UNDER THE PLATFORM
I am proud to say that I am an entirely ordinary man. And I was an ordinary man because ordinary things happened to me. Now that the extraordinary has been visited upon me, I am in danger of becoming extraordinary myself. You might consider me an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, or you might consider me an extraordinary man who has mistaken the extraordinary for the ordinary. Whatever you call it, I am a man with a strange story to tell.
And that strange story began on an ordinary day; or, what I mistook for an ordinary day. And, all things considered, it was a day which does not deserve to be called a day. After all, a day can be anticipated, and prepared for. A day can be counted upon to act just like any other day. A day is reliable and secure. A day does not, nor should it ever, compel you to question your sanity. And a day does not interrupt the steady pulse of a life.
Days are parceled out in egalitarian fashion, no day longer than the rest, and all of them the same for an eternity of eternities. But this was a day which disturbed what, until then, had been a symmetrical arrangement of punctuality and dependability. It was the fly in the ointment, as it were. And, so, rather than call this day a day, which would be to credit it with a distinction it ill-deserves, I will regard it as an ordeal; it was the crack in an otherwise unblemished sidewalk, over which I would have to step to get to the other side. But this was more than just a customary crack. It was a morass which has engulfed me quite remorselessly, and from which I may never fully extricate myself.
I may call it an ordeal, a crack, a morass, a fly, and possibly a whole host of names; but I shall never refer to it as a day. But before I describe how this non-day consumed me, I might offer you a blueprint of how this day should have transpired.
Every weekday, barring the odd national holiday, I commute by train into New Amsterdam, and to the office where I’ve worked as a certified professional accountant for the last fifteen years. Each morning, I catch the 7:44 train from Middlebury. It’s a fifty minute trip which brings me to Union Station just after 8:38. It’s then a ten minute jaunt (including the obligatory five minute wait) by subway to the station across the street from the office where I set up my own practice seven years ago. You might be familiar with J.B. Sutton and Associates, though the name is something of a misnomer because I have no associate but for a part-time secretary/receptionist by the name of Molly, with whom I maintain a relationship of the strictest professionalism. The work load is tremendous, especially now that I’ve acquired a professional reputation for being knowledgeable, reliable, diligent and thorough, and, by and large, irreproachable. And I pride myself on giving my clients no cause for complaint. But I tackle the bulk of the work myself for fear that no one else could be quite as committed to approximating my high level of precision. The reputation of my practice is at stake, after all.
From the time I unlock the front door to my office at 5 minutes to nine, to the time I lock the front door at 6:00 p.m. (not including the one hour of lunch during which my office doors remain securely locked) I put in a full eight hours, setting aside 1 hour to indulge in a Wall Street Report and a packed lunch, of a sandwich (the contents of which depended on the day of the week: Monday – Ham, Tuesday – Chicken, Wednesday – Salami, Thursday – Tuna and Friday – Turkey) and a piece of fruit (also depending on the day of the week). Some of my more meddlesome clients (who appear unable to restrict their questions to matters of business) will ask me why a self-employed man such as myself would adopt such a rigid schedule; but I explain, without revealing my irritation with the question, that the success of my practice and the confidence of my clients depends entirely upon my self-discipline. I will invariably conclude the matter by further explaining that unless the quality of my work is in question, we should let the matter drop from consideration. And so the matter drops until another meddlesome client attempts to pry into my private affairs.
And to my clients, I am a never-ending source of puzzlement. But my professionalism will never yield to their attempts at familiarity. But if they want the benefit of my expertise, they would be wise not to overtax me with questions about the precision of my schedule. I haven’t the time to ponder frivolities, nor have I the time to consider the merits and demerits of my modus operandi. Yet, as disciplined as I endeavor to be, I am still not quite the model of perfection which I took the new Amsterdam Transit (NAT) system to be. And I will occasionally find myself behind schedule because of clients who believe that time waits for all men. But the NAT waits for no man. No one is so important that he can expect to delay the NAT by even a fraction of a second. Many a men and women will curse the NAT for failing to wait at the station for them; but, then again, many more are thankful for such reliability. At the risk of appearing ludicrous, I must admit that the NAT has inspired me to be as uncompromising with myself as the NAT was with the denizens of the sprawling metropolis of New Amsterdam.
And the trains which constitute NAT are never late; nor are they ever early for that matter. I have so much faith in the precision of the trains that I will often reset my watch according to the arrivals and departures. It is an unfailing constant in my life — and maybe the only constant — and if there is one thing which could affirm my faith in the perfectibility of human affairs it’s the NAT.
When I close my doors at six p.m. sharp, I will have just enough time to travel by subway and to pick up a dinner-to-go from the local diner before catching either the 6:34 p.m. from New Amsterdam Union Station, arriving in Middlebury at 7:20 p.m., the 6:37 p.m. arriving at 7:35 p.m., or the 6:40 p.m. arriving at 7:45 p.m.. If I choose to eat my makeshift dinner at the station, instead of on the train, or if I’ve been compelled to keep my doors open for another ten minutes or so, because of a delay at work, I might still have enough time to take the subway train to Union Station and to catch a quick bite before hopping on either the 7:03 p.m. train arriving at Middlebury at 7:49 p.m., or the 7:06 p.m. arriving at 7:52 p.m., or the 7:15 p.m. arriving at 8:19 p.m.
