Getting myself out the door
In February of 2003, I boarded a train in Lawrence, Kansas that was headed for New York City. I’d never taken a train before, but flying was out of the question. That would’ve been way too difficult. Grocery shopping, staying sober until noon, watching TV, leaving the house—all had become impossible for me. Fear of bank repossession was the only thing getting me on that train. It was, I suppose, an act of survival. I was a toy representative and, if I wanted to keep the house I was spending so much time not leaving, I would need to attend Toy Fair. I also had a job interview. It was too overwhelming to think too far ahead.
The train was scheduled to leave Lawrence around 5:30 a.m. It was to arrive in New York City around noon the following day. My job interview had been scheduled for 8 p.m. It was a dinner thing, which would allow me time to check into my hotel and freshen up before heading to the designated restaurant where I was to meet the woman who might save my house. I really didn’t think I was cutting it close. I even thought I’d be able to get in a nap before meeting up with her. A very optimistic thought, given that I’d been unable to sleep more than a couple of hours per night since my partner Sue’s death five months prior. Actually, optimism might be overstating my mindset. I’d fallen into a horrific depression, characterized by full body and mind paralysis. It was as if, on a daily basis, I was bitten by a venomous snake.
It was amazing how quickly my life had started rolling downhill. Lying down, arms outstretched in the middle of my living room floor, sitting up only long enough to take another swig of bourbon had put a major crimp in my income. I really didn’t care. I just didn’t want to lose my house. I’d “fallen asleep” outside a couple of times and it had made my old dog nervous. Both times, I’d woken up with Buddy standing over me. He was too old for that kind of thing.
It was the fear of losing my house that got me out the door and to the train station, a 1950s building with no personnel. Essentially, it’s a giant brick umbrella. I gave myself an extra half hour in case the train was early. If you’re laughing right now, it’s likely because you know that Amtrak creates schedules in much the same way a blind man plays darts. Their estimated times of arrival are like campaign promises—they sound great, but they aren’t ever going to happen. The train pulled into Lawrence around 8 a.m., two and a half hours after the scheduled departure time. This was a portent of things to come.
Truthfully, a late train wasn’t my main problem. My main problem was that I was crazy. I hadn’t read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking yet, so I didn’t have confirmation of that fact. But, deep down, I knew it was true. Watching my partner die unexpectedly had derailed me. Since her death, I’d avoided any situation that didn’t afford a clear and immediate exit. Therefore, I could go to the grocery store and meander down the aisles picking out food choices, but I couldn’t manage to stand in line to pay. The moment someone got in line behind me, I would pretend I’d forgotten something, excuse myself and start the arduous task of returning all the products in my cart to their proper place on the shelf. I was a reverse shopper. I was an unpaid shelf stocker. Sensing that this behaviour was not falling within the normal range, I’d tried shopping at several different grocery stores. This was the same plan I used to purchase alcohol. I’d been going to 10 different liquor stores so that no one could possibly come to the conclusion that I might have a drinking problem. I didn’t want to establish a noticeable pattern. I did, however, want to drink. Eating was optional.
The train was preferable to the airplane because, as everyone knows, there’s no way off a plane once it’s in the air. I’d seen enough old movies to know that all trains come equipped with a cord that, when pulled, brings the train to an immediate stop. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it this time, but I felt better knowing it was an option.
I had a couple of books, some music and my laptop to amuse me during the overnight trip. I took my seat and immediately felt like no one wanted to sit with me. I didn’t want anyone to sit with me, but I also didn’t want people to avoid sitting with me. I reasoned that people were passing the open seat beside me because I’m fat. They didn’t want to sit next to a giant, fat woman. Also, I was crying. But I figured it was the fat thing.
Actually, I couldn’t seem to quit crying. It was chronic, like hayfever. I wasn’t sobbing or anything. There was just a constant dripping from my eyes and my nose. I had become a pathological crier. Also, I never had any tissues. For someone with PCD (pathological crying disorder), this was a major oversight. I sniffed constantly, trying to resolve the problem. I knew that was annoying, so I tried to sniff quietly. The effect was similar to listening to a cat barf. Then, I would search everywhere for something to help the situation. The result was blowing my nose on napkins, newspapers and magazine pages.
Also, I carried a pint of bourbon everywhere I went. A friend had told me that it isn’t physically possible to feel anxiety while you’re drinking. Eureka! I overlooked the part where she’d ended up being escorted out of work to a waiting car that took her to rehab. A solution is a solution, even if it creates more problems than it solves. Look at gas-powered engines and how long it took for that to become a major deal.
