March, 2001 – Food court of the Amtrak Station, Philadelphia, PA. I missed my train by five minutes, so I’m stuck here for the next 24 hours with less than ten dollars in my pocket. No contacts, no plastic.
Proper context – I’m coming home from sixteen weeks of hell, wherein I lost twenty pounds, learned to fight fires, excelled at push-ups, and a buncha people in funny hats kept me awake by screaming at me. Plus, they kept shaving my head. This made me sad. I haven’t eaten or slept since – well, I can’t remember. All I know is that I feel like an exposed electrical wire just waiting to pop.
Dunkin’ Donuts is open twenty-four hours. The nice Arab man behind the counter assures me that their largest coffee, at a low, low price of $1.39, is very hot and very strong. He seemed pretty confident in his product, and I appreciated that. So when he said, “You like, O.K!” I replied with an equally enthusiastic, “Sold!”
Behind me now, they’re locking the inlaid glass doors to a chocolate and candy boutique. Damn, just when I was about to burst in there screaming like the anal-birthed love child of Ozzy Osbourne and Pat Boone and bite the heads off all the Peeps in the display window. Alas, my plans lay in ruin at my feet.
I sit cross-legged on the floor for a few hours watching the panhandlers chase New Money from one bench to the next. Then I read all the wall plaques. Then I did push-ups in the corner.
Almost 9 o’clock. The Nervous Hours have slipped around my shoulders like the arm of an overbearing stranger. I’m bivouacked in the corner booth of a Mickey D’s for the Mentally Gone, my back to the wall.
The remains of dinner lay before me. It might have looked like a motel room crime scene and tasted like hate, but I didn’t care – I wolfed it down and gnawed the cheese off the paper. It’d have to do.
A pair of gnarly-looking homeless guys are sacked out in the booth across the aisle. Nearby, an elderly woman buried in layers of clothing rocks back in forth, mumbling to herself. French chamber music flows freely from the McSpeakers, and a mural of the universe framed in purple neon watches over us from above the cashier counter.
I’m breathing French fries with undertones of homeless trousers, and my hands are vibrating from the coffee. “My God, I can almost see the table through my skin…”
Still, I’m just passing through. For these people, the train station is all they’ve got when the rains come, when it gets cold. Where are their families? Wish I could say or do something useful, but all I’ve got are lame jokes and empty hands.
Pushing four-thirty in the a.m. Every time I start to nod off, I’m awakened by the kind of noise beggars make when they’re shuffling toward your bench to ask you for the same money you didn’t have an hour ago. Across the room sits a blind man I spoke to earlier. “How are you able to trust the world when you can’t see what’s coming?”
“You just have to,” he replied.
Outside, the plaintive wail of fire trucks… it’s last call on planet Earth, closing time is right around the corner. When God flicks on the lights, the stars are the first to go. Frightened mobs pack the streets, hands clutched, fists balled, eyes open wide. Some simply shrug and move toward the door; others remain seated. It’s cool, they know the Owner.
“O.K.,” says God. “Let’s go. Closing time!” He claps His hands and starts herding them toward the door. “Time to go home! I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here! Finish your drinks and go, come on, get out! Let’s go, I wanna to go home. I have a life, you know!”
Fear grips the seated. They thought they had it all figured out, and spent their lives doing as they were told. “But you said…you promised. It just isn’t fair!” Sorry, we’re closing up. When the last soul has been ushered out, He wipes the counters and the forests disappear. He dumps the volcanoes into the trash, rapping each of them twice on the edge before polishing them smooth again. He vacuums away the plains and scrapes the trashed remains of our greatest achievements into the tip jar. He mops the bathrooms clean of our sins and counts the till. Finally, He turns the jukebox up while He restocks beer from the cold polar caps, nodding along to an old Black Sabbath tune…
I jerked awake, picked up my bag and found another corner to nap in. Eight more hours before my thirteen-hour train ride home.