Monday, November 26, 2007

Minor Earth Major Sky

EDIT: Like the other train post, I wrote this earlier than when it's being posted. I think I finished this around 12:30 p.m. yesterday, when my train would have been nearing King City.

The Santa Barbara Amtrak station, it turns out, puts too good a face on train travel.

Sitting on the broken-down benches on the gummy cement of the station in Salinas, staring out at empty tracks and beyond them the vast expanse of nothing reminds a guy that most Americans would rather rot in traffic jams that take the train. Especially when compared to the Santa Barbara depot — Santa Barbara being a city that gladly shells out 75 percent more money than it should on anything in order to make it look extra cute — the Salinas counterpart looks downright ghost townish. It's that dilapidated. Proof, however, that it's still a functional station: The relatively new signs taped to the first doors I saw recommended that I "please use other doors" and the fact that I sat there for an hour this morning, waiting for a late train to pick me up and end my Thanksgiving break my taking me back home. The traditional "Salinas sky" didn't help. That's looming fog, for those of you fortunate enough not to have spent enough time in Salinas to vouch for its regular weather patterns. Mostly white and glary, with knots of slightly grayer fluff here and there. In honor of the columnist, I think I'll dub it Gray-Blanc — not offensive in any way, but interesting and maybe a little dramatic and every now and then just a little mean-spirited.

I made it through the first 30 pages of Special Topics in Calamity Physics while I waited. As near as I could tell, I was the only passenger-to-be who passed time by reading anything. The rest just toddled around, going nowhere and talking about nothing, loudly. A family of five clustered to my side and talked about sea otters. I assume they'd been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I felt bad for hating them so instantly, but the mom who wore a jacket emblazoned with a giant Tweety Bird and who seemed to honestly think she could gave an otter a good life as her pet in Simi Valley was really the straw that broke the camel's back — and then brought the ruined camel back to Simi Valley, where she named it "Sandy" and fed it Skittles. The entire family either had hair too long or too short in the way that makes them look so very un-Californian, even though I'm pretty sure they were natives. And the son my age wore pajama pants, as if the 11:48 a.m. train made for such a morning rush that putting on real pants was just out of the question. They're sitting all throughout the car I'm sitting in now and keep walking over to each other to ask something dumb — "If I'm asleep when the train pulls in, will one of you wake me up?" — or declare something even dumber — "I guess it must be crowded, otherwise I wouldn't be sitting with someone I don't even know!"

Yeah, I feel a little bad about judging them instantaneously, but people who talk that loudly have to expect that they're inviting those around them to compare them to, let's say, unwashed dust wranglers who came to the city to buy magic beans, or maybe shaved moneys who somehow found clothes and wandered onto the train. (The latter case would explain the Tweety Bird jacket.)

I'll admit it right now that I feel worse for having judged Nola, the girl who sat next to me. There I was, sitting on my gross bench trying to put a dent in to Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I've heard from two reputable sources—Spencer and Bri—is good in a way that I'd especially enjoy, when this girl wearing a pink sweatpants-sweatshirt-sweatseverything outfit plunks herself down next to me. She'd already taken off her sunglasses, said hi and introduced herself before I could make the mental jump from the written page to real-life and figure out what was happening. She had a flair for interviews that I can only envy. Within a few brief moments, she had extracted one sentence summaries of both my life and the past weekend. ("I'm from Hollister, but I went to school in Santa Barbara and now I work at a paper there… I didn't want to drive, so I took the train home for Thanksgiving and have been relaxing and doing work from home in the meantime.") Nola nodded and the just flatly decreed that my book was "good," and I guess that really through me off, even in light of her ability to make me forthcoming with strangers. It turned out, once I'd countered her reporterly talents with my own, that she's studying English at UCLA and is three years younger and far better read than I am—you know, like everybody seems to be. But somehow I felt especially dumb for my prejudice. I saw Nola's shiny hair, large shades and overwhelming pinkness and instantly let those factor equal "gum-smacking idiot, Us Weekly-reader, future baby machine." She might be, of course, but the fact that she not only knew of but had already read my book put me off guard — I'm choosing to believe because I was put in my place for being a judgmental prick and not because something I'm interested in had registered on the radar of somebody I'd pegged for being way to Top 40 to be cool. I haven't seen Nola since we've been on the train.

Oh. We just went through a tunnel. For a moment, my laptop was the brightest thing in my car. Heavy-handed symbolism?

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