We were several hours late getting into Chicago, but I was still able to make my connection. Chicago to New York was a far more crowded train and empty seats were minimal. I took a seat at the end of a car, near the door. People tend to avoid these seats in the winter because they’re very drafty, they’re far away from the restrooms, and people are always stepping out for a cigarette nearby. I reasoned I’d be left pretty much alone and I was impervious to discomfort. That’s one of the perks of insanity. You can suffer through a lot of things that would ordinarily be problematic, like frostbite, without great difficulty.
An intimidating seatmate
But, as stated, the train was filling up and eventually I had a seatmate. He was a linebacker-sized black man with a look that said, “Leave me the hell alone!” I was happy to oblige. In front of me, another giant, glowering black man sat down. I wasn’t really afraid of anything anymore, except spiders, airplanes, lines at the grocery store, conversations, people telling me I was going to be OK and the thought of going through a day unmedicated—large, sullen men took a backseat to my nervous breakdown.
The only thing that bothered me was that the presence of others made me aware of the fact that I was crying. I felt, on a social level, I should try to stop or hide my tears. Since the first wasn’t possible, the second option was my only choice. I stared out the window, trying to pretend I was sighing instead of crying… I’m not sure why I thought loud sighing was preferable to crying. As usual, I didn’t have any tissues, which meant I would have to crawl over one giant man and find my way to the restroom.
I stood up and made my way to the aisle. My seatmate said, “Don’t leave your bag. This is a train and stuff gets stolen!” The man in the seat in front of us offered, “Yeah, don’t leave anything you want to see again.” I can’t say for sure why this caused me to completely fall to pieces, but it did. And I don’t cry pretty. My face squishes up and turns red and my nose runs like a faucet. I managed an “I’m sorry,” grabbed my bag, and hurried to the closest restroom.
I was certain that I’d freaked the men out and didn’t want to have to go back and face them, so I stayed in the bathroom until people started knocking. While in there, I remembered why I was on the train to begin with. I tried to recreate the train car in my head, searching for the miracle cord that could stop the entire train and let me off. I couldn’t find it using my mind’s eye, so I sheepishly left the bathroom and began scouring the train for the life-saving cord. I don’t think I would have pulled it, but I sure wanted to know that there was some way out of this trip if I just couldn’t stand it for another minute.
It’s weird to think that anyone can stop a train, but it’s possible. There’s an emergency box at the back of almost every car. You have to break the glass and pull the cord really hard, but it works. My problem was that breaking the glass would call attention to me. I didn’t want that. I decided that if things got really bad, I could hurl myself off the train. If I died, oh well, but I’d probably live. I was drinking quite a bit, which tends to make a person relaxed. I would no doubt survive, since that would prolong my misery.
I got back to my seat and the giant black men were deep in conversation. They stopped talking as I approached. My seatmate said, “Little sister, we’ve been talking and you seem very sad. It’s a long trip. Do you want to talk?”
The other man knelt on his seat, hugging the headrest and regarding me with compassionate interest. I could tell you how nice it was for them to care about a perfect stranger, suddenly looking like angels to me instead of imposing men. I could tell you that as the night turned to day, they made me laugh, gave me advice, and covered me with their coats when the train broke down and the heater turned off. I could tell you about their own struggles that they carried lightly and with grace. I could tell you that for the first time in five months, I felt connected, and it was to two strangers I might never have met except for these circumstances.
I was so grateful for their size because I felt I was handing over a weight so great that it required giants to hold it, if only for the short time I could bear to put it down. I could tell you that angels are sent to us all the time. They look just like ordinary people, except they always tell us not to be afraid. Just their presence alone seems to buoy us at exactly the moment we think we’re swamped.
The “crazy” track suit
Instead, I’m going to tell you what I was wearing. I looked crazy. Crazy like someone on the street, babbling to themselves and yelling at cars. I’d decided to wear a track suit on the train. It was an outfit I seldom wore, even in the privacy of my own home. It was just too butt-ugly. But it was “comfortable.” It was the colour of dried mouse droppings with black, incompletely sewn stripes down the sides of the pant legs and jacket arms. The incomplete sewing had resulted in the stripes becoming skinny banners that caught the breeze and actually made sound. The suit was made of a very heavy, poly-cotton blended fleece that absorbed water like a shammy. It also smelled bad, almost immediately, in the best of circumstances. These were not those.