But I still have other options if I choose to take my time for dinner, either because I’m meeting a client for a business dinner (though I do make every effort to fit business meetings between 9 and 6) or if I’ve chosen to treat myself because of a particularly productive day at work or to celebrate my birthday (which no one else knows because I never tell them, ever careful to maintain the delicate balance between a private life and a working life). And as trains depart from Union Station every half hour thereafter until 1:30 a.m., I have the option of taking either the 7:37 p.m. arriving at 8:24 p.m. , the 7:40 p.m. arriving at 8:45 p.m., the 8:10 p.m. arriving at 9:14 p.m., the 8:40 p.m. arriving at 9:45 p.m., the 9:10 p.m. arriving at 10:14 p.m., the 9:40 p.m. arriving at 10:45 p.m. , and so on and so forth until the 1:30 a.m. train — the final train until the first train which departs at 5:35 a.m. — which arrives at Middlebury at 2:33 a.m.
And for seven years, I’ve come to rely upon this schedule. And though the schedule may be altered slightly from season to season, it has never given me cause to question my faith in the NAT. After all, you must be prepared to modify something to make it more perfect. I trust so implicitly in the NAT — Union to Middlebury — schedule that not only do I possess an updated copy at both home and office, but I carry with me, in my briefcase along with the work I take home each and every evening, a copy of the trusty text. I do so not to verify a departure or arrival time (for I know the schedule by heart) but because I find it reassuring to keep a copy of the schedule in my inner jacket pocket, flush against my left breast. Not that I am a superstitious person, but I feel confident that as long as I carry a copy of the schedule with me, NAT shall never give me cause for disappointment. And as long as NAT gives me no cause for disappointment, perhaps there’s hope. You might call it a form of insurance, without which I would never travel. After all, there’s an unimpeachable order in the pages of a train schedule; something grafted onto it from the order which enshrouds us.
And on this day, which I vowed never to call by the name ‘day’, I’d been deceived by the appearance of normality. It began as any day will tend to begin: I awoke, showered, dressed and sat myself down to a breakfast of black coffee, oatmeal, and toast. I then drove to Middlebury station, where I have an assigned parking spot close to the entrance to the platform; and I caught the 7:44 a.m. train which arrived at Union Station at 8:38 a.m. I then descended to the subway platform to catch the F-Train for a three stop trip to the station just across from my downtown office. I opened my doors at five minutes to nine, leaving me with just enough time to hang up my coat, sit myself down and contemplate how best to begin my working day.
As for my working day, I closed an account with a client who failed to muster up enough discipline to pay me on time, and I then pored through some voluminous documents for one of my more prestigious clients (who shall remain nameless as he has acquired some renown in this city) before sitting myself down to a packed lunch in the privacy of my office. My assistant Molly arrived in the afternoon to answer phones and to busy herself with filing work which had accrued since the previous week. I then met with a prospective client who had been assured of my impeccable reputation and of my devotion to a faultless work product. And then I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to perusing the files of several of my lesser clients – though I make every effort to treat all clients equal, giving no one reason to question the accuracy of my work.
My only disappointment was an impromptu visit by a wealthy but foolish client who came to see how I was doing. I was ill-prepared to risk my good-standing in the community by asking him to leave me alone; nonetheless, I was quite put-off by his cloying familiarity with me, as if I were his friend by virtue of my being privy to his woefully mismanaged finances, or for dispensing advice as to how he might staunch the steady flow of financial loss. He and I were strangers; but he — let us call him Mr. X — chose to delay the course of my work, compelling me to transact business outside of my customary work hours, to discuss aspects of his love life which would have been best left in the bedroom. His utter lack of professionalism was appalling; and he left me no choice but to remind him that it must surely be time for dinner, at which point he insisted upon taking me to dinner at a restaurant. And when I explained that I should first finish my work, he told me to “hang the work,” and call it a day. He presumed to know what was best for me, even though he hadn’t the slightest notion of how to organize his own affairs. He’d devoted his life to making a hash of things, and he evidently cared as little for my life as he did for his own. He didn’t give a toss.
But to refuse him dinner would have been vulgar, not to mention imprudent. My professional reputation was at stake and, besides, Mr. X was still wealthy enough to exert some influence among the well-to-do. And he allegedly rubbed elbows with much of the New Amsterdam elite. A good word from him could make me the most sought-after of accountants in all of New Amsterdam proper; a bad word could have put me out of business. So, as much as I wanted to reprove him for imposing upon my tight schedule and for attempting to intrude upon my personal life (which I feel obligated, for professional reasons, to keep private), I agreed to join him.
So we talked, or, to be accurate, Mr. X talked. And, fortunately, he did the talking for both of us, because I had nothing to say to him. It was enough that I had to entertain his distasteful remarks about many of the businessmen it had been my pleasure to assist, not to mention his claim to have been more then gentlemanly to their lonely wives.
There was no limit to Mr. X’s ill-chosen opinions on everything from the condition of the market to the state of his fiance’s feminine hygiene. The man was a cad, and it was no surprise that he was squandering what his father must have worked hard to amass. Mr. X was a disgrace and an embarrassment to those of us with important things to do. He comprehended nothing of the work-ethic, nor would he ever. And when he spoke to me of his life, he desired not helpful criticism but a companionable pat on the back (which I would never do) and assurance that he was beyond reproach. But he talked my head off, and I seconded everything he said; not because I agreed with any of his unpardonable and irresponsible views, but because I wanted to curtail dinner as much as was humanly possible.
