Friday, March 7, 2014

The Motorman

“There is a cosmic law which says that every satisfaction must be paid for with a dissatisfaction.” 
― G.I. Gurdjieff

Call this a meditation on the wages of dreams, a banked balance of debts and credits while in transit.

My hometown was planted in the midst of grasslands and cornfields that stretched as far as you cared to wander. The town itself was no more than two blocks long. The suburbia as it was that surrounded it had planted houses that were identical, neatly spaced with the regularity of army barracks. You could walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes.
This was my universe as a child. Back in the day, there were grand plans of it becoming a metropolis and the evidence of this was a four lane concrete street that began and ended for a short distance fronting the railroad station. My daily routine in the summer was to walk two blocks past the repetition of the cookie cutter houses , buy a soda at the gas station with the purloined change I had received from returning my father’s beer bottles and sit under the eaves of the station on a slatted green bench to dream of faraway places.
I was ignorant of this story arc, of beginnings and endings. As I grew some years older at the age of 17, I became aware of this and aware that the ending came without a premonition, without a notice and that there were no choices, no choice. Life simply ended. That being said, I made a choice that year to leave my home and family with fifty dollars in my pocket to walk off the edge of the known world. Another time, another place.
Sitting on that bench in the shade even in the bright glare of a summer sun, I could see the approach of a headlight burning in the distance, and as the train rolled toward me, I could see the cars heel and rock over the crossover, the signal change from green to red. Sparks flickered and dust lazily rolled up in a cloud as the brakes squealed as they ground into steel wheels. The uniformed conductor nattily dressed in blue serge pushed open the door and hung on the vestibule anticipating the stop. A small step stool was planted on the platform and off walked old men, young mothers, business types from heaven knows where to hurriedly depart in a momentary bustle of activity as I sat and observed.
The pumping of the compressor sounded as if this train was catching it’s breath as the motorman stepped down with his satchel in hand, reaching for his stool..smiling, seeing this familiar kid planted like a small sentinel with eyes like an owl.
Mysteries abounded.As a child there was not much wiggle room between what you could and could not do. For myself on the platform, I knew I wanted to be a motorman, raising the trolley pole matching it to the wire to hear it crack with a zing,to take the throttle handle, release the brakes and follow the tracks watch the signals, sound the horn and wave to the passerby and bystanders….and follow a dream of mysterious lands full of exotica, mountainous crevices,roaring rivers and moonlit valleys. The captain of a ship, an authoritative figure of nine years old carrying a satchel.  

I had had enough. For weeks I had been directing a large commercial renovation of a apartment complex in far off Arkansas, writing contracts, scopes of work, soliciting bids, and coordinating everything from the color of the shutters to the laying of drainage systems over several acres. A position of responsibility, the owner’s representative and to the locals, an outsider. My word was my bond.
After renting a car, I arrived for a meeting with a father and his son who were constructing endless rows of privacy fences over the several acres of that complex, to approve and appraise their work in order that they be paid. As I pulled up to the rental office there they were, the two of them. The father motioned to the son to find something else to do as I approached and I was to be blind sided. He had not been paid a dime for the last two months by the owners. To buy the material he had taken a second mortgage on his house which he was on the brink of losing as well as facing utter bankruptcy. I had been set up. When I returned to Chicago, taking the elevator up to my office, the approach I wold take to this issue was paramount and I called for a meeting of the powers that be.
The short answer was “Well whats the problem? He will get paid in time..”
They arranged for the corporate property manager to travel with me back to Arkansas to resolve the leaving of this gentleman to swing in the breeze, which I had determined was likely a sham, a  ruse to buy time. We met the man who was more quietly desperate than ever and it was painful to observe as Bill assured him of a quick settling of our firm’s debt to him.
The phone rang and it was the gentleman in question. He had not been paid in the ensuing two weeks. That day, I resigned, packed up my office and arrived at the station, that was dank and dark..empty during a mid day lull. I walked up the vacant platform in search of the arrival of the train and heard a throbbing of an engine in idle several tracks away. Having nothing better to do than to kill time I walked over out of idle curiosity and there battered, with worn paint, grease stains sat an engine that was constructed long before I was born, coughing and belching acrid exhaust...waiting to be called. The works of man live long after their passing. Thats what I said to myself. 

My satchel was in hand.

Transience juxtaposed beginnings, a middle and an end placed in transit and in that cavernous and dark cave beneath the ground on that platform, time stopped and the spacial dimensions of my situation expanded into a seeming infinity of uncertainty marked with the certainty of my resignation. Rising above that station, I saw an invisible landscape that was tied to the string of a kite pulled an pushed by a something I could not reconnoiter or plan against it’s vicissitudes.
The kite was tethered now to a wife and two kids unaware of my decision. Gurdjieff whispered in my ear..”everything must be paid for”

Strings of valuations rolled and pitched in my mind from my bank balance to Arkansas that were folded into a stream running to it’s source, that kid wanting to be a motorman..


