Working The Train
“Claire, I think it’s about time that you come along with me on a pick up run to the station,” Omi said as he popped his head into the her office.
Claire’s green eyes lifted slowly from the travel magazine that her hand had been absentmindedly flipping through, page by gloriously photographed page, flipping while she sat on this sticky, dirty, yellow vinyl couch just inside the door of her makeshift office. Even through her clothes the stickiness could not be ignored. It was the kind of un-clean-able stickiness that comes from the years of degrading naugahyde. Stickiness that comes from years of people working here before her and having sat here, thumbing through, or maybe even reading, a few of these very same magazines, or maybe they were just passing time, just sitting here on this couch, not quite sure why. They were also probably sweating, just like Claire was while she sat here now, in this unbearable heat, here in this ghastly, hot and humid place.
Omi appeared to be floating there in the doorway, waiting for Claire to cycle through her thoughts and respond. His eyes were laughing just underneath his longish, curling-in-the-intense-humidity, shaggy black hair that formed a halo around his head. It was only his head that was poking through the portal as he barely leaned into the room from the hallway. Unclear as to why Omi often made these random pick up trips to the local train station, or even what it was that he picked up, Claire thought for a moment. Omi always left the office empty handed and retuned empty handed, but for whatever reason, it appeared to be a part of his job.
What was his job, anyway? Claire had never seen him do anything else.
Omi gave up and decided to just continue on with his direction to her. “I’ll be leaving in a few minutes. I just have to go get something out of my room and I’ll be right back so wait for me here …”, his voice trailed off as his floating head left the room, and echoed softly as he walked down the completely empty office hallway.
Come to think of it, What am I doing here? … This thought often entertained her when Claire found herself sitting here on this crappy yellow naugahyde couch. Sometimes it felt as if her presence just appeared here, out of nowhere, or that she was just hanging out on a layover while waiting to go somewhere else. Jobs are like that sometimes, sometimes people just need to be placeholders, holding space.
This office, this whole building, was so tired, so dingy. It had obviously seen better days and it was obviously not Claire’s aritstic hand that had a say in creating this decor. It did not seem to be a priority as to how the space looked and felt, to anyone. But it bothered Claire. It jangled her edges. The aspects of creating this space were just out of her control, outside of her grasp of things – outside of her job description. So why am I obsessing over it? It’s out of my control. Her sitting there and critiquing it wasn’t making it any better, but really, Claire sort of no longer felt the desire to change it. It had become just an observation, a way to describe her environment. The room was what it was – a dingy office in a seemingly abandoned, seemingly ancient, multi-story office building that sat down a back alley of Asiatown. While there were probably many other words Claire could use to describe this place, dingy was the most descriptive and most polite word that came to mind. The once bright and new, but now old and dirty, yellow paint covered the walls. A stained and mildly dirty yellow, especially this yellow, was her least favorite color for walls. Yellow is a color that wants to be bright and cheerful, but it begins to age within days of painting it on to something. It’s a high-maintenance color that likes attention … but nevemind, again, it’s not hers to change, so no point in putting any energy into thinking about it.
And, beyond what it looked like, beyond what it felt like, the office was permeated with the aroma of the steaming dim sum and noodles that were wafting up from the back alley noodle joint downstairs.
On the old coffee table in the middle of the room magazines were scattered across the surface. Afar, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic, and a few old issues of Life and Aperature – left there to incite a personal riot of project ideas. Ideas and desires of traveling and remembering, writing and drawing and photographing, some places in these magazines have been seen by Claire, some destinations she has not yet been to.
Claire sighed. Not with boredom. Not with any sort of feeling or emotion. She just sighed. She sat on the couch in a languid sort of stupor made not so much from exhaustion as it was from the humidity. It felt like anemia, when the iron was zapped from the red blood cells. But it wasn’t anemia. Claire’s blood cells were fine.
Claire’s eyes scanned the room and fell onto her desk. Work. Is there something I should be doing? Other than waiting for Omi?
The desk was an old, heavy metal military monstrosity leftover from some campaign made decades ago. Sitting on the desk was, get this, a typewriter. A typewriter! Claire hadn’t seen one of those in years, let alone used one, ever, except on this particular job. Next to the antique typewriter sat a high stack, just a few reams, of clean, white, intimadating paper. The desk was situated so that Claire can sit and type and keep an eye on the door and when she’s incredibly bored, she can move over here to this yellow gold vinyl couch and sit and read travel magazines, imagining that she is elsewhere. The other possibilty is to stare out the window at the back alley urban landscape just beyond the glass and let her daydreams flow through her mind. Through the windows Claire could see the fire escape on the backside of the building across the street. Clotheslines with little rainbow colored clothespins pinned at random spots run from the windows over there to the windows over here, floor by floor. Everyone’s laundry, hanging out for the world to see. From a few of the floors – along with the clotheslines – colorful Tibetan prayer flags tied between the buildings flapped and fluttered in the wind, scattering their prayers through the small and narrow valley that was created between the buildings.