Yet Mr. X wouldn’t agree to parting ways until he’d consumed five martinis and until it became too much of a strain to prolong his muddled stream of consciousness. He agreed to pay for dinner (actually, he insisted); and after making a few excuses as to the urgency of my departure, careful to avoid his probing questions about what could have been so urgent, I left him, slumped over the table, credit card in hand (easily accessible to the would-be thief) and entirely delirious. It was revolting to witness a grown man disgrace himself with drink; he was entirely undisciplined and beyond help.
And as I left, I pondered the most tactful way of terminating our business relationship; for how could I have anything more to do with him? But upon reflection, I suppose I should be grateful for ne’er-do-wells like Mr. X; for without men like him, I might be out of work. For it has fallen upon me to straighten out what others bend. And if I don’t do it, who will? For men like Mr. X, it’s all the same: straight or bent, whole or shattered into many pieces. What they break, I fix. But they should have some respect for the dignity of my office, for the service I perform. Mr. X had so little respect for what I did I could almost believe he didn’t really want me to repair the imperfections of his life. But I remember feeling nothing more than disgust for Mr. X’s total lack of concern; and I left him to his delirium.
It was 7:43 when I left the Bistro. And I had just enough time to catch the 8:10 for Middlebury. I was compelled to wait twelve minutes for an eight minute trip to Union Station; but at such a late hour, trains were few and far between. And I arrived at Union Station, briefcase in hand, at 8:06 p.m., giving me three minutes to locate the platform, race to the train and board it. I had three minutes, barely enough time for a sprint, but it was feasible, and I embraced the challenge. I bounded up the stairs from the underground station, three or four steps at a time, and I entered the cavernous hall of Union Station with only just over one minute to spare. But it would have been enough.
I gazed up at the monitor to determine the location of the Middlebury train. But there was no mention of Middlebury on the screen. And the 8:10 to Middlebury had apparently been replaced by an 8:10 to Westborn, one city north of Middlebury. The alteration was slight, but troubling. For from one mistake can come a whole pattern of negligence. And I was shocked that this departure from the customary pattern upset no one but me. People behaved as if nothing were amiss; it was as if only I could detect the flaw; but I suppose I was more attuned to the flaws considering that I’d devoted my life to finding them and mending them, to making life seamless and harmonious. But others were oblivious to the threat. The sky could have been falling upon them and they would stand about as if it were part and parcel of the routine. But this was an affront to the routine; it was an affront to all expectations; and it was an affront to the schedule which I carried about in my coat pocket. It was an affront to me and to everything I believed in. And it worried me because someone was playing fast and loose with the schedule.
But there was no time for me to ponder what went wrong, or who could be blamed. And I made a mad dash toward platform seven. I scuttled down the stairs, down a lengthy corridor, and down another short flight of stairs until I reached the guarded entrance to platform seven. While I rifled though my coast pockets to find my train pass, I peered over the guard’s shoulder towards the platform; but I could see no train. I assumed that, by some miracle, the train had not arrived and that punctuality had been disregarded on this occasion due to the impromptu modification in the NAT schedule. But when I did find my pass (which I’d placed in the wrong pocket due to my hasty departure from the office with Mr. X), the guard wasn’t the least bit interested. I had to shove it into his fist before he deigned to glance at it and return it to me as if it were no more valuable than the lint which lined the insides of my pockets.
“You’ve got the wrong platform, buddy,” he said.
I hesitated. “Wrong platform,” I queried.
“That’s what I said,” he responded.
“But I don’t understand.”
No response. The ill-tempered guard appeared preoccupied with his own thoughts.
“The monitor said platform seven for the train to Westborn,” I added to fill the silence and to justify my presence.
“Yeah,” responded the guard. “But your tickets for Middlebury. You want the Middlebury train, not the Westborn train.”
“But they’re right next to each other.” I explained. “Wouldn’t the Westborn train stop at Middlebury?”
And then the guard spoke to me as if I were hard of hearing. “This is the Westborn train; you want the Middlebury train.”
“I don’t understand.”
The guard chose not to recognize my appeal for clarification.
“Is there anyone else I could speak to?”
“If you’ve got a problem with it, take it up with the complaint department upstairs. I’m just telling you like it us, ‘kay buddy?”
“This doesn’t make sense.”
Again he ignored me.
“Do you know which platform I need?” I asked.
“Sorry. All I know is you’ve got the wrong platform.”
The guard turned away from me as if to forestall further questioning. I suspected that the Westborn train would have stopped at Middlebury, but there was no one else to hear me out; and the guard was too bulky and too ill-tempered for me to willfully contradict his claims. I hesitated, to contemplate how I might appeal to his better nature; but then it occurred to me that his nature would probably get no better.
I glanced at my watch; and by that time it was already 8:11 p.m. If there were a Middlebury train, it would have left already. And so I shrugged off the guard’s casual insolence and returned to the central foyer.
I turned to the monitor and discovered, to my dismay, that there was a Middlebury train, and that it was scheduled to depart at 8:15 from platform 11. My watch, which was neither a minute too fast nor too slow, read 8:14; and so I spun about and plunged into the stairwell.
By the time I arrived at platform 11, which, as luck would have it, was the very last platform on the first floor, and a good two-minute run from the central foyer, I could see no train. My watch (which I’d adjusted to coordinate with the scheduled departures and arrivals of NAT trains) read 8:16; and the guard smiled at me as if I were the unsuspecting subject of a practical joke.