Because of frequent trips to the bathroom and an aisle that had become flooded by tracked-in snow, my pants were wet to the knee and incredibly weighty. They also smelled like public restroom floor and cigarette butts. I had to keep pulling them up because the weight at the bottom threatened to “pants” me every time I moved or stood. When the heat went off in the train during the night, my pant legs actually froze and stiffened. My face was blotchy from crying and my nose would not stop running. And still, these two men took me under their wings and made sure I arrived safely in New York—safely, but nowhere near on time. Thanks to snow over the tracks near Albany and a fire at Penn Station, the train arrived a little after my job interview had been scheduled.
A heroic walk
I’d called my appointment several times to let her know my progress. I’d let her know when the train would be arriving at Penn Station. This was 2003, and the Twin Towers were very fresh in everyone’s minds. Penn Station had been the scene of an electrical fire earlier in the day, and a fire in an area where large numbers of people congregate had to be investigated. Thankfully, the fire wasn’t related to terrorism, but the trains had been held up for hours. The huge number of people requiring taxis after trains were finally allowed back into Penn Station had caused a shortage that would take hours to work through. In other words, getting a taxi outside of Penn Station wasn’t going to happen.
I called my interviewer again to suggest that we put off our appointment to the following day. She was adamant that we try to meet that night and suggested that I walk to her hotel. I was wearing the aforementioned track suit which, after I’d stood outside of Penn Station in ankle-deep slush, had grown another two feet (about 60 cm) in length. I was going to be the first fatality due to urban drowning. Also, I hadn’t really slept in 48 hours and the idea of dragging my wheeled suitcase, garment bag and briefcase through Manhattan wasn’t doing anything to lift my mood.
I used the same fear of losing my house that drove me onto the train to spur me to walk the kilometre or so to the hotel where she was staying. It was really cold. It had been snowing in New York and the accumulating precipitation had immediately turned into filthy slush. The snow continued to fall, melting almost immediately and soaking my already drenched track suit and my unwashed hair. I was wearing canvas shoes because I had not intended to take a walking tour of New York City. The interviewer asked me how she would recognize me and I replied, “I’ll be the one who looks like I shouldn’t be in the lobby of your hotel.” She laughed a little and I assured her I wasn’t kidding.
I slung my briefcase and garment bag over opposing shoulders, grabbed my wheeled suitcase and began walking to the hotel. The shoulder straps on the two bags I was carrying constantly fell off my shoulders, ending up in the crook of each of my arms. When either the garment bag or briefcase felt too heavy, or I got tired of repositioning it, I’d load it onto the wheeled bag and give my shoulder a break. When the wheels of the bag became caked with snow and slush, I’d drape the other bag over my shoulder, pound the snow off the wheels and continue my trek.
Unfortunately, I have no sense of direction. Fifteen minutes into my death march, I asked someone where the hotel was. They explained that I’d walked in the exact wrong direction. I didn’t cry. For the first time since I’d left Lawrence, I wasn’t either on the verge of tears or actually crying. Sorrow and grief had taken a backseat to survival. I did not want to die on the streets of New York City in a mouse-turd-coloured track suit. Nope! That’s not how I wanted it to end.
I called my contact again to explain that I’d walked in the wrong direction and would be delayed because of it, but that I was certainly on my way. Just after hanging up, I stepped off of a curb that had been completely obfuscated by the slush and sunk up to my knee, plunging my rolling suitcase into the filthy ice. As I examined it, the zipper suddenly burst open and the entire contents, including clothes, toiletries, and even tampons, tumbled out into the filthy water. A quick look at the bag revealed that it wouldn’t be fixable. The zipper had broken. I jammed the sodden contents back into the now-useless bag and shoved it under my arm. It leaked New York City crap water down the side of my jacket and onto my already soaked pants. I hung the garment bag around my neck and kept my briefcase over the other shoulder. I still did not cry. It was now me against the city and I’d faced greater foes than this throughout the past five months.
I was angry now. Angry and clown-like. My pants were now three feet (almost a metre) longer than my legs. I stopped and rolled them up, but they wouldn’t stay that way, so I tripped over them countless times on my way to the hotel. At one point, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window. A fat, exhausted middle-aged woman glared back at me. A fat, middle-aged woman whose underwear were showing. White cotton waisties. But I was not crying. I looked insane with my hair plastered to the side of my face, with bags hanging off of me like a fat, angry Sherpa and a tracksuit so filthy that I should’ve hung one of those air fresheners you see in cars around my neck. But I was going to that job interview. I didn’t care about the results; I just didn’t want to die in front of all these people looking and smelling as badly as I did. I soldiered on and arrived at the hotel a mere two hours later than our appointed time.
