Where Parallel Lines Converge
The tracks run close behind.
In other incarnations, I have journeyed on those rails. Not the Amtrak lines, though I’ve certainly ridden those, too--but no, I mean the other rails: the grit-on-your-skin, bedroll-slung rails of myth and squalor, of hard littered ground and borderless sky, outside the pale of respectability or aspiration. I might have been only a visitor--but I was there.
So each day, in cubicle or copy room, when the trains pass close behind and you feel it first as a substernal rumbling and then hear it--the basal thunder of the diesel units grinding down the roadbed, the cardiac percussion of wheels over railjoints, the clangor of the crossing-gates, the cetacean blast of horn--a piece of me turns from its immediate focus and listens, leans into the wind of the passing train, runs jubilant and desperate alongside, while hands and eyes and conscious mind continue at whatever momentary task happens to engage them. But it’s spring now, and which of us has not felt some stirring, some visceral urge to motion that might be vestige of our primeval nomadism, our hardwired impetus to search--or just to wander?
My midday perambulations take me, three or four lunchtimes each week, along a blocklength of the tracks. I walk more gingerly than I like to admit--to preserve my business-casual footwear. When I spy a particularly undamaged spike interred in the humped and trafficked right-of-way, I might pick it up and keep it. It will serve no purpose--but I’ll keep it.
The tracks acquire diverse debris. Broken glass, always; castoff garments, winddrift of fugitive paper; and for a while what appeared to be a homeless person’s encampment, crafted of shopping cart and cardboard and trashbags. Then one day it was gone, utterly and completely. I don’t rub shoulders with the homeless anymore; don’t even pretend to. But there were times--moments, perhaps--when our frames of reference were much closer than they are today. So I had to wonder whether that unseen individual came back from some foray to find all his or her earthly possessions gone. I felt a sad, abstract remorse: is the anguish of loss proportional to its magnitude? Is your all or my all of greater import than the raildweller’s all? We suffer from a widespread tendency, I think, to dismiss as inconsequential the crises of those who are guilty of excessive otherness.
One near-spring day as I walked back to the office, a figure came toward me along the tracks. He moved purposefully; he carried a burden. As our paths converged he resolved into someone other than the resident of the desolate tracts at the rag-ends of our urban construct. He was a tramp. Understand, this is a disappearing breed, not to be confused with the homeless of the city: the burden was a large, neatly cylindrical bedroll, and he was a wiry man in his sixties or seventies with an untrimmed beard and farseeing eyes and weatherbronzed and railgrimed skin. He glanced at me momentarily, but there was nothing either furtive or predatory about him: we lived in different dimensions, through which the thread of the rails happened to run. I recognized in him someone I might have ridden with once--in another incarnation--but he did not recognize me at all. I suspect he scarcely saw me, nor expected me to see him.
I returned to my cubicle, my computer, my colonnades of paper. I contemplated what I have gained, what I have lost, and the myriad realities that exist whether or not I have the cognizance to perceive them.
The tracks run close behind, reminder of the fragile membranes that exist between each individual’s context and all the alien other ones. While beyond the confines of my prosperous life, spring gestates in distant latitudes.
Lawrence Blair Goral
25 March 2001