“Did I miss it?” I queried, hoping that the schedule might have made an exception for me. I ransacked my pockets for my ticket.
“Left ten minutes ago” was the reply.
“But it’s scheduled to leave at 8:15?” I remarked as I continued to search my pockets.
“Well, it’s … what time is it.”
I glanced at my watch. “8:17″
“Well, you would have missed it anyway.”
“But it said 8:15,” I protested. “Why would it come early?”
” I don’t know. Trains come when they come.”
I couldn’t imagine a more inadequate answer; but it was my impression that he thought himself clever for having arrived at such a pithy encapsulation of the inexcusable situation. He grinned at me as I continued to search my pockets for the pass. It was nowhere to be found. But I set aside my search to educate the slack-jawed yokel about who things worked.
I pulled my schedule from my coat pocket and held it out to him.
“Have you ever seen one of these?” I remarked.
The guard stepped back. I’d confounded him and his smile vanished. He said nothing.
“It’s the New Amsterdam Transit schedule. And does it say trains come when they come? Does it?”
Still no reply. He took another step back as I held the train schedule before him.
“If trains came when they came, then what would be the point of having a schedule? What would be the point?”
“I don’t know” was his feeble reply.
I attempted to show him the error of his ways; but he did not appear to comprehend my concern. No doubt, he was shocked that I would question what he mistook for the way of the world. As if good things would ever come to those who waited, to men like him.
And then it was my turn to be shocked. I remembered handing my pass to the guard at platform seven; but I didn’t recall taking it back from him. I raced from one end of the corridor to the other. But when I arrived at the entrance to platform seven, the guard was no longer there. He’d been replaced by another guard (not yet eighteen as far as I could tell) who appeared to be just as amused with me as the guard from platform 11. I’m sure I must have appeared a bedraggled mess; and I could feel the perspiration drip from the tip of my nose. But that could hardly be reason to mock me with their toothy grins.
I approached the young man.
“Do you know where I can find the man who was working here not ten minutes ago?” I stumbled over my words from being out of breath.
The young man’s grin broadened.
“He’s not working now,” he replied.
“Yes. But where is he?” I asked, finding it extremely difficult to conceal my impatience with his obtuseness.
“I don’t know.” The young man grinned again.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Where do you go when you finish your shift? Hmmm?”
No response. The young man smiled broadly.
“Look. Is there a lost and found? You see the guard, the one here before you, has my pass. He forgot to give it to me”
“We don’t have a lost and found,” he explained as if it amused him to watch me dangle.
“You don’t have a … um … just tell me where the employee-only area is … I’m sure he’s still here.”
“Oh, but you can’t go in there. It’s for employees only. You’ll have to go to the complaint department. You could contact them by mail even.”
“No. No. No. Listen to me. I want my pass now. I want to go home. I just want to clear up this mess and be on my way.”
“The complaint department,” he attempted to say; but I interrupted him.
“I’m not going to the complaint department.” I said, raising my voice to a controlled scream. “I want to find the guard who was working here. I’m going to get my pass from him, and then I’m going to go home. Do you understand ?”
The young man’s grin vanished and he stepped away from me just as the other guard had done.
“Could you tell me his name, and I’ll go find him,” I asked.
“I can’t help you,” remarked the young man.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“I can’t help you,” he replied. He insisted on pleading ignorance.
“You just told me he wasn’t working. You must know who he is?”
Silence. The lad was perplexed that I could even ask him such questions. The other guard was no longer there; and the other guard, therefore, ceased to matter, at least as far as the slack-jawed young man was concerned. My reasoning began to frighten him, and so I had to abandon my efforts. He must have been a half-wit, after all, and he probably understood nothing of what I was saying. What could he know of the heretofore undeviating punctuality of NAT; and what could he know of my apprehension at the thought that the delicate balance of things had been upset; and that there was nothing left to believe in, not even the reliability of the NAT schedule? How could such a blockhead comprehend the nature of the calamity?
And so I pressed on. I would find the answers upstairs. After all, how could everyone plead ignorance? Someone was bound to help me; and, bolstered by that thought, I ascended the stairs.
I approached an information booth and attempted to claim the attention of a plump NAT employee, who was too occupied with her crossword puzzle to give me even a moment’s notice. And when she deigned to look my way, she gawked at me as if I were deranged for even attempting to claim her attention, for having a question, and as if my request for information somehow implied that I was unworthy of receiving it. But I asked anyway.
“Can you help me?” I began. “I’ve misplaced my ticket. You see I gave it to one of the guards downstairs and, well, he appears to have made off with it. Not suggesting he stole it, it’s just that he forgot to give it back to me. And so I wondered if you might happen to know how I might find him?”
“What’s his name?” was her icy reply.
“Well, that’s just it. I don’t know. He was kind of … beefy looking, like a boxer. A bit sullen…”
I was trying to be helpful, but she cut me off. “I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a name, I can’t help you.” She turned from me. It was my turn to be struck dumb. “Have you tried asking the guard who replaced him?” she added. “He should know.”
“But he doesn’t,” I exclaimed, all patience lost. “Doesn’t anyone know anything?”
“You don’t have to raise your voice at me,” was her pusillanimous reply. And then she turned away.
“I wasn’t,” I replied. And then I believe I even apologized to her.
“I’m sorry, but I just want my ticket back.”
