5/21/20: A Trip by Train

There’s an ugliness to be found in specific places. Ohio’s always been ugly to me. This ugliness feels unassailably objective to me. But I know there are people who think Ohio’s beautiful, or even just fine; and I don’t know if they’re wrong, or if I’m wrong, or if neither of us is wrong and the only way we can code places, which have no inherent metaphysics, is through these subjective reactions, which are really just manifestations of our self into what feels like an exterior thing but is, in fact, just another thing inside of us (the idea of a place).

But I’m fixated on this ugliness that is so emblematic to me of the desiccated wastes of middle America. The utter blandness, the profound forgettableness of places like Streetsboro:  I can’t get over it, I’ll never forget it. I’ve seen some of the singular cities of the world, been to Paris, Florence, London, Krakow. I recognized them as beautiful and made obeisance in my heart and memory. But as much as I love and long for those places again, none are the immediate fixation that these ugly blighted unhoping towns of America are.

We took a night train from Paris to Florence. It would take all night to get there. I’m not one of those people who can easily sleep anywhere: couches, chairs, planes, trains, cars; it’s hard for me to apply anything more than the most superficial glaze of sleep to my mind these situations, no matter how tired I am – and there, in Paris, I was tired. We’d spent 1.5 days and a night in that city: wandering mostly from thing to thing, not lingering, walking and gawking a lot because we were worried about making our money last.

When we got into Paris the day before, it was already in the middle of the afternoon. We rushed to the Louvre and then, because we only had an hour or so before closing, rushed through it, blasting our eyes with centuries of art: a maelstrom of Crucifixions, so many elegaic Marys, whole cloudbanks of plump white Renaissance flesh. Our feet echoed on the parquet floors and there was light coming through the many, many windows.

Saw the Mona Lisa: a small painting hung on a freestanding wall standing in the middle of a larger room that was hung with other paintings: these were inevitably ignored for the drab little Gioconda in the center. Even late in the day there was a crowd of people: an employee drifted through the crowd holding up a sign that said, in English: “Watch Out For Pickpockets.” I kept tapping my back pocket to make sure my wallet was there.

We found time, too, to go Shakespeare & Company. I bought a copy of The Unquiet Grave there and had the clerk, a French-speaking American girl, stamp the interior with a seal that showed where I got it from.

“Vous êtes ouverts jusqu’a quelle heure?” I asked her, with weak obscure fantasies in my head. Her response was too fast for my slow ear to parse.

The last thing we did that night was go to the Eiffel Tower. I’d seen it at various points throughout the afternoon: I’d look up and there it would be, standing mundanely on the horizon, in a notch between buildings. Up close it looked straddle-legged, like a woman squatting and holding up her trusswork skirt. There were people everywhere in the plaza. A vendor nearby was selling these toys that shot off a light up spinning disk straight up into the air; people were buying these and firing them up into the struts of the toward: little disks in varicolors, wobbling, floating, falling down far away from where they were fired and immediately forgotten.

Next night, on the train, I wasn’t thinking about these things. I was trying studiously to read – not The Unquiet Grave, but The Mauritius Command. Q was next to me in his seat, alternately reading and writing. Eventually, he fell asleep.

Across from us in the cabin there was an old man with a long, dirty beard, and long chitinous yellow fingernails, and a green American-style military jacket. He looked permanently vagabond. His skin was sallow, his cheeks were hollows. He smelled like stale tobacco, coughed like a smoker. From the moment he sat down he stared out the window, moving only when he had to cough.

Sometimes I would look up from my book and out the window. I couldn’t see anything other than vague shadows on darker shadows, but all obscured by my own shadowed reflection from the reading light I had on. Eventually, I turned the light off. Then, those outside shadows resolved softly into an almost-landscape, in which different textures of darkness could be discerned and guessed at: trees, hills, buildings of bucolic obscurity. Before, it felt like I was taking a gigantic tunnel between Paris and Florence, or that the train had a cloth cover thrown around it, as if the process of transitioning between these two places was an act of magic I wasn’t allowed to see the mechanics of; now I felt a sensation of passage, of movement through physical space, passing through nameless countryside that had only been walked on by people I couldn’t even imagine.

At some point I must’ve dozed. I woke up when the train stopped at a small station. It was still in the small hours of the night. An electric light from outside managed to extend just a finger into our cabin; the thin band of light lay across the old man’s face like a daub of warpaint. His left eye was caught in the light: it was blue, cloudy with glaucoma; it looked huge in the light and didn’t blink. It stared out the window. But eventually, as if he had thought about whether he should or not, the old man got up and went out onto the platform. I thought to smoke maybe, but he didn’t come back.

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