A Dark Cloud Over Pittsburgh
By Alex Cassun
Footsteps echo loudly as a woman in a smart blue coat hurries across the lobby to the floor-to-ceiling, glass-and-brass doors that exit toward the platform. Her shoes are too nice for this city. The doors make a swooshing noise as they anticipate her approach. The janitor – his name escapes me – goes about his chores. The drone of his vacuum drowns out a reporter in a parka on a dozen flat screen televisions mounted on the wall opposite me. The wall looks years beyond modern. Closed Caption explains how a cleanup crew works on a train that slipped it’s track somewhere in the Rockies, and the woman in blue is left to pace anxiously in a station on the other side of the country. That’s how things work these days.
Whiteport, Pennsylvania used to be a nowhere town. Before the construction, this station was a simple two-railer where locals could pop in for a beer and conversation and watch the trains and the people pass by. Travelers stayed only long enough to take a leak and grab a coffee, never longer. It was dim and it was quiet. Now everything is amplified. Every footstep a marching army. The reporter on the other side of the country has to yell over the payphone ringing endlessly down the hall. Crowds gather and talk loudly into cell phones, but never to each other. They pull candy from vending machines and wrappers crunch, lips smack. Even without anyone talking this room is so loud.
They ripped the cafe out to build an “electronics boutique”. Last week they tore down the arcade to make space for a Starbucks – a Starbuck in a train station! I guess one problem with old age is you just don’t get it anymore.
“Hey Pitt.” It’s the janitor. Usually he doesn’t sneak up on me, but he caught me with my mind wandering. His name badge hidden beneath a stained rag slung over his shoulder, he slides two bucks – two bucks! – into the pop machine. No change given. A can thunks in the retriever, heavy like the bricks that used to make up these walls. Bricks made from local soil by men like my father. He pops the top. Fizz hisses. “Not a good night for train gazing, huh.” He wipes his mouth with the towel and I see his badge says “Tim”. Why can’t I remember that? My son’s name was Tim.
“Lost one over near Steamboat Springs.”
“Six dead so far.” He sips and watches TV. “That sucks.” Tim’s can rattles as he tosses it into the trash next to a new recycling bin. “Guess that happens, huh.” He drags his mop and bucket as he leaves.
My name’s been Pittsburgh since I was a kid, the only thing I took from the orphanage I stayed in after my dad was shot down over Korea. My mother couldn’t cope. My baby sister was taken in by one of my dad’s sisters but they couldn’t afford us both, not with little ones of their own. At six, they figured I’d get along. I haven’t seen my sister since. I’ve never met my cousins. The other orphaned kids called me Pittsburgh on account that’s where I was from. Been all over the place since then, though – Allentown, Eerie, Uniontown. I’ve never been back to Pittsburgh but the name stuck.
A woman sneezes. A child complains of the cold. Someone talks aggressively to a cell phone. This is followed by a long stretch of silence, or as close to it as this place knows anymore, anyway. There’s an ebb and flow here, a drifting in and out of stillness. A throat clears, setting it off again. They’re restless. Fingers tap. They pluck random pages of yesterday’s paper from vacant seats to read. A man looks at his watch. The man next to him looks at his watch. It moves on down the line like the wave at Three Rivers. Or whatever it’s called these days. I could make up stories about them if I didn’t know so much already. They’ve passed through here hundreds of times in some form or another. The same faces only slightly varied. Students, soldiers, tourists. Mourners, revelers, travelers. Amish, Buddhist, Christian. All walks of life. Due to the weather vagrants aren’t kicked out unless they cause a ruckus. The rest, they’ve got places they’d rather be.
A parade of quarters clunk into the pop machine. A pimply kid in Army fatigues shoots me a look I don’t understand. He probably thinks we can trade war stories.
“That place any good?” He points at a glossy ad for a chain Chinese restaurant they built onto the other end of the station. I shrug as he drops his duffle bag to the tile. Ignoring the row of empty chairs he plops down next to me and slurps an energy drink as he eyes the room like a combat zone. He can’t be twenty yet. “You like trains?”
My earliest memory was of my dad deploying from this station. Like today it was cold, with clouds so thick I thought I could reach up and grab a handful if he’d held me up high enough. As a teen I’d skip school and dinners to come and sit in a corner that no longer exists and watch people who were only here as a respite between where they’re came from and where they’re going. That was back when this place was cozy. Before Starbucks and two dollar pops. I didn’t say that to this kid. Instead I grunted, “Yep.”
“Well I can’t stand them.” He waves off my imaginary retort and eyes the crowd. The tired homeless. The single mothers. Tim buffing the hallways. The smell burns my nose, the sound so loud the boy-soldier has to shout from a foot away. “I was supposed to be on a plane to Newark. Deploying to Iraq in a couple days. Marines.” He pauses from carving into the armrest with a knife just long enough to hold the blade up for me to see. “They wouldn’t let me board with this. They call this a weapon. I said to the asshole, every tool is a weapon. They teach you that in the Marines.” The knife disappears. “Anyway, they got the message but I’d had enough of their disrespect so fuck them, right? I’m taking a train.” He shrugs. “And look. Now here I am, Buttfuck nowhere. Late, cold as shit, and I hate trains. Anyway.” He grabs his duffle bag and darts off as Rick, the night guard, gravitates to the vending machine. The kid probably wasn’t really in the Marines. He’d carved ‘CORE’ into the arm rest.