The interview commences
I was met by a well-dressed woman who’d recently had her hair and makeup done. She asked me if I would like to freshen up before dinner, offering me the use of her bathroom. It occurred to me to say, “Naw, I’m fine!” and then laugh hysterically. Instead, I went up to her room, excused myself and slipped into the tiniest bathroom I’d ever seen outside of an airplane. The clothes in my rolling bag were completely soaked with New York sludge water—that meant that I’d have to go with whatever I’d packed in my garment bag. I also couldn’t use my toothbrush, so I took some toothpaste and smeared it on my teeth with my finger.
All of my underwear, including the ones I was wearing, were wet either from falling into the street or being worn under my wick of a tracksuit. I put on a pair of short pajama bottoms I’d thrown in my garment bag just in case. They bunched up immediately when I put my slacks on, giving the impression that I was one of those active gals who won’t be stopped by incontinence. I checked the mirror and saw dark circles that would have confused a raccoon staring back at me. Fortunately, the enormous bags under my eyes partially covered them. I noticed some makeup on the back of the toilet and dabbed some under my eyes. Somehow, unfortunately, this made them look worse, kind of like I was highlighting them. I was starting to get claustrophobic, so I called my “look” good enough.
I knew that any possibility of getting this job had been lost when the interviewer had first seen me and then smelled me in the lobby. You know you’re in a weird place if you hope your prospective employer was more appalled by the cigarette butt caught in your pant stripe than by the overwhelming smell of bourbon coming out of your pores. I doubted that she’d been able to smell the booze over the scent of train pee and garbage water, though. You have to look on the bright side in these situations.
I stepped out of the bathroom and she asked me if I’d mind walking to the restaurant. Mind?! Why would I mind? I’d just walked for over an hour in a snowstorm, after getting no sleep for two days and drinking pretty much nonstop. I heard myself say, “No, sounds great!” This proved something to me that I’d always believed: I am an idiot.
We walked the several kilometres to the restaurant and I ordered a drink. I ordered a Manhattan. I didn’t really want a Manhattan. I wanted a water glass full of bourbon, neat. I gestured to the waiter to make my drink a double, as I wasn’t sure what hand gesture you could use for a quadruple. Truthfully, I don’t remember the interview. The restaurant was loud and we kept shouting “What?” at each other. I ordered another Manhattan using the same hand signal as before—there’s more than one way to get a quadruple if you’re motivated enough! Finally, the dinner was over and we walked back to her hotel. She offered to let me sleep over if I didn’t want to try to get to my own hotel. I would rather have relived the last 12 hours than do that, so I declined. I wrapped a cord around my broken suitcase, hung my two bags from my shoulders and thanked her for her time. I assumed it would be the last time I saw her.
Last ferry of the night
I went down to the street and the doorman offered to try to get me a taxi. He asked where I was going. I told him I had a hotel room across the East River in New Jersey. He told me not to tell any cab driver that I wanted to go to New Jersey. “They aren’t supposed to do this, but they won’t let you in their cab if they think they’ll have to drive way over there. Too much money in Manhattan tonight because of the fire,” he explained. He said, “You’re in luck, though. The hotel where you’re staying has a dedicated ferry. Just have the taxi take you to the ferry and it’ll drop you off about 20 feet from the front door of your hotel.”
At last, my luck was turning. I would take the ferry to my hotel and, no matter what, I would sleep. I was going to finally be done with this day in a city I hated but Sue had loved. I hadn’t allowed myself to think about that. The year before, when we’d driven to New York for our very first Toy Fair, she’d been so excited to be there, so in love with the city and the prospects of our new business taking off. Someone had described her as “a kid in a candy store.” At that time, it would’ve been impossible to imagine that I’d have her for only seven more months. It seemed just as impossible to think that she was gone and I was going on without her.
The doorman was able to get me a cab, which took me to the port. I saw a ferry just pulling away as we drove up. I wasn’t worried, though. Ferries came and went. There was always another ferry. Except, as it turned out, that was the last one that went to my hotel. I would have to wait about 45 minutes for a ferry that would let me out at another port at which I’d need to call the hotel and they’d send a bus. The fellow telling me this seemed surprised when I burst into tears. “Oh my gosh,” he said, coming around the counter and putting his arm around my shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Valentine’s Day can be so hard when it doesn’t live up to your expectations.”
“It’s Valentine’s Day?” I sobbed. “Shit!”
Kathy lives in the Midwest (U.S.) with her significant other, their four horses, three dogs and a sweet old cat. In between feeding and vacuuming, she writes.