Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What I did on my summer vacation

The children crowded around each other outside the train station, where the dull concrete platform met the green grass. They had no interest in the shining steel rails, the pylon pillars or any of the other man-made wonders to be seen. They were enthralled by the antics of a sparrow.

“He’s found himself a cozy place to sit,” said a boy, pointing to a wrought-iron loop in which the bird had taken a moment’s rest.

“Birdies don’t sit,” said another child with the sort of grave authority that only a child can muster. “They always have to stand up.”

I wandered around the platform wistfully contemplating the days when a sparrow’s antics might have been the only thing on my mind, too. Ahead of me stretched a few precious days of vacation with my brother and his wife in Rhode Island, a break in the busy life of an average American guy. But first I had to negotiate this train ride.

Eventually the steel sarcophagus of the Amtrak squealed into the station and I boarded. For the next 11 hours I would need to keep awake, through the night into the morning. To indulge in slumber might mean waking up in Canada instead of Rhode Island. Nothing against Canada but nobody knows me there.

“I wonder,” mused a friend of mine when I wrote about that, “if at some point you’d be thrown off a train if you stayed on beyond where you were supposed to go.”

I knew where I was, about as far as Ashland, a quaint Virginia town that humbly describes itself as the center of the universe. On up through D.C. I was still in territory I’ve trodden, or rather driven, before. Then as the night wore on, we chugged through Maryland and Delaware and into N.Y.

About 2 a.m. I woke from the sleep that I had fought in vain, as a station sign slid past me in the gloom. I made out a “P” and it spelled panic. Had to be Providence. I grabbed my stuff and rushed to the door of the train.
That angel who watches over fools such as I, held me back and bade me call out to the people on the platform:
“Are we in Providence? Providence, Rhode Island?”

Their sullen glares and/or bored expressions of absolute disinterest in my existence should have been clues enough. Being a persistent fool, though, I called out again and finally some guy on the platform overcome his natural inclination to ignore me, grumbling:

“Penn Station, New York.”
I might have taken some comfort in knowing I would not be spending my vacation amongst such sullen souls. For the moment I was simply grateful I hadn’t leaped off the train there and complicated my trip to a huge degree.
I returned to my row, where the pretty young thing who had sweetly requested permission to sit there some time before, had in my absence slid over to the window seat and made herself comfortable under her blanket.
The night passed. New York City flashed by, some famous bridge glittering in the gloom, maybe the Brooklyn, who knows.

Drowsy again, I opened my eyes to see signs for Connecticut and again panicked. Isn’t that state somewhere up near the border? There was no one to ask, all else were sleeping comfortably and no porter was to be seen. I fired up my laptop Internet and quickly googled a U.S. map. Appears I need to take a remedial class in U.S. geography. Connecticut borders New York these days and hasn’t shifted north of Rhode Island yet.

Day had dawned and I beheld the incredible beauty of said state. She is all greenery and lakes and little white houses. At least along the Amtrak line.

Circa 7 a.m. Saturday, the train pulled into Providence and spit me out. Joseph and Nicole arrived soon after. We stopped in at a Dunkin Donuts, which I would learn is Nicole’s favorite place in the universe. However, this one failed to offer the Vanilla Crème flavor she likes, which I might note is not a wise omission in regards to an Italian girl. She, however, restrained her righteous wrath and settled for a lesser pastry.

The happy couple dwells for the moment at 23 Division Street, Newport, R.I. Easiest for me to describe that beautiful town as the best of what I remember from Europe. Narrow streets winding past fascinating little shops, more folks out walking than driving, church bells ringing the hours and people casually living amidst an incredible excess of history. Here stands the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue in the U.S. – more on that later – and a block away, the first free Black church in the country. The oldest tavern in the country also is open for business not too far away, and at the edge of town, the mansions of America’s formerly most rich and famous, dripping with enough Gilded Age glitter to send a socialist into a foaming, terminal spasm.

Saturday night, N and J took me down to a place called Benjamin’s Raw Bar. In truth, they do cook some of the offerings there. For the very first time in my pathetic life, I beheld on a plate before me the tasty carapace of a whole lobster, mine to enjoy. Eating a lobster requires patience, dexterity, the use of a nutcracker and a willingness to endure injury to your questing fingers from various sharp and spiny portions of the unlucky boiled beast.

“Lobsters have no natural life span,” my other brother, Daniel, tartly told me later. “The only way they typically die is for someone like you to eat them.”

Well, after this vacation, there won’t be much danger of my committing much more crustacean-cide. It’s rather beyond my food budget but this one was a treat from N and J and I think the world population of lobsters will recover from my singular depredation.

We darted home in the pouring rain, taking shelter in doorways. Hard to believe that a place could be so cool and rainy on the very lip of July. Knowing that Richmond was steaming just slightly less than the pot in which my dinner perished, I hardly saw fit to complain.

Sunday morning off we rolled northbound to take in some major history. You can’t go much further back, outside a Native American setting or Virginia’s own Jamestown, than Cape Cod, first footstep of the Pilgrims’ stern impassioned stress.

As we neared our destination, I pondered on the peculiarity of the human condition – no matter where you go in the world, no matter how important the spot, somebody wakes up near there every day and goes about their ordinary business. Not ten miles from the immortal rock, we passed through subdivisions and strip malls and even stopped to buy lemonade from some kids at a garage sale.

Plymouth Rock is no Gibraltar. It, or at least what remains of it today, is maybe the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, maybe a little smaller. In truth, in the grand American tradition, bits and pieces have long been spirited away. A distinctive crack down the middle bears witness to a Revolutionary War-era moment of patriotic excess, when some locals decided to haul it off the beach up a hill. They managed only to split it in two and carry off the top portion. Years later, somebody put the pieces back together at the original location. I know not what sort of adhesive one uses to glue a boulder back together but it seems to be working.

I took a moment to stand upon the sand and stare out to sea. Whilst I have lived in Virginia long enough to know Jamestown came FIRST, and the Pilgrims only beached their boat on blustery Cape Cod because they had run out of beer, still, Plymouth is part of the American story, a major part. I scooped up a pinch of sand and a sprig of purple beach pea flower and then we departed, after the requisite picture taking.

To be continued

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