Rick taps my shoulder and points. “Don’t look now but Shakes is back.” I look. An old man in a porkpie hat shuffles across the lobby. Rick chuckles as he walks away. Shakes the Clown – I’ve never known his real name – is a regular. They call him that on account of his Parkinson’s. He comes sometimes after midnight to do a Vaudeville act for people who don’t care. Tonight he zeroes in on a young lady with an old cat in a small carrier. I know Shakes’ routine so I stand to leave and my knees pop in revolt. I glance at the huge digital clock on the wall, surprised at how quickly it’s gotten so late. People stare at laptops, cell phones, watches, the floor. With nothing better to do, some watch Shakes do his thing. Freshly buffed, the stench of the room is strong and bitter and fogs my head so I head for the doors. They shoosh, and I’m bitten by a chill. Pulling my windbreaker close, I stand in a corner to keep away from the bursts of snow and wind.
The woman in the blue coat sits with her luggage and stares at the tracks. The desperation in her face could break your heart. Above us a Plexiglas awning pitter-patters with sleet. This is all that remains from the old station though it’s scheduled to go when the snow does. Everything else is remodeled, upgraded, modernized. All the homespun Pennsylvania steel is gone. The northeastern brick and mortar is gone. Everything now is imported, smooth and flawless, with no history or personality. Mirrors everywhere, leaving nothing unseen. Fluorescent lights so bright and spaced just perfectly enough that nothing casts a shadow. Hell, even the air we breath is sterilized and bland. This place used to have personality. It used to be somewhere you could enjoy sitting alone in a corner and burn away the hours, unseen and content. But now there are no corners and time has a slow lumbering gait. It didn’t used to be like this.
I run my fingers over a brick with the letters “T.F.B. 4/12/47″ carved into them. The initials are my dad’s, and I passed them onto my son. The numbers are when this wall was built. Sometimes I think of coming here with a chisel and a hammer before the renovation begins, but it’s a silly idea.
An Amish kid steps out the doors. He’s underdressed but doesn’t seem bothered. If not for the beard, I’d’ve guess he was about15. He heads my way before noticing me. He pulls a joint from a pocket, lights it with a match and smokes a bit, then offers it. We say nothing as it passes between us.
“What are you guys doing?” It’s Rick, the security guard. “It’s too cold to be doing that shit outside.”
“Some crazy lady at the ticket counter keeps trying to sell God to me.” The kid offers Rick the last bit of the joint.
Rick waves him off and pulls a pack of Camels from his pocket and pounds it in his palm. “Sorry, I already warned her.” He takes a long, grateful pull. “Someone jammed a bloody tampon up the toilet paper dispenser. Tim’s in there disinfecting the entire room.”
The Amish boy laughs and flicks the ass-end of his joint across six brand new lanes of track. It used to be simple: one decision leads you to Pittsburgh, the other to Philadelphia. There’s no need for six lanes in Whiteport. Starbucks will be our biggest landmark.
As Rick and the Amish kid chat about Steamboat Springs, I sneak inside. Shakes is gone. The crowd has thinned. A man sleeps beneath the televisions. I’m tempted to wave my hand in front of his face – how can he sleep with this racket? And I wonder how would that be, to die waiting for a train. It’s quieter now but as soon as I settle in to my seat, the noise peaks again. A monotone announcement. A screaming child. A commercial for an energy drink screaming for attention. The mother drags her wailing son from the room and with that, silence, if only for a minute.
I used to bring my boy here. He loved the trains and the arcade before it was a coffee shop. He’d race along the platform as trains arrived and departed, arms out wide like he was about to lift off.
“Say Dottie! When I was on my way over here, I met a fella who said he hadn’t had a bite in weeks—” Shakes is back and he’s recruited the girl as an accomplice.
“Did you bite him?” She cuts in on cue. A few obligatory smiles.
I look at the televisions and stare until my retinas burn, until my eyes dry from strain and the chill in the recycled air. The noise drowns out. This unnatural light dims. Everything everywhere settles into a murmur in the basement of my skull. I sit for a lifetime until the room rattles. It’s so minor a change that most no one would notice it, but it’s enough to break my trance. My body aches as I head for the door. A fog spreads over the concrete platform as the rattle swells. There’s a soft snowfall. The woman in blue has been crying, but she’s not crying now. A few regulars join us with tickets and luggage as the rumbling becomes a quake. The platform fills with eager passengers stuck so long indoors. The rails flicker with electric noise. Crisp air wraps us, swirling; a harbinger of escape.
“Finally,” a business man says with one more deliberate look at his watch.
The platform convulses and I close my eyes. My lungs shrivel as my breath is stolen by the cold and the train squeals violently to a stop. The push of air rocks me backwards. The child rushes by, no longer crying but giggling wildly. The train doors open. The incoming crowd and the outgoing crowd merge around me. The doors close, the train lurches, screeching on the icy tracks, and then all is silent and I’m allowed to catch my breath. My face is flush and when I open my eyes the newborn sunlight is blinding as it tears a hole in the heavy cloud cover. My eyes water, sensitive and unprepared. The air freezes the moisture as it streams my cheeks. Alone now, I turn toward the doors and notice the dead man is gone.