On the way home
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
``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.''