly slung it over his shoulder, stomping out the door.
I spent about an hour sitting against a pillar near a young woman who was also trying to conserve precious juice. We commiserated for an hour or so, fading in and out of salient conversation until around 12 when she stood up and I thought she was going to have her own Fuck It moment. But instead she turned to me and said “I’m getting out of here. I can’t do this any longer.” And in her eyes I could see a sadness, as if betraying us and her own conviction at the same time. I looked up at her without replying. I smiled knowingly and nodded once, as a war veteran might wordlessly acknowledge another’s service. I was losing another comrade.
“Come with me.” she asked. “There’s nothing for you here anymore. We can leave this place.”
I sighed loudly and replied that I could not leave. My train had not yet come. She looked down at me mournfully and then picked up her bag and turned to leave. As she approached the doors to the street she looked back, first at me and then at the other half dozen survivors in turn. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if her lips were moving in some silent prayer for us remaining unfortunates. Then she spun around and walked out from under the blue light into nothingness.
As 1 am blared into existence on the red LED clocks around the room, the silence intensified. There were now only three of us left. I tried a few last ditch calls to the Amtrak reps, who insisted that either a train or a bus would come for us eventually and we should just get on anything headed south. We huddled together, myself and two Boston University students, more for solidarity than for anything else. That was when the delusions began.
When it is left in a void of sensory information, the human mind can do strange things. In this case, one of the students was first to crack.
“I hear it!” he bellowed out.
With that we all jumped up and flew down the steps to the track. We were giddy, almost maniacal with joy that our faith in Amtrak had been vindicated. We beamed at each other for a few minutes, until gradually our smiles faded as the rails running alongside the station remained cold and empty. We went back into the station, but now a paranoia began to take hold of all of us. Each of us began to hear a train at different times, either far off or seemingly running right through the station. It occurred to me that maybe there would never be a train. As this thought ran across my mind I looked up again at the status board. At that moment the listing for my train disappeared from the screen and was replaced with another listing.
Replaced, or never existed?
My mind began to wander. I could no longer remember how I got to the station or why I was there. I only knew that I needed to leave. On a train. Minutes stretched on for hours. It became an eternity waiting for a phantom train I could only see and hear in my head. I didn’t realized I was drifting off into unconsciousness until 2AM, when I woke up with a start as the Voice returned.
“Southbound Amtrak passengers be advised your train is arriving on Track 2.”
I looked over at one of the students.
“Did you hear that?” I said.
“I think so, man. I’m not sure. Maybe.”
I could tell he was further gone than I was. I stood up and picked him up by the arms. “Come on, man!” I yelled. “This is it!” In my haste to get my companion up and on his feet I suddenly realized it was only the two of us.
“What happened to the other guy?” I asked.
“He’s gone, man. He’s just…. gone. I was looking at him and then he just disappeared.”
I wasn’t going to let that happen to us. I threw my new friend’s arm over my head and dragged him and our belongings back down the stairs to the track. I heard the train. It was clear and the sound of the train whistle cut the night in half. I could see the light at the head of the train. It was approaching us. This was it. I didn’t care what the train number was. It was going south. It sped towards us.
And then it sped past us.
My friend slumped to the floor of the track, not caring how filthy the ground was. I looked up incredulously back at the station and raised my arms up, hoping the Voice would see me and give me some kind of explanation, some nugget of truth or word of sympathy. But it never came. The station loomed over us; a square bulk of concrete and steel forever glowing in stillness.
I stood there for a moment pondering our fate, and then made a show of laboriously picking up the baggage of my shattered dreams up off the platform and back up the steps. My friend began deliriously espousing his faith in Amtrak. “WE are getting on a TRAIN! To-NITE! Yes sir. TO-nite!” He was awake now and more or less ambulatory and functional, but he was looking more and like he was sleepwalking. I sat down again for about twenty minutes, feeling like a small man caught between different planes of unreality when at last the Voice returned.
“YOU TWO. TRACK TWO.”
I didn’t move. I was done. But this time it was my friend who did the rousing. He wildly sprang into the air a few feet as if hit by a bolt of lightning and picked up his belongings. I just looked at him with amusement, as an old weathered man seeing the exuberance and foolhardiness of youth before him. He ran over to me and stopped. He could see my face and my intentions plainly, but he didn’t care. He grabbed my arm and pulled me up so we were standing inches from each other. For a moment I thought he was going to hug me, but he just stood there with his hand now on my shoulder, and I could see his eyes, before cloudy with madness, coalesce into a clarity. He had woken from his fever dream and was himself now, emboldened with a new resolve.
“It is our time, brother.”
I nodded wordlessly as I had before to the young woman and gathered my bags. I followed him down to the track and stood for a few minutes, not knowing how I was still standing up at all. It was 2:30 a.m. Once again the light of the train grew from off in the distance. Once more the whistle of the train sliced through the dark. But this time, the train slowed. Then it stopped. Like before, I wasn’t sure what train it was, but it was pointed in the right direction.
I didn’t take a step towards it until I saw a beleaguered and clearly run-down man step off the train, wearing an unbuttoned and untucked Amtrak uniform that looked ripe for a wash. He stumbled towards us looking at me in disbelief.
“What are YOU doing here?” he asked.
“We… are…here…for..the TRAIN!” my new brother answered.
That was apparently sufficient to board, as the conductor narrowed his eyes on us suspiciously, then raised his eyebrows and with a grand sweeping gesture waved us on to the train. As we boarded a few other Amtrak staff members also looked at us like we were apparitions from the netherworld. I walked into the coach car and saw sleeping bodies strewn every which way in seats, on the floor, everywhere. I found one of the few remaining seats and threw my bag in the middle of the aisle. No one cared. When the conductor remembered to come around and collect my ticket, I pulled it out of my coat pocket and handed it to him. After plucking it from my hand I saw his mouth open and his eyes widen ever so slightly. I assumed he was put off by the fact that this wasn’t my train. I didn’t care anymore which train number it was as long as I was headed southbound. But then he told me the most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard.
“Glad you made your train. This is the 8:22pm Southbound.”