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WHEN I found out that Bush got elected, I decided to go to Reading, Mass. Yes, there's a leap in logic there, but it's not as drastic as you might think. I know that, sitting as I am in the Eliot House dining hall, that I'm in a minority when I say that George Bush gives me the creeping crawling willies, but as a minority I decided I had one option. Escape. "Pardon me boys, is that the Canada-border choo choo?"
Factually speaking, I wasn't really in the Eliot House dining hall, but with Dan Quayle unable to wipe a smirk off his burnt flash-bulb of a face, and with George Bush--George Bush--finally able to look old Ron in the eye and say, "Well, pard...," it sure feels like I'm choking on a nation-wide haze of loose strands of woollen argyle and wafting fumes of Bean's Best Leather Oil. So I decided to get on a train. Heading north.
There are other ways to deal. My roommate reacted to the shock by swallowing a goodly portion of Absolut, which was a mistake from his point of view (which was mostly upside-down, over a vomit-filled trash can), but gave me the opportunity to hear the uninhibited ramblings of a highly intelligent, avidly political Slavic major who was shocked to his soul by the victory of two men like George Bush and Dan Quayle.
I, however, am less intelligent, and less inclined towards Absolut measures, so I went for the grand getaway. Sixty cents and a change at the Green Line and there I was at North Station, poring through train schedules. It was just beginning to dawn on me that Commuter Rail doesn't cross any borders, when I heard a conductress shouting "North line...boarding Track Four!" Instinct got the better of me.
IT was a family train. Across the aisle three children were playing Musical Laps on various amply lapped mother-like figures who chatted away, absentmindedly patting the playing children. Across from them were two fifteen-year-old skateboard kids, whose disdainful sneers showed how much they secretly missed playing on Mommy's lap. A skull-painted board with wheels is a lousy substitute.
But enough of mothers. It wasn't the womb I wanted to escape to. Outside the windows of the steaming, snorting, rolling chunk of industry and metal we call the Commuter Line, the usual stuff was flashing past--you know, telephone poles, lonely decaying buildings, clothes flapping on the line like lost souls. Nothing new. Clouds charged across the sky looking grumpy and muscular--who knew how soon the rain would come? Hell, not me.
The conductress wanted some money. That, in the end, decided where I was going. My budget only went as far as Reading, and there I got off. I stood vacantly watching commuters and families getting into cars, until the tracks behind me were once again empty. I had come to this little town to bury my mind in forgetfulness; it wasn't exactly a desolate port in nether-Morocco, and I saw no boozy-eyed sirens waiting to lure me into a self-destructive spiral of wanton liberalism which would tragically end in the complete disappearance from my memory of the Pledge of Allegiance, a jail term and eventual furlough, but I decided to go explore anyway.
Across the street, above the sign for Kate's Beauty Salon (Face to Face Electrolysis Service) were the offices of a paper calling itself The Suburban News. A lot of people are embarrassed to admit to the label "suburban," but Reading didn't seem to mind. I banged on the door, but no one was there. How was I going to crack this town?
In a convenience store, manned by two high school girls, a loud tape deck and the skinnier girl's boyfriend, I asked what I could do to entertain myself for three hours before the train came back.
"In Reading? Nothing. Most people sit and drink coffee next door."
I really didn't want to hang out in the R&I Pizza Place. "Are there any bars in town I could go to?"
"Ummm, anyplace I could play pool?"
"Not in Reading."
I was beginning to feel like a Negative Influence, or an Immoral Element, and I had a creeping sensation that Bush was hovering somewhere nearby. Maybe there was a patriotic monument or two to see; Reading is New England after all. "Is there anything interesting I could go look at?"
The girlfriend giggled. "CVS?"
THERE wasn't even a mall; I wondered what The Suburban News wrote about. The boyfriend finally gave me the hot tip for the evening, and ten minutes later I was cruising the aisles in the Atlantic Supermarket. At the pamphlet rack I thumbed through leaf-lets on how to be a computer technician, how to raise birds and why Roger Staubach buys National Home insurance. I read through "Suburban Help Wanted" (Vol. XI, published in Burlington, MA). I browsed the bulletin board ads and even considered calling the Reading Barbershop Quartet and asking them to sing to me over the phone. I finally lost interest after asking in vain for the story of the oil portrait of George Rubin (founder of the store), which was hanging over the meat counter; the butcher boy seemed surprised to see it up there.
Frustrated, I started spying on customers, looking for someone interesting to follow. After all, everybody has to buy groceries at some point, and in the quiet, wooded streets of Reading that point seemed to be Atlantic Foods. Streams of post-retirement-age couples wandered through with armfuls of catfood and spaghetti, looking unworried about the future of Social Security. A few young office folks pulled up their striped cuffs to scoop sprouts and avocados from the salad bar. Then came a guy with Bon Jovi hair and a black, flapping fringe coat; I didn't actually see what he bought, but it was heavy and clinked. Wherever he was going, I doubted it was part of Bush's America, and I slipped out after him.
Halfway up the hill, by the Shawmut Bank (whose digital clock was still an hour off, several weeks after the daylight savings switch) he stopped to rest and smoke a cigarette, forcing me to nonchalantly wander off on my own. Sunset was coming on and the white spire of the town hall was catching a flood of orange light. Behind the building was a cemetery, rolling away in a stretch of trees and headstones three, four or five times the area covered by the Atlantic Market.
This was what I was looking for. I wandered blissfully out of the eighties, amongst wonderful names like Asa Richardson, Summer and Rebekah Weston, Capt. Jonas Barnaby and Hannah Ruggles. From the other end of the cemetery, surrounded by trees, all I could see of Reading was the wooden town hall. Behind it, the sun threw up enormous streaks of orange, pink and red; it looked like the town, and maybe everything beyond it up to the rusty lip of the horizon, could be on fire. That was fine with me.
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