“Well, that’s no reason to snap at me like that,” she explained as if I’d just hurt her feelings. “I’m only trying to help.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to help me or not. But I didn’t know who else to turn to. “What should I do?” I asked.
“That’s entirely up to you,” was her ill-mannered reply.
All patience once again came to an end. “Where do employees go when they get off work?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Where do you go when you get off work?”
I said nothing.
“I’d go straight home,” she explained. “That’s what I’d do. Straight home.” She sounded upset.
But I’d been pushed beyond endurance to care about her wounded feelings. “So you could finish your crossword at home, I suppose,” I offered in reply. I was upset, after all. I’d come to her for information, and I hadn’t come to discuss her life. The less I knew about her the better.
“What?” she said, bristling at my taunt.
“Look,” I ventured to explain. “I just want to catch the next train to Middlebury. I’ll buy another ticket. I don’t care.”
She glanced at me for a moment before turning to her computer monitor and punching the keys with resentful, underworked fingers.
“Next train leaves platform three at 8:30.” But when she spoke I could almost hear her stifling a sob. Could it have been anything I said? I can’t imagine how.
I clenched my briefcase to my chest and prepared to race to platform three, which was, thankfully, just across the foyer from the information booth. “But what about the schedule?” I asked. The trains always leave at 8:40.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. And for the first time, I got a good look at her face. Her eyes were moist with tears. But as soon as she turned to me, she again turned away; and with a shrug, she returned to her crossword.
I had no time to ask her about her sad predicament or to contemplate her indifference to mine. Instead, I careened toward the ticket booth to purchase a round trip fare to Middlebury.
I was given another ticket, and, within seconds, I stepped before the guard at gate three who cheerfully assured me that the train hadn’t come yet. I offered to show him my ticket, but he didn’t seem to think it necessary. He merely beckoned me, with a tilt of the head, to the platform,
And I waited, as minute after minute slipped away without the least trace of a Middlebury train. And when my watch read 8:40, I approached the guard, hoping for an explanation to this unaccountable delay.
“What happened to the train?” I asked.
And then he chuckled. “Oh, this train’s always late. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t even show up.” He chuckled again, clearly more amused by this than I was.
“I don’t understand.” I wanted to scream some sense into him, but I restrained myself.
“Oh, nothing to understand. Just have a seat and take it easy.”
But how could I take it easy, knowing that the train might never arrive?
“But the trains are never late,” I queried.
“Never late?” he added. “They’re always late here; you must be thinking of the wrong station.”
I turned away. But the guard continued. “Nothing much of anything works ’round here; but you’ve got to laugh; ’bout all you can do here.” And the guard did just that.
And then, as I turned away, I saw him: the beefy guard who’d pocketed my train pass. I saw him on the other side of the short corridor which separates the main foyer from platform three and four. And he disappeared. I ran towards the opening of the corridor, and watched as the beefy guard stood at the lip of the staircase just before plunging downward.
I followed and dashed towards the stairwell, and scurried after him. I turned a corner, and entered the main corridor; but he was gone. Had I conjured him up because I wanted to find him? Or was he hiding from me? Because I was sure that I was the victim of an elaborate cosmic joke, and that the staff of NAT were trying to get my dander up. And they were succeeding.
I tried a few doors, but they were locked. And then I peered into a few of the platform entrances he would have had time to enter. But I saw no one. And I was too anxious to find him to notice just how deserted the station was. How was it that I could find no one to talk to? Where had everyone gone? I rushed about, like a headless chicken, for a good five minutes or so; and I had no choice but to abandon the search. Besides, I remembered that I had a train to catch, and so I returned upstairs.
I returned to the guard at platform three. And perhaps someone had written “laugh at me” on my forehead, because as soon as he saw me and recognized me, he began to convulse with silent mirth.
I glared at him, as if to remind him that my predicament was no laughing matter. But he then chose to floor me with the unpleasant truth. “The train just left,” he exclaimed between giggles.
“What?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “I don’t understand.”
“That’s the thing about these trains; they come when you least expect them; and when you do want them, they’re never there. You’ve gotta laugh.”
I left him to his solitary merrymaking, and shuffled back into the foyer. I needed to speak to someone. I needed to speak to someone who could understand the gravity of the situation.
I spotted an employee wearing an official NAT uniform: all blue with silver fringe; and I approached him.
“Excuse me,” I said. He turned around and gazed at me as if I weren’t there.
“I’m trying to get to Middlebury, but I can’t seem to find a train. And the train at platform three just left.”
“No Middlebury trains leave from platform three.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Can I see your ticket?” he asked.
And I gave it to him. “You’ve been given the wrong ticket. Unless you’re going to Sunnybrook.”
“No. No. Middlebury. Just Middlebury. Ah, I was told that my train would leave from platform three.”
“Well, then you were lied to,” was his matter-of-fact conclusion.
I said nothing.
“We never use platform three and the Sunnybrook train leaves from platform five,” he remarked. He studied the ticket. “It says so on the ticket.” He held it to my face, but I was in no mood to read the small print.
“Or perhaps you misunderstood,” he added.
“I didn’t misunderstand,” I explained. “I heard quite clearly: Middlebury, platform three. Someone’s misinformed and it isn’t me.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” he replied, “but unless you’re going to Sunnybrook, this ticket ain’t going to do you a whole lotta good.” He returned the ticket to me.
“Then I’ll exchange it,” I said.
“No exchanges. All sales are final,” he added, quite casually.
