On the way home

By

WE huddled on the wind-blown platform, sparrows waiting for trains that never ran that bitter, dark night. We had all come from different moments in the city's twinkling lights as, head bent against the searching cold, we'd hurried down the streets. A black woman had just finished work, as had some rising businessmen, and a few had tumbled in from bowling. Some teachers with worn briefcases and mind wandering in ideas had trudged down from the university. My husband and I had been in the highest row of the Academy of Music, watching through its great chandelier of crystal enchantment the ballet ``The Nutcracker,'' and we were floating in that magic behind the dreams of glittering toys. Now suddenly this day and night were snapped shut within our separate memories as we stood or paced, strangers from all directions, weary in our common frailty, wanting with an ache to reach home and the waiting hearth.

The station was empty and silent, the stores neatly closed, and all the ticket windows and information booths were slammed shut with the black curtain pulled down. The only presence was the unseen computer dotting out the same message on all the frames -- WAIT FOR FURTHER INFORMATION -- with the digital clock punching out second by second a very accurate time. Indeed, we kept checking our watches by it as though that gave us some glimmer of connection with this technologically controlled new world where no questions are asked because there are no errors -- just faultless precision, silent and very cold, no worries, no doubts. A clerk can make a mistake and - over a joke - laugh, look it up, and correct it; and there's a bit of warmth that comforts a little in our muddles. But not here, where even the minutest detail was smoothly processed in the continuing flow of data -- WAIT FOR FURTHER INFORMATION....

After an hour or so immaculately clicked out by the electronic clock, I spotted two policemen strolling upstairs, oblivious of our freezing wait. I rushed up.

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``Sirs, could you tell me where the 11:20 Media, Wa Wa, West Chester train is leaving? It's almost 1:00.''

``Oh, that train always goes.'' The policemen laughed like a chorus.

``What about the Paoli line?'' a businessman called out, running up, rubbing his freezing hands. This time one policeman glanced at his watch.

``Must be late -- keep an eye on the signs. It'll be there -- sure to.'' And the two uniforms vanished in the somber shadows. `IT'S our last train,'' I sighed.

``Mine, too.'' The Paoli man smiled and put his arm around my shoulder to steady me down the steps back to the platform. A simple gesture but oddly cheering in the bleak stillness of no communication -- just WAIT FOR FURTHER INFORMATION.

Another hour crawled by and the cold was eating into our bones. Abruptly the computer stuttered, the dots zig-zagging across the frame -- MEDIA LOCAL NOW ARRIVING, and a train clattered in smartly from the subterranean bowels of darkness. We scrambled in, our teeth chattering. The man next to me was a retired electrical engineer with such a courtly calm it was odd to hear him sigh as we sat down.

``I finally found a phone that worked,'' he told me. ``I'm at the end of the line, Elwyn -- not even a platform there, just an open booth -- nowhere to stay warm. And my wife has been waiting for me.... I got a neighbor and he'll take over until I get there. It won't be so long now anyway.''

We chatted on and it turned out he had been in charge of redoing the lights of the Academy.

``When you looked up at the chandelier, you could see how we upped the voltage.''

I smiled. ``Actually we looked down through it. Amphitheater, you know.'' He nodded, understanding that I meant the top tier of seats.

The train jerked forward a foot and stopped solid. The conductor appeared. ``Sorry, folks, this train ain't going nowhere. All switches are frozen.'' He hastily packed up his gear. ``If you want answers, go to the stationmaster's office. Down here we know nothing.''

After a stunned moment we stumbled upstairs following a graying Yuppie who seemed to know, around blank corners to the stationmaster's office, a bleak cubbyhole. Behind the counter three men -- without uniform or title -- shuffled uncomfortably.

``Where is the stationmaster?'' demanded the Yuppie. When told he was somewhere on the second floor, he commented sourly, ``How convenient.'' A rustling shivered through the passengers; and suddenly the Yuppie lost his cool.

A black man tried to calm him down, expostulating that a smile was better than a frown, but when the three men at the desks said weakly that they knew nothing, they were only conductors, the black man exploded in mid-sentence.

``It's the attitude,'' he screamed, ``the attitude. Just gimme a phone -- I'll do something -- just give me a phone.''

The Yuppie cheered him, shouting, ``Get me a crowbar -- I'll open those switches myself.''

The would-be passengers stayed despondent, shaking their heads. It was almost 3:00. In the heavy silence no one moved and the time inched by. Abruptly an unseen door rattled open and the stationmaster, a large man in slick city clothes all awry, streaked through us.

``Buses on Kennedy and Sixth,'' he yelled back. ``Follow me.''

We streamed out into the night like a broken-down marathon with no stamina but immense determination. At the corner four buses had been herded up. The stationmaster, his tie flying in the icy wind, ran up and down, calling destinations. ``First bus, Media....'' I heard no more, so relieved to hear that name. THE bus driver looked tired from a full shift behind him. He was studying the streaks on the train's timetable map of stations -- the only information he'd been given.

``We get off at Swarthmore,'' I said hopefully. He looked up. ``Lady, this bus goes to Media and that's all and I don't even know where Media is. I'm a city boy.''

``But to reach Media, you pass Swarthmore,'' I explained patiently. I tried to show him on the disjointed map. He stared out the windshield.

Suddenly a woman jumped up. ``Someone has to take charge,'' she called out, her voice knifing through doubts. She read off the stations, asking for a show of hands, and jotted down the numbers. ``All right, driver, here's our itinerary.''

The driver glanced at it. ``I'm OK for the first stop -- 30th Street Station,'' and he charged off.

We zoomed around 30th Street Station three times in a frantic effort to break free of the city. At one corner a man on the street urgently knocked on the door. The driver opened a sliver. ``We're a train,'' he said, slamming the door back. We all picked up a chant, ``We're a train, we're a train,'' -- like kids playing with undefined toys.

As we swung around the station on a fourth pass, the Yuppie edged up the aisle, fuming. But when he reached the busman driving nowhere so superbly, he suddenly changed.

``I know it's not your fault but, man, you need some direction.'' He peered out into the black shadows of the street, clicking off exact turns, and the bus exploded into a car-jumping gallop.

Lansdowne, the first stop, was the Yuppie's and we all cheered him. He beamed. ``Folks, you're on your own. Guy for the next stop better come up.''

And so we managed. The mood was jubilant. Folks were waved off as though we were a high school reunion. The driver was thanked with each farewell. He was smiling a golden smile as we hurtled down lanes and byways, right up to the very doorway sometimes.

My husband and I alighted at our own street corner, and as I looked back, waving at hands fluttering in the windows, I thought with a rush, they're wonderful -- people -- just people, with all their frailties and imprecisions, they're wonderful.

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