It's only mine because it holds my suitcase.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Looking at Trains

Back in the early eighties, when it was still new, my parents would take my little sister and myself to the railroad museum downtown to see the trains. I would walk around in awe, gaping at the industrial monsters from a bygone era, marveling at their size and their intricacy. I felt overwhelmed by the enormous potency these steam engines radiated. From one exhibit to another I would run, soaking up the details printed on the plexiglas signs. Occasionally, when I found something I’d just read particularly interesting, I’d repeat it to whichever of my parents happened to be standing nearby. My mother would more often than not say, “That’s nice dear,” distracted by my little sister’s protestations of boredom and demands for confectionery. Sometimes my father would come and stand next to me, though, and look at the same relic of the industrial revolution that currently held my interest. Later I would wonder whether he experienced the same sense of awe as I did at these machines, or whether he was just indulging an overly enthusiastic son.

Our family excursions to see the trains never lasted long enough. When the time came to leave I would always look around for one last detail that required my urgent attention, then another, then another, until the prospect of ice cream and the promise of a return visit in the near future finally lured me out of the museum and back into the bright daylight.

Today more than 20 years have past since my last family visit to the museum and I am there again, at night this time. The museum is celebrating the opening of a new exhibit of model and toy trains. It is as busy as ever I’ve seen it, but much more quiet than I remember. The excited shouts of school children, the admonishments of parents, and the cries of babies have been replaced by the quiet murmur of dignitaries and aficionados. The few children present seem to be on their best behaviour.

As I wander through the gallery I marvel at the sheet metal creations of centuries past and at the people admiring them with me. Volunteers are dressed in period uniforms and are more than happy to point out some oft overlooked detail. Guests bend over to observe close up the details of a Lionel or Marklin that catches their attention. Many of them have a glint in their eye and a faraway smile. I suspect they are recalling the playthings of their own childhood. After a few minutes I begin to realize that the toys don’t interest me as much as they do the people around me. The railroad toys I remember playing with are too recent to be museum material and there is nothing here that I remember from my own youth. These models, intricate though some of them may be, are but HO replicas of the iron giants on display downstairs.

I head down the stairs, wander about the reception a bit. I feel lost here; dignitaries, volunteers, train geeks far geekier than ever I could aspire to be all seem to know one another. There’s a buffet in the center of the roundhouse that hosts the reception. Its centerpiece is an ice sculpture. Of a train, of course. I take a snack and a glass of wine, spend a few minutes studying the display that details the creation of the exhibit. Behind me, a fat woman with two children in tow is heaping hors d’oeuvres onto a plate as if they were mashed potatoes. All around I hear snippets of conversation: “. . .wasted thousands of dollars. . .”, “. . .were cold when I got them. . .”, “. . .museum didn’t want it, so they. . .” I finish my wine and leave the reception area. I pass by the volunteers entrusted with preventing the guests from sneaking any food out and head towards the locomotives. The murmur behind me begins to die down. It’s darker down here than usual; the spotlights are on, but the ambient lighting seems not to be. I smell pine and tar and polish as I approach one of the locomotives. Its bright brass trappings reflect the spotlights, contrasting with its deep green paint. I reach out to touch one of its massive wheels.

Suddenly I’m hurled backwards in time. I’m still standing at this same engine, my hand outstretched. It seems bigger now, but not by much. There’s a sign in front of it and I am reading it out loud to my father who stands behind me with his hand on my shoulder. When I finish reading the sign there’s a brief silence. I turn around. “Dad”, I ask, “When we get home, can we play with the track?” He nods. Then the illusion is gone. Two men in gray suits are standing near me. They are discussing visitor numbers. I realize it’s time for me to go home, but as I step out into the cool twilight I decide to stop for ice cream first.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Observations of a Convenience Store

Each one comes with a self serve coffee bar, a time lock safe which employees cannot open, and a maximum of 20 dollars in the register at any time. The parking lot features a phone booth, some decrepit shrubbery, and a complimentary beggar. The Indians run most of them because they’re among the few people who are still willing to put in an honest day’s work and have the endurance required to communicate daily with the public at large.

A fat woman runs across the street in a red t-shirt and stretch pants. Her hair is bright orange and she pulls behind her a white metal cart with a rose clipping in it. The crosswalk light just turned green and she runs as if panicked, across the busy street towards the Seven Eleven. Her body jiggles back and forth as she runs, her layers of fat out of sync with her step. Her free arm flails alongside her like a limp prop appendage.

Pedestrians are considered an nuisance in the suburbs. Intrepid teams of bureaucrats, funded by taxpayer dollars, spare time nor effort to work up new ways to inconvenience them. Sidewalks are narrow and uneven, crossing lights stay green for mere seconds, never enough to cross the eight lanes of traffic that stand between the pedestrian and his Slurpee. Maybe people would be a little more indulgent of the carless if they all put on a little show like the fat lady.

A man in a light blue shirt, straw hat, and a huge white beard sits at the stop light in an aging pickup truck of indeterminate color. He watches the woman run across the street without displaying emotion or even acknowledgement. When the light turns green he drives off to a place east of the convenience store. A place where aging fat cowboys fit in.

The main roads are lined with retail, one after the other in semi-random procession. Signs advertising the presence of Shell, Target, and McDonald’s assault the senses. Every time we drive down these streets we are reminded to consume. Every trip to anywhere is a bizarre blur of colors and slogans and branding. By the time we arrive at our destination our head is thumping and our eyes hurt. We need gas. We need burgers. We need cellphones. Need and Want have become indistinguishable in our minds.

Behind the main roads, even one street back, the clash of the commerces eases up. Apartment complexes with soothing names, garages, offices and meeting halls are much more down to earth. Here there are places where people belong. Veterans of foreign wars have their hall next to the place where the wives of the alcoholics meet in the same room where the Tupperware ladies practice their sales pitches every Wednesday night. Buildings house people who believe in a specific version of the story of the death of a Jewish carpenter 2000 years ago. But they don’t share their halls. If your interpretation of this poor artisan’s demise differs you need to have your own building. Mysterious names adorn ordinary buildings. Eagle Eyries, Oddfellows lounges, and Mason lodges are for rent for anniversaries, dances, and Bar mitzvahs. Somewhere down that way there’s a hall for people in light blue shirts, straw hats, and huge white beards. Everybody belongs somewhere.