While Claire was noticing these lines, some stretched, some sagging, between the buildings, she also noticed that the light coming through her window seemed as if it was being produced by a strong, unearthly spotlight that might be sitting on the roof next door, rather than the midmorning sun out in the sky.
Strange that I notice that.
Claire sat quietly for a few moments with her eyes closed and allowed the light that was coming in the window wash over her face. It made her feel warm and energized, centered and peaceful. Claire sat there for a while, not paying attention to anything other than the light. Eventually, she put the magazine that fell from her hands and sat limply on her lap, back down onto the coffee table and picked up another. She began flipping through the pages. She waited patiently for Omi to came back to break her flow of observation. Which he did. Finally.
“Come on, let’s go …,” he said, in both a commanding and an asking tone. Grabbing her messenger bag Claire headed out of the door to trail behind him.
Omi was a soft spoken man with a certain kind of tranquility about him. A quietness that was difficult to describe. He often times only spoke when he needed to, but his eyes twinkled with a certain kind of all knowing humor that showed that there is a running dialogue moving along in a constant motion in his head. In some men, quiet can mean a stifled kind of rage, or it could mean a kind of indifference, or a bit of oafishness, but in Omi, his serenity and tranquility, and his obvious awareness, was a sweetly balanced thing.
In spite of this tranquil nature of his personality, he was prone to wearing bright and garish vintage Hawai’ian shirts over baggy khaki cargo shorts and flip flops around the office.
Although, for this trip to the train station, he had changed his clothes specifically for this errand. It was the first time Claire had seen him dressed like this – in solemn gray and black. A sort of uniform. He appeared to have a look almost like a Zen monk, or a monk-like lay person, but it was also different. He wasn’t wearing robes, per se, just a dark grey tunic cinched with a black belt over loose black pants, and a simple, darker, grey over-tunic, one that was open in the front, like a buttonless jacket. His messanger bag was strapped diagonally across his chest and he had pulled what he was able to pull of his thick black hair back into a small ponytail behind his head, tied with a few rounds of black elastic band,while leaving the rest to handsomely and free-formly frame his face.
Claire and Omi walked quietly down the hall, down the antique marble stepped stairwell, and out onto the alley where Omi stopped for a moment, took a deep breath and surveyed what he could see of the sky above them, beyond the clotheslines, beyond the Tibetan prayer flags, beyond the neon sign that said only Noodles with a sort of neon arrow pointing towards the open air counter. The man behind the stove at the noodle joint took a moment from stirring an order of pad-thai noodles to smile and waved a greeting.
Before they went any further, Omi walked over to the Noodle Joint and set his messenger bag on one of the stools in front of the counter. He pulled out a small bundle and said simply, “Please put this on.”
It was a simple grey tunic that, when slipped over her head, and the thin clothes that Claire already had on, fell down to about her knees. Claire did not question as to why she should put this on. Wearing it just seemed appropriate because it also seemed that on this particular morning her day was beginning to be full of ritual and new initiations. Dressing this way was just a part of all that newness. It didn’t seem to matter to Omi that she was wearing flip flops on her feet, only the tunic mattered. Besides, after looking around, Claire noticed that her new costume made her look just like everyone else in this town. Except for her honey blonde hair which was out of place in this place. Claire reached into her own bag, and looked for a rubber band to pull her hair back like Omi’s.
At the end of the alley they walked out onto a street that was crowded with a mass of people, all dressed in the same way as Omi and Claire, all going about their business and shopping in the market stalls that lined the main route through town. The aroma that was drifting through the street smelled like a combination of stir fried noodles and the steam from the dim sum baskets that were sitting over pots of water on various market stoves. Just like the smell in the office, but richer, thicker, more. It made Claire’s stomach grumble a little and she realized that she hadn’t eaten yet today. Later, she thought. People haggled quietly over their purchases of bok-choy and garlic, onions and kale, which they then put into their shopping baskets. There was no shouting here like one might see in the markets in other towns. Not here. While the street seemed full of an endless sea of gray clothing and heads filled with thick black hair, the shops and boutiques that lined the sidewalks were the only riot, of screaming color.