“What do you mean all sales are final? What if I change my mind? What if someone gives me the wrong information?” I stepped towards him.
The man turned away. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
I raised my voice to catch his attention. “I’m looking for one of the employees here. He has my pass. I don’t know his name, but he works at platform seven; he’s heavy-set, dark hair, appears to frown all the time.”
“Oh, you must mean Felix,” said the official with a smile. “Felix Talbot. He’s always sulking; that’s just his way.” He paused. “His shift isn’t over until 2 a.m., so he should be here. And if he’s not at platform seven, he’s probably brooding somewhere for all I know.”
“Do you have an employee area?” I hazarded to ask.
“Yes, indeed. And if you were an employee you could go in, but as you’re not, you’ll have to look for him out here.” He gazed at me for a moment, almost sympathetically, before excusing himself and scampering off down a stairwell.
I then remembered the young woman in the information booth who gave me false information, and who must have done so on purpose. I approached the booth, gazed inside and saw not her but a diminutive man wearing ludicrous horn-rimmed glasses and a tight, unyielding expression.
“Wasn’t there a girl working here not too long ago?” I asked him.
“Yes, you must mean Hilary.”
“She wasn’t feeling well, you see,” he assured me as if I were a solicitous friend.
“Oh, because I just spoke to her, not twenty minutes ago. I think she told me the wrong platform. You see, I lost my pass and I needed another ticket.”
“So it was you,” remarked the man as if I’d just confessed to pulling my sister’s hair. He glared at me from behind horn-rimmed glasses resting on the tip of his nose. “She told me that she’d had an upsetting conversation with a man who lost his pass and who persisted in blaming her for it.
“I didn’t blame her; I just wanted her help.”
“You hurt her feelings; and now she’s too upset to work. How could you?”
I had nothing to say. But the man continued his tirade.
“Did you have to tell her she was worthless; that she did nothing? Did you have to tell her she was lazy?”
I ventured to protest, but he continued.
“How could you be so cruel? Isn’t it enough that she has to sit there and listen to your questions; and you insult her; just because she’s doing a crossword? Have you no shame?”
And as he paused to take a breath, I interjected. “But she was doing a crossword. I mean what does she get paid for? She’s here to keep me informed, not to play games. And then she can’t even give me the right information.” I paused. “You can tell her I meant every word.”
The man glowered at me from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “You should be ashamed of yourself.” He then turned from me to push the partition closed.
I was refused information, on account of my questionable morals; and so I put my faith, once again, in the monitor which had led me astray in the first place. The screen informed me that a Middlebury train would be leaving from platform 17 at 9:00 p.m. My watch read 8:54 p.m., and so I made a run for it.
I descended the stairs at breakneck speed and raced towards the end of the corridor. I found platform 16, and from all appearances it was the last platform. I then made for the stairs and descended to another floor. I’d never known trains other than subway trains to depart from such a depth, but what choice did I have? And to my surprise, there were more platforms, beginning from platform 18 and extending to platform 23. But there was no platform 17 to be found. Could I have read the monitor incorrectly?
A middle-aged woman with pursed lips stepped into the corridor from the stairwell; and I approached her.
“Can you tell me where to find platform 17?” I asked.
She gazed at me as if it had been impudent of me to even address her. “I’m sorry,” she declared. “I really couldn’t help you.”
I was about to ask again, when she cut me off and informed me that she was in a hurry. “I don’t have time,” she explained as she scurried over to one of the platforms at the end of the corridor.
I turned and leapt up the stairs, but two minutes of frantic searching yielded me nothing. How could they have neglected to add platform 17, when there was a platform 16 and 18. Was there something untoward about the number 17? It was already 8:59, but I descended the stairs hoping that I might have overlooked it the first time.
And then I saw it; and I can’t understand how I missed it the first time. I approached the guard, who appeared just as mysteriously as the platform and I fumbled for my ticket.
I remembered that I was the proud owner of a round-trip ticket to Sunnybrook. And then I saw it; the train to Middlebury was waiting at the platform. A whistle blew and I hurried past the guard. They could fine me whatever they wished for boarding the wrong train; but I was fully intent on going home.
“Sir, can I see your ticket?” insisted the guard. I could have jumped aboard the train, and made an attempt to elude him; but I chose to acknowledge him. I’d been called to account; but I pointed to my watch as if to suggest that there was no time for protocol.
The guard extended his arm. “I need to see the ticket sir.”
As I reached for my ticket, I considered explaining my predicament; but there was no use. After all, he couldn’t allow me to board the train out of sympathy. About all I could do was fume and curse the day I’d ever set foot in Union Station.
I produced the ticket; the man studied it and then returned it to me. He said nothing. And he behaved as if there was nothing he could say I didn’t already know. But I didn’t know.
And then I watched as the train began to slide along the platform. I was furious for this injustice and I cursed aloud for the guard’s edification.
And then the guard turned to me. “What were you waiting for?” was his question.
I didn’t understand.
“You had a ticket; why did you wait?”
I gazed at the ticket; and I read the small print: ‘New Amsterdam to Middlebury – round trip.’
I was too shocked to do or say anything. I’d been lied to; and I felt foolish.
I wanted to slam my briefcase against the man who led me astray, but I chose, instead to smash it against the wall to my right. But as luck would have it, the latch snapped open, and my correspondence flew in all directions. The notebooks merely fell to the floor; but the loose-leaf sheets (sheets which I’d organized perfectly) took wing and soared about my head in the general direction of the newly-abandoned train tracks. As I grabbed for them, I must have looked like a man swatting at a drove of angry wasps. I was frantic after all; and I could do nothing to mitigate the damage.
