Trying to get train connections into the city was either a microdrama or a comedy of errors, if
one even took the time to notice. My son and I had been kicking around the idea of just taking a day to wander around the neighborhoods, exploring and sifting through experiences that one rarely
sees, out in the sticks. Good excuses for such a foray began to pile up as the weeks went by,
which made it easier to decide on a day to go. I was very interested in visiting the "Eyes Wide
Open" memorial presentation at the meetinghouse, and a very large free concert promised to either block or gridlock most of the streets to automotive traffic for the day, meaning that trains
would be the order of the day. Better still, pedestrians not at the concert would have free reign
over the low-pressure areas not in the immediate vicinity of the event. Sweet!
The mass transit folks had anticipated a tremendous upsurge in traffic, owing to the various events (mainly, the concert) all occuring over a holiday weekend, and had added extra cars and
trains to the schedule. We would be boarding at either end of our line, so the odds were pretty
good that we'd be sitting for both the inbound and outbound legs of the journey, regardless of
the ridership. Passing time makes little details like that important, but my son was so pumped
that he would have probably agreed to travel by pogo stick to get there, if it meant going.
I can give my view of the trip, but only an educated guess of how my son saw the same images.
As advertised, there was an abnormal volume of passengers on the train, which eventually swelled
to "standing room only" as we came into the city. I'd never seen it packed like that, and it made
gestures like giving up one's seat to a standing passenger pretty meaningless. Most of the riders were young adults or teenagers, who were agog and excited by the day's possibilities. My son was
engaged in a survey of reference points, flying outside the window. Some of them were places that
I had either worked on or at, over the years. Much of the trip passed pleasantly discussing the
geography along the route.
The terminal, a vast underground maze spanning several blocks in the heart of the city, was
much like a venturi. The train pulled in and immediately decompressed into the terminal, which
in turn, exhausted into the streets heading north and west, toward the concert venue. But we
weren't heading there, at least not quite yet. Instead, we went east. I always suspected that his memory would be his strongest asset, and my son set a course to the meetinghouse, though
he'd only been there once before: "See, Dad? I know where I'm going!" I was happy to follow, as we talked about the corner of Chinatown that we'd pass
through. A few blocks more, and we were at the meetinghouse, which seemed pretty quiet. The
"Eyes Wide Open" was across the street. The ceremony was simplicity itself, following the odd
arrangement peculiar to Quakers: roughly 1,800 pairs of boots, whose owners were casualties of
the war in Iraq, were arranged neatly within the bounds of irregular plots of grass. A woman
read the names of the deceased in calm, measured voice, as a bell tolled for each person. There
was a tent with refreshments, and another with pamphlets about Quaker positions on peace, aid,
the war in Iraq, and conscientious objection. My son looked on respectfully, but mortality's still a rather nebulous concept, and he'd have to chew on the idea that respecting the deaths of
a bunch of people that he didn't know, killed in a faraway place, is a small but meaningful step
of recognizing our own motives and motivations. It takes time to grasp, but is crucial to being a person.
We resumed our journey, heading south by southeast, down through Society Hill and Queen's
Village, toward the river. As he was unfamiliar with this area, I made a point of identifying landmarks as we passed them. Eventually, we crossed a bridge and found ourselves along the waterfront. The area would normally have been much busier, but the concert had evidently drawn
off many of the usual denizens, so we were able to visit several ships and observe others. We took a southerly exit and headed west, as my son speculated about which navigation would return us to our starting place, some 12 blocks north and 10 blocks west away, including a stop for
After our refreshment, the path was entirely in my son's hands. Given no further clues about
the direction to be taken, he led me back to the meetinghouse, and from there, toward the train terminal. It was slightly past mid-afternoon, an we debated whether it was worth walking over
to check out the concert, which was actually an all-day series of performances. I was ambivalent about the music, but very curious about the way people were getting along in such large numbers.
It would have been considerably easier to catch a train out, since many of the other passengers
would still be in the streets, rather than crowding the train station. Carpe Diem eventually
overruled wisdom, and we set off toward the other meetinghouse, which was the only information
that my son needed, to pick up the trail to the concert venue. The police had cordoned off vehicular traffic, starting only a few blocks away, and the numbers of pedestrians began to
increase as we headed up the parkway. We began to veer through the thickening crowd, like running
backs charging the goal line. There were easily hundreds of thousands of people, possibly a half million, all milling around, but no signs of violence, only distraction. Street vendors lined the
route, hawking water, beverages, food, tee shirts, and the usual things found at a concert, and
large video monitors had been placed at intervals of a few blocks, as we drew nearer to the stage. Debris was everywhere, and the onrushing crowds heading in both directions created a kind
of unavoidable, unintentional soccer scrimmage: water bottles and other trash were being kicked
back and forth by involuntary players, flowing through the sluice innocently, bent on ingress or egress. It was hard to watch your step, in that you couldn't actually see your feet, in many places. We tilted onward against the flow of an opposing lamina of people and low-flying debris, drawn by curiousity more than of necessity. Unlike first generation festivals like Woodstock or
Altamonte, it wasn't necessary to be within earshot of the stage, to figure out who was playing
what- remotely distributed monitors and speakers have reduced it to matter of personal tastes.
We eventually made it to a barricade roughly 100 yards from stage right, snapped a few pictures,
then began searching for a way back out through the mob. Nothing to it- just put your head down like a charging rhino, and mambo your way back to clear space. Again, this turned out to be a rather civil, polite exercise, despite the frenzied darting, shimmying, and gyrations involved. I'd seen much smaller concerts devolve into much uglier situations. 45 minutes later, we'd gotten
back to the end of the parkway, back to the rarifactions or smaller gaggles of people. An entrance to the terminal appeared in the sidewalk ahead, only about six blocks from our original
port of entry. Only a few blocks from the second meetinghouse.
The mass transit folks got some things right, but evidently, crowd control and navigation of
the underground labyrinth by the unfamiliar weren't high on the list. Large queues had formed at
the entrances to the boarding tracks, which were one level below the concourses. Obviously, it
made a difference which queue you found yourself in, otherwise, you'd spend an hour figuring out that you were waiting to get on the wrong train out. On second examination, they weren't queues,
except by the loosest definition- they were linear groupings of people, with new members hopping
in or out of line, all along the edge. It was a crapshoot, since the monitors spoke of mythical
creatures who alone knew which queue was headed for which train, for which destination. None of
the queues had any outward indication of its purpose, which meant that word of mouth rumors ruled
the line. After about half an hour of standing still, I collared one of the doleful gnomes in red
vests, and demanded to know where this line was going. "R5", as he scurried down another passage.
Of course, R5 goes in two completely different directions, but it would be at least another half hour before that piece of the puzzle revealed itself, to the dismay of a group of girls who had
surrepetitiously slipped into the queue. I suppose that they were heading to West Parts Unknown,
whereas the train was headed for East Jibbip. Things looked worse than they were. The line rarely moved, but when it did, it was for yards at a shot, as packets of passengers were ejaculated into waiting trains. It was standing room only again, but we lucked into some seats. Good thing, too:
my calves had grown into steers, with all the walking around. I'll remember the puzzled looks of people we left standing in the stations we passed through. Sorry folks, next stop is Calcutta.