Omi and Claire walked for quite awhile, to the edge of town and then beyond. The train station was just a little further beyond the walls at the edge of the town, down a winding dirt road lined with fields. The closer they came to the walls the air began to clear. It was noticeably nice to be out in nature, and away from that awful yellow couch – to see the green of the fields and the blue of the sky, to hear the birds squawking and singing in their own lovely way. The light seemed to be much more natural here and the landscape was much more calming on the eyes and heart than the yellow walls and the fake dropped ceilings of the office building they worked in.
On the side of the road Claire’s eyes caught a glimpse of something shiny. Perhaps like a crow, Claire turned and walked towards it, bending down to find a broken terra cotta tile that sat among the gravel stones that were lining the road. Stopping for a moment Claire picked it up and thought that it must have fallen off of the back of a cart that was carrying it as it was the only one.
“Omi, why does this clay tile sparkle like this?”
He looked at the broken tile in her hands. “It’s a solar tile. There are photovoltaic crystals mixed into the clay, so that when a house has a roof that is made with them, they can be networked together and wired into the house to create energy for heat or to run electical appliances.”
Claire dropped the small piece of shiny terra cotta tile into her black canvas messenger bag and continued on down the road.
The train station finally came into view. The train itself was a throwback to simpler times – thick steam pumped out of its chimmey, old carriage doors opened in unison. The station itself was an old wooden structure with a steep angled wooden roof, the eaves ending in a carved flame curlicue. The two wooden platforms sat next to the two tracks, one track for each direction. The platforms themselves were becoming quickly crowded with people, shoulder to shoulder. The people were coming and going, from and to the trains that had both just arrived from opposite directions. The people were like ants, moving together in an energetic crowd, flowing either towards a group waiting to get on either train, or they were coming from either train. In any case, both trains were getting ready to depart. The steam that puffed out of each engine and flowed down along the platforms, enveloping everything it touched in a white cloud of surreal fog.
“What are we doing here?”, Claire leaned towards Omi, and while she wanted to whisper, she needed to yell in order for him to hear her.
“We’re here to meet someone.”, Omi replied while he tilted his head towards her, yet continued to look ahead while he did so. “Look out for someone carrying a long stemmed, red carnation. That is their signal. That is who they are supposed to meet.”
A stranger, it seemed.
Claire looked out over the mass of people, all shoulder to shoulder, all with black hair. She supposed that here, finding a red carnation in this crowd of grey and black would be a lot easier than finding one particular face. She also supposed that was the reason for using the flower, but in reality, that was only part of it. Claire began to wonder, Is this what Omi does every day? Is this his job? Omi and Claire separated a little and began to look in different areas of the crowd of people that was moving as one unit towards them.
As Claire had been walking through this sea of people, she had noticed that her dark honey blonde hair and very pale white skin was not a distraction to anyone around her. People either didn’t care that Claire was also a stranger of sorts here or they had other more important things than outlanders to focus on. Or maybe, Claire wasn’t so strange at all, to them.
On another distracted stream of thought, Claire began to notice that walking through a crowd like this in flip flops might mean that they were a poor choice of shoes to wear on this adventure. While her gray tunic fit right in the crowd, her toes were sticking out. Luckily everyone seemed to be wearing shoes made out of cloth, like sneakers. When her toes got in the way it didn’t hurt as much as if they all had been wearing hard shoes with heels.
Distracted in thought yet again by Omi waving his hand high in the air to get her attention, Claire slowly made her way through the crowd and over to him. As they stood there together breaking the flow of people streaming all around them, a man came out of the crowd and walked slowly toward them, a canvas messenger bag hanging on his shoulder. He carried a long stemmed red carnation in his hand.
He looks a little dazed, Claire thought.
Omi seemed to read her mind, leaned over, and said in a low voice so those passing wouldn’t hear him, “He’s made a long and strange journey. He’ll be a confused for a little while. Let’s take him home where he can rest and get oriented.”
Claire wasn’t sure what Omi meant by home when he said they were taking this fellow home with them. She assumed they were taking him along with them back to the office. Yes, her own home was in the same building on another floor, and Claire also knew that Omi had his own there as well. Both of their living spaces were in the same building as their offices? Claire wrinkled her brow – it was as if she had never made this observation before.
They made their way back down the winding dirt road, retracing their footsteps back towards the town, through the wall, then through the city streets. As they passed people along the way, Claire noticed that people nodded their heads slightly when they noticed their new friend. Their new guest did not respond to the passing people in any noticible way, he just took one step after another, with a look of mild confusion, or maybe amnesia would be a better word, on his face. He carried his red carnation and messenger bag and every now and then in the heat, he brushed his hair back from his forehead. Claire assumed the bag carried a change of clothes, but for all she knew, that bag could be holding something spectacular, or maybe it was completely empty.