I fell to my knees and bent over to collect the sheets one by one, to return them to my briefcase, while the guard gazed at me apprehensively, as if I’d been clutching not at real sheets of paper but at imaginary sheets. And then I abandoned my task to pull the train schedule from my jacket pocket. I wanted to explain myself, to assure him that I wasn’t deranged.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” I explained as I held the schedule towards him. He backed away from me. “I don’t understand; this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
I plead with him for an answer. I challenged him to refute the schedule. But he said nothing before running away from me, leaving me to crawl about the ground to retrieve my notes.
I collected most of my notes, at least everything which hadn’t fallen into the trough of the train tracks; and walked back to the stairwell.
When I returned to the main foyer, I noticed that the information booth window was once again open and that a third person, as yet unknown to me, was staring at me. He nodded good-naturedly and then waved as if I were an old friend. I advanced towards him, thinking that he might be anxious to help me, and to give me the answers I’d been looking for.
“Good evening, sir,” he exclaimed, flashing me a smile of gargantuan proportions. “How can I help you today.” This was the behavior I’d come to expect from NAT employees; but I was still suspicious.
“I want to catch a train to Middlebury,” I asked. “Can you help me?”
“The jovial fellow turned to his computer monitor. “Well, let’s see. Hmm.” He punched a few keys. “Well, looks like the next train arrives at 9:23 at platform 24.”
“24?” I queried.
“But where is that?” I replied. “I wasn’t aware you had so many?”
“Why downstairs; you can’t miss it. All of the Middlebury trains leave from the lower platforms.”
“Not always,” I ventured to explain. “I would always catch my train on this level.”
“I don’t know anything about Middlebury trains leaving from this level. Are you sure?”
I chose not to pursue the point. Instead, I pulled the train schedule from my pocket and set it down on the window ledge in front of him.
The man smiled “That book won’t do you any good here.”
I was puzzled.
“I don’t even know why they bother issuing them,” he added.
“But I’ve been using this for years,” I remarked. “I’ve had no reason to doubt its accuracy.”
“Well, you must have been lucky,” he declared.
“Lucky?” I exclaimed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You must have been using it on the few occasions when it worked according to schedule. You must have caught all of the exceptions to the rule.”
“But it worked every time, without fail.”
He nodded as if impressed by the information. “Well, then you were very lucky. Very lucky.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I objected.
“It doesn’t, does it?” mused the man. “But then again, neither does anything down here for that matter.”
“It’s not supposed to be like this,” I retorted.
“No it isn’t,” concurred the man. And then he chose to wax philosophic. “But what can we do about it? No point in running around, is there? All we can do is sit down and accept it, like death and taxes.” He chuckled to himself at the hackneyed witticism.
“You sit still and it’ll come; no point getting all het up; there’s nothing you can do about it; so you might as will sit still and wait.” He appeared to be impressed with this popular wisdom.
“But the schedule,” I remarked, “it lays everything out so clearly. It simplifies things so nicely.”
The man dismissed me with a wave of the hand. “Yeh, but it isn’t simple is it? And not because life isn’t simple, because it is, but because you people always have to go and complicate things, don’t you think you’ve got it fixed, but you don’t.”
I said nothing.
He grabbed my schedule and waved it at me. “You don’t need schedules. It’s pointless; it doesn’t do you any good. Like it’s going to work because a schedule says it does.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen; if it isn’t, it won’t.”
And then he tore my schedule in half before my very eyes. “You’re better off without it.”
“Give that back,” I yelled. But he merely dropped the torn halves into a waste paper basket inside the information kiosk.
“Hey,” he replied, as if to calm me, “I’m doing you a favor. You can’t go on believing that kind of horseshit. It never pans out. Just take care of the here and now. Sit back and take it all in.”
I repeated myself. “Give me back my schedule, you piece of shit. I’ll report you to management.” I had to take a firm hand.
“We’ve been ordered to destroy all copies of the train schedule,” he explained. “It was causing no end of trouble; people complaining that things didn’t run the way it was supposed to; we don’t have a complaint department to deal with it, so we have to get rid of the schedules.”
“Someone told me there was a complaint department.”
The man chuckled. “Not the last time I checked.” He paused to contemplate my evident anxiety. “Hey, I’m sorry; but that’s just how it is. Nothing I can do about it.”
I’d been beaten.
I then remembered my lost train pass. “Alright. Tell me one thing. Can I page somebody? You see I’m trying to find an employee who forgot to return my train pass to me.”
“Oh, well, I can page him. What’s his name?” he asked.
“Ah, Felix Talbot, I believe.”
“Felix?” he remarked as if calling the name itself in question. He shrugged and then wrote the name down on a slip of paper. He then turned away from me and produced a newspaper from the desk.
“Are you going to page him?” I asked.
He turned away from his newspaper, surprised to see me waiting there. “All in due course, sir. When the messenger comes by, which might be in, let’s say, twenty minutes or so, I’ll give him the name and then he’ll take it to the appropriate person. Perhaps if you check back here later.” He then turned away from me to peruse his newspaper.
