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The Vagabond

By Gregg J. Kilday

"ALL PLANES have been cancelled until ten o'clock." Behind the counter, the woman's heavily madeup face spoke with mannered ugliness. "They're trying to de-ice the field," she continued approvingly. And then, triumphant, "Personally, I don't think there will be any flights all day!"

So. I would take a train. I would refuse to spend the day at Logan, waiting, hopefully, in a queue, like an impassive refugee, waiting for permission to move one again. For, I knew, if the lady from Eastern--or, for that matter, her twin at American or TWA--only wished, she could cancel life altogether, just as she had already cancelled the possibility of my reaching New York or Philadelphia. Then she and her crones would tag us and stamp us and send all of us off like so much excess baggage. So, partly in cowardice, partly in frustration, and mostly in defiance, I took a train.

IF THE NATION was once mortgaged to the railroads, that mortgage has long since been paid off. Boston's South Station is so empty your footsteps echo as they would in a deserted cathedral. Its cavernous waiting room is almost vacant except for a few stubborn worshippers. Now there are just commuter trains and a couple of runs to new York. Once South Station could have been the setting for any of those postwar movies in which the returning soldier watches June Allison waiting ecstatically for him as he struggles through the crowds, finally to embrace her. The movie was long ago finished; the set was never struck.

Now the trains smell of dust and tobacco. There is hardly any view through their windows, they are fogged and dirty. All you can see are the fences and backyards of the slums of Providence and New Haven and Bridgeport through which the trains sneak slow and silent, like a scabby do in a Dostoevski story. And, in the aisle, an old man hawks the sandwiches and beverages. The sandwiches are larger than the toast bits served on planes, but they are also seventy-five cents and aged in Saran Wrap.

Penn Station in New York is brightly lit and gilded plastic. It is not a proper home for trains. The dispatcher sits in a glass booth suspended over the main hall. You know that he served his apprenticeship in an airport form the way he issues commands, as if it is all a game of Railroad, in which the people below are his playing pieces. If the Secretary of Transportation ever institutes high-speed train service on the East Coast, he will employ men like this Penn Dispatcher. The result will be an airline on wheels.

Somewhere across New Jersey, rain and the night overtook my train. The moisture that formed on the windows was too thin to form teardrops. And I was tried. As we pulled into 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I knew I shouldn't leave the train. Perhaps, if I stayed on, if the train continued, perhaps I would discover the power and energy which America once invested in its railroad. I got off, though, even though I knew the station would look square and dark, a mausoleum. For in a few days I had to return to Boston. By plane.

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