  1. I love the first half of this post, Bruce, but, I think I'd leave Gurdjieff at the station before your next transit. The hero of this story is "that kid wanting to be a motorman." That is, before the baggage of "bank balances."

    Re: "baggage" via Wiki: "anything with more bulk than value." ;-)

  2. Shadows and light and the places in between permeated my thoughts on what happens when I presume to be driving the train. Being a bystander and being the never seems to be an arrangement of a strict divide between the two although in the final analysis in a sense maybe we are all passengers.. wanting to drive the train.
    In a way all of this seems arbitrary depending on what sort of breakfast we had on any particular morning.Some days I prefer to just sit among the trees in the backyard just to listen and watch, nature as a calming sedative, or perhaps a meditation or both. LOL.

  3. Sometimes I think that most do not have a problem with taking turns, or promotions, or transformations. It is the trading of places becoming confused and recursive that seems to bother. Maybe that is some kind of weird point, those tracks can be a Klein Bottle. My old home was a cornfield, a jump to Point Pleasant. They bought that up, and now it is a Polo field for bankers and lawyers and insurance executives. Before that, there was a Mound City. I sometimes wonder if that is why finance and laws are becoming more like a predatory blood cult. History rhymes, and stuff burns. Building stuff with blood and money, I would have gone another way.

    1. Neal
      Its also whats left unsaid that makes the story more complicated, and that includes the road not taken or the signposts of a personal history being erased in the blink of an eye.
      I have a good friend by the name of Bob and long ago he tried to convince me to take the road down to the tip of South America. I didn't go. He ended up trapped inside a run down hotel in the midst of a revolution deep into the jungle with some real characters....He came back to visit me a couple of decades later and he passed through our old hometown and immediately became lost in the sprawl. The photo at the top of the post is now completely obliterated..lost..replaced by some box like apartments..We went to the local history museum in search of some old records or photographs of what was and what could be called short term change was undocumented, except in our shared memories.
      Hemingway was spot on," man's mistress is nostalgia"..that inverse search for simplicity in an ever increasing complexity of forces...

  4. Many many years ago during an argument with my father about a subject long forgotten, I exclaimed in the heat of battle, you just don’t want things to change! My father paused and then with his voice lowered very calmly and quietly said, your right I liked things just the way they were.

  5. I really liked this post, Bruce. At the end, I almost felt like there should be a part II, and continuation of the story. Maybe, maybe not. It's your story, not mine, to tell

    The jump between the dreaming boy (you) at the train station, and the part involving Arkansas seemed a bit abrupt, but I got it. Yet, I'd like to read more about the interim period between the two. if I had my druthers.

    As well, when you note "My satchel was in hand," I thought, even though you described the emotions and thoughts of your decision to resign, and it's untold and unknown consequences at the end, that I wanted to know more about what happened next, and what you did with satchel in hand to move forward (or sideways/back), as it seemed like a story without a middle in a way, or more importantly, the next chapter.

    Just a personal reaction. I thought this piece had a certain beauty and nostalgic clarity to it that struck me deeply.

    I sometimes try to remember (or re-imagine) what it was like, as a boy myself, certain summer days in Cape Cod, clamming along the shore with my friend Buzzy Crabtree, where we would sit at sunset around a fire we had made on the inlet beach and roast quohogs and clams on skewers.

    All I can get is a series of still pictures. Nostalgia indeed.

    It is hard to recapture one's youth, joy, and the delight in simply being alive without, at the time, being either clearly aware of it, like some outside observer, recording, or realizing that that kind of experience is also yet another transit of contingencies... nice job, Bruce. I want more.

  6. Steve

    The unalterable decision to resign as a matter of principle harnessed to a sense of justice left me hanging in mid air. The issue there is making a stand such as that is there is a price attached and once making a line in the sand that you will not cross over, there is no way to envision what will happen next. Oddly in the background, there is the matter of another line in the sand I had crossed just prior to this which remains mysteriously indelible while transient, hidden only to reappear when called for. All of this was due to a Islamic cleric’s writings entitled The Seven Goblets written while imprisoned by Russian forces in Afghanistan. He would later be murdered by those same forces for refusing to cease calling the faithful to prayer. Essentially, whether one puts this in a religious context or not, these books got across the idea in a very deep sense that life is a gift and the heart is like a mirror that requires polishing...and this sort of blends in with a choice, either abide by allowing suffering of others to enhance my reputation or pulverise it as it was an expression of doing the will of others as a automaton. On that day, I grew up to some extent as there are prices to be paid in either choice I made. I realised this as I was living as if life were a game and it’s not a game and one’s conscience has nothing to do with winning or losing. To me, it’s pushing back against a stream while having in mind it’s best not to think one is a driver. Is this the rebellion of The Tao? When to do nothing versus doing something seems to be an exercise we are folded into. Theres no resignation from this and no return to innocence, except by reclaiming it by my accepting I know very little and what I do know is transient and contingent. Who throws the ball? Run for it, hit it with a stick, duck to avoid it..there is sort of this relentless push of life to transform itself with deconstructing it’s own foundations and we along with it.