My watch read 9:18. Again, I was at risk of missing my train. I hurried to the ticket counter, purchased a round trip ticket to Middlebury and raced off to the stairwell. I descended the steps three or four at a time, until I was two levels below the main foyer, at the bottom of the stairwell. I walked past platform 17, 18, 19 until I came to platform 23. There was no platform 24, as far as I could tell.
And then I heard the main intercom. “Would Philippe Talboy please report to the Director’s office; Philippe Talboy please report to the Director’s office.” The intercom then crackled into silence.
I briefly contemplated returning upstairs to inform them that they had the name wrong, and to vent some spleen at whomever was responsible for the unforgivable botch-up.
But I had a train to catch and a platform to find. There was no floor below me as far as I could tell; but I approached a closed door to my right. Upon opening it, I discovered another stairwell which plunged down several more flights. I descended the stairs and stepped out into another corridor.
But it would seem that I’d ascended a staircase, rather than descending into one, because the corridor featured the all too familiar first level of platforms numbering 9 to 16. When I returned to the stairwell, which I must have overlooked on my previous visits to the corridor, I descended the stairs to the corridor which offered platforms 17 to 23. But when I descended even further, I found myself once again on the upper level corridor: platforms 9 to 16. How as it possible that the further I plunged, the higher I rose? And how would I find platform 24 if none of the stairwells permitted me to descend to a lower level?
But there was no time to dabble in useless conjectures. Even stranger events were afoot. Standing at platform 7, in his usual spot, was Felix, the beefy guard who’d made off with my train pass. I approached him, prepared to have it out with him, and to castigate him for disappearing altogether, when I heard a shout.
“That’s him,” roared a guard from a platform entrance way opposite the gloomy Felix. Felix turned to me and motioned me over. I presumed that Felix was contrite for having given me the slip (even if it had been unintentional), and that he wished to return my pass to me.
But when I reached him, the other guard (a misshapen twig of a man with a perpetual sneer) grabbed my arm from behind and twisted it behind my back.
“You’re coming with me,” he proclaimed as if I’d just been caught me in the act of pickpocketing.
“What’s going on here?” I asked, attempting to extricate myself from the man’s excruciating grip.
“For the past hour or so,” droned Felix, “you’ve been upsetting everyone and distracting us from our work. Ever since you arrived, trains have gone missing, our complaint department has been besieged with complaints and nothing has been working the way it should. We can’t go on like this.”
“This is ridiculous,” I objected. “What does this have to do with me?”
“You’ve been causing a disturbance,” remarked the other man with a snarl as he tightened his grip on my arm.
“You’re hurting me,” I exclaimed. But that only prompted the man to push my arm closer to my neck. Felix grabbed my other arm.
“Don’t make this more difficult,” explained Felix in his customary monotone. “We can’t have you here. You’ve unsettling us.”
I ordered them to let me go; but instead they proceeded to drag me to the stairwell and up the stairs in a most shameful fashion.
“We’re only doing our job,” explained the other man. “Don’t make things more complicated than they have to be,” he added with another tug on my arm.
They hoisted me up into the main foyer where I attempted to hold myself in as seemly a manner as possible, given that two men were practically dragging me by my arms.
“I want a refund,” I insisted. One of the men gave my arm another sharp tug. “Don’t make this difficult for us,” explained the slender man.
I was pulled towards the exit and unceremoniously thrown onto the sidewalk. Needless to say, I was infuriated and crimson red with embarrassment. But there was nothing I could do. I merely stepped away from the doors, and threw myself into the flow of pedestrian traffic, eyes downcast, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss. I took a $50 taxi home and spent a sleepless night racking my brains for an explanation to these events. I came up empty.
Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that I returned to Union Station the following morning to find that it was business as usual: the trains in their prearranged places, coming and going at their prearranged times? Of course, I no longer had a NAT schedule to confirm this; but there could be no doubt that all was once again well with the world. I was fortunate enough to spend a most uneventful day at work; but it was with some trepidation that I entered the station the following evening. But I had no reason to be alarmed. I caught the Middlebury train at the customary place at the customary hour and I arrived in Middlebury at the customary time.
I located my pass in the lost and found; but no one knew who’d returned it. I asked about Felix Talbot; but I was informed that there was no such employee registered with NAT. I remembered the girl at the information booth, but I never saw her again. In fact, I would never again set eyes upon any of the NAT employees I met that evening. But I had too much work to do to give much thought to the events I’ve chose to memorialize for your benefit. I’d pondered the possibility of a lapse of logic; but it simply doesn’t seem possible. After all, why was I the only one concerned about this? One would think my mental faculties had short-circuited; but there could have been nothing wrong with my perceptions. I find it best, therefore, not to think on it, for if it doesn’t fit, throw it out.
I must add that I’ve informed Mr. X that he had better employ another accountant because I was ill-fit to deal with his affairs. I concocted an excuse about conflict of interest (and I had worked for an employee of a competing business, so it wasn’t a total fabrication), and so I managed to eliminate his ill-managed affairs from my workday. As an accountant, I suppose that ill-managed affairs are my bread and butter. But I could not in good conscience work for a man who gave little thought to restoring some discipline to his life. Mr. X was beyond help; and I had a business to run.
I’m pleased to say that business is booming; and I might even permit Molly to work for me on a full-time basis. I suppose I could afford to take on an associate as well, yet I’m not averse to working an extra hour each day. Besides, there’s always the risk that an associate won’t take as much care with the work as I do. And I’d just as soon not open my doors to an unpredictable element. I will